To the chagrin of the Austin establishment, Texans know who Joe Straus is, the disgraced outgoing speaker of the Texas House. Straus has been the face of a coalition of Democrats, crony Republicans and lobbyists working to thwart the reform agendas of conservatives. But the dirty little secret is that Straus really wasn’t the guy in charge.
We’re all used to hearing about the so-called power behind the throne. This isn’t a new concept. In old monarchies, the kings were usually dullards controlled by more conniving self-servers. Even in the meritocracies of democratic republics, we find that presidents and prime ministers have a retinue of advisors who hold significant sway. Think of George Bush’s Karl Rove and Barack Obama’s Rahm Emmanuel.
The man running the Texas House hasn’t been Joe Straus, it’s been the Straus family’s long-time Austin-based Democrat political consultant and lobbyist, Gordon Johnson.
For decades, the Johnson family business has been manipulating the business of the state. The patriarch, Robert Johnson, was a Democrat lawmaker, parliamentarian and later a lobbyist. He and his sons accumulated their wealth by manipulating government. They’re now involved heavily in dog racing and in other gambling interests.
When Republicans took power of the Texas House in 2002, the Johnson family was likewise swept from power and their family lobby business was threatened. So Gordon Johnson set about creating a new coalition of self-serving Republicans to augment his base of liberal Democrats.
The result was a coup in 2009 that removed Republican Tom Craddick and installed Straus as the speaker. That coup re-energized the Johnson family business.
Straus was never known to be particularly engaged, intellectually, as a legislator or speaker. For years, lawmakers say that the official speaker’s office staff would send them to Johnson’s downtown Austin office for discussions that would historically be held with the speaker. It was Johnson, not Straus, who made the committee assignments, picked which bills would get a vote, and generally ran the House.
And given his Democrat leanings, it should come as no surprise that Johnson apparently holds special animus for former Gov. Rick Perry and current Gov. Greg Abbott, and orchestrated opposition to their legislative agendas. It was Johnson, during the last legislative session, who saw that Greg Abbott’s agenda was under constant assault in the House.
But the tide has been turning. Even the less outspokenly conservative Republican lawmakers have chaffed under Johnson’s heavy hand. In fact, even some Democrats have complained about having an outsider tell them what do to. That frustration, coupled with a move in recent years by GOP activists to have the speaker selected in the Republican party caucus, saw Straus’ hold on the speakership waning.
Johnson tried to organize opposition to a formal rule change empowering the caucus. Tried, and failed. As a result, Straus announced his departure from politics. He knew he could not win a fair fight.
That decision by the caucus was further ratified in the March 2018 primary. There you saw 1.3 million Republican voters out of 1.5 million say they want the speaker to be selected by the Republicans without Democrat interference.
In a desperate attempt to cling to power, Johnson is throwing all his remaining GOP sycophants into the fray, hoping they can keep the Straus coalition together. State Representatives Four Price, John Zerwas, Travis Clardy, and Drew Darby are all declared speaker candidates operating from Johnson’s playbook of actively courting Democrats to undermine the GOP majority.
Johnson wants to keep hiding in the shadows as an unseen puppet master over the House, thwarting Gov. Abbott and attacking conservative reforms.
Whether or not the Texas House GOP keeps the shadowy Gordon Johnson in power – or cuts the puppet master’s strings – will be decided when the Republican caucus meets after the November general election to nominate the next House speaker.