State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a conservative Republican from Bedford, recently joined Texas Scorecard Radio to explain the “power behind the throne” in the Texas House. He pointed to Democrat lobbyist Gordon Johnson, the top political advisor to outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus, as the real decision-maker over the past decade.
He explained that he was astounded by how powerful Johnson was when he first arrived in Austin in 2013.
Stickland: I had no idea who Gordon Johnson was, either, until I got down to Austin for my first term. After the start of session, after we elect a speaker, the first thing we do is put in our preferences for committee assignments. And I remember having a conversation with a senior member about that, because we’re supposed to fill out a little card and put down our seniority picks — what committees we’d like to serve on.
And I learned really quickly that whole process doesn’t operate the way it seems or the way it’s written down in the rule book. Apparently, I was told: “Well, have you gone to see Gordon yet?” I’m like, “Gordon? Who’s Gordon?” Well, he works for the speaker. He’s part of a law firm, Johnson & Johnson, and works for the speaker’s political campaign. The most important relationship, as it was presented to me by other members, was: “You’ve got to be in good with Gordon.” You have to go have a discussion [of] what you want to do, what you want to be, and what committees you want to be on.
He’s not an elected official. I had never even heard of this guy before. The Straus team, they don’t decide what goes on for themselves.
More than just picking committee assignments for Straus, Stickland explained that it wasn’t Straus calling the shots in general. Johnson controls the flow of political money and who gets to work as a lobbyist in Austin.
Stickland: Working with Joe Straus for six years, the guy never asked me to do anything. He never talked to me about policy or tried to get me to vote a certain way. He didn’t really care about anything. If he cared about anything it was the water legislation we worked on. After that, it didn’t matter. The guy who was really captaining the ship was this Gordon Johnson guy. That’s apparently where all the decisions were made. That’s where all the committee assignments and who was going to be chairman were decided. In building some relationships down in Austin, I found out it’s even more than just the legislative part of it; he’s kind of the gatekeeper of the entire power structure of the establishment. What I mean by that is he’s not just influencing and making decisions on what’s going to happen and who’s going to do what. He’s doing that with the lobbyists and the special interest money as well.
My understanding is, if you want to be a lobbyist in Austin of any significance, you’ve got to go play into that power structure as well. If I’m Joe Smith and I want to be a lobbyist and work on whatever issue, I’ve got to get in with Gordon Johnson and his team. How you do that, apparently, is you play by their rules. They’re expected to go down there, and be loyal, and give money to approved candidates — the approved incumbents — and you certainly can’t give any support to guys who go against their agenda. The better job you do for the team, the more you’ll be rewarded with lobby contracts in the next session.
My understanding is that literally lists go out prior to elections and there’s a list of people who can receive support from the different special interests. The lobbyists who want to be in good with the speaker’s team and Gordon Johnson, those guys better stay on that list and better not give outside of that list regardless of the issues. I personally dealt with this. I’m one of two members of the entire Texas House who is from the oil and gas industry. Every election I’ve ever had, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, TXOGA, has opposed me. I have a perfect voting record on those issues and I’m actually one of the guys who knows the issues. I’m obviously pro-energy, pro-drilling, but they oppose me every time because I’m not on the magical list.
Is Gordon Johnson losing control of the House in the current open speaker’s race? Stickland believes so.
Stickland: I think he is losing control. I see the behavior of the liberal Republicans, the guys who are loyal to Gordon and that team … they’re scrambling right now. They’ve thrown up four different candidates for speaker, trying to get some traction for their guys. But those four all come from the exact same spot. And they’ve lost control. They really have.
Over the years, the grassroots have risen up and sent some people who won’t play into the system. Rather than begging for scraps from the table, we’ve gone down there and argued that there is no table. It’s the people’s House, not Gordon Johnson’s House. It’s really a threat. The fact they don’t have an heir-apparent and that we have an open speaker’s race, like we have right now, tells me that their numbers are dwindling. It’s because the grassroots have been getting involved, they’ve been educating themselves, they’ve been electing candidates and there’s accountability.
These guys enjoy the darkness. They don’t want to have to stand up and explain who Gordon Johnson is and how he controls the lobbyists, and who gets the contracts, and who gets the money, how they dole that money out, which legislators they buy, which committees those legislators are going to be on. You can see how someone in this position, who’s literally pulling the strings on so many aspects of the legislative process, has been in a lot of control. Thankfully people are starting to reclaim that. It’ll be very interesting to see if they can hold on to power. My concern is that they’re just like a wounded animal. They’re actually most dangerous right at the end.
A lot of us are dedicated to ensuring that [Gordon Johnson] and his team are gone, but we need to make sure the current regime is not replaced with another one. We need to ensure that legislators are freed up to represent their constituents and bills will live or die on their own merits instead of who contributed to the power structure.