Two years is an eternity in politics, which might explain the forgetfulness surrounding the speakership. In November 2008, there were nine members of the Texas House vying to be Speaker. And not one of them was named Joe Straus.
In fact, State Rep. Joe Straus was pledged to the incumbent Republican Speaker, Tom Craddick of Midland.
O, how a month changes everything.
That’s been driven home the last several days as Straus partisans have protested (perhaps a bit too much, to paraphrase the bard) that the speaker-race is over, a done deal, finished. Mr. Craddick probably thought the same thing heading into Thanksgiving Week 2008.
Consider this. Challenging Mr. Craddick for the gavel in November ’08 were Pete Gallego (D-Alpine), Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), Alan Ritter (D-Nederland), Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), Delwin Jones (R-Lubbock), Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), and Tommy Merritt (R-Longview). See a particular name missing?
A funny thing then happened: 65 Democrats caucused and decided to let 11 Republicans pick a not-Craddick for speaker. That they eventually did — though not until January when the so-called cardinals finally agreed on Mr. Straus.
The deal between those 65 Democrats and 11 Republicans was done in the backrooms. When Craddick and his cronies finally got wind of it, it was too late to save themselves. The apparently unenthusiastic will of the majority Republicans was trounced by the organized efforts of the committed Democratic minority.
Mr. Straus came to power, it’s been said, as a rejection of Mr. Craddick’s perceived heavy-handedness as speaker. (Nearly every speaker has been called such, most especially by those who didn’t like him.) Mr. Straus decreed his would be a different speakership. Just like everyone else.
So like his various predecessors, Mr. Straus collected pledge cards from incumbents at the same time he was handing out contributions; contributions collected mostly from the lobby and other insiders. Business as usual, uninterrupted.
Lesson 1. When Mr. Straus’ team brags about their pledge cards, remember that Mr. Straus was pledged in November to Mr. Craddick. So what Straus signer might right now be in the wings, unaware she or he might be the next speaker?
Lesson 2. When folks compare the pledges of Mr. Straus’ challengers to Mr. Straus, consider the list of opponents to Mr. Craddick and their pledges. Mr. Paxton and Mr. Chisum have more pledges and support today than Mr. Straus did two years ago today.
Lesson 3. Demands that pledge cards be considered binding must be met with a chuckle. Apparently even Mr. Straus did not consider his pledge to be of any consequence.
Welcome to the future. Something remarkable is happening, historically: the people aren’t going away as some insiders had hoped. The backroom dealings have had its day, but that day is hopefully nearly done.
No longer will Texans be content with a speaker chosen behind the scenes in a feudal system of pledges to a manor-lord. The speakership is a high office of public trust, and the people must be part of the discussion. That only happens through full political transparency, open debate and public dialogue.