It’s no shock that liberal Republican House Speaker Joe Straus is being praised by The New Yorker for his obstruction of conservative reforms. However, the depth of the relationship between Straus and author Lawrence Wright is surprising.
Wright is out with a long rambling piece about the current state of Texas politics and its impact on the country. Predictably, the long-time New Yorker columnist is upset over the ascendance of grassroots conservatives in Texas and depicts Straus as a hero to the left for obstructing conservative reforms.
But it is surprising how many times Wright claims to have met with Straus during the session as he worked on the piece, and the candor Straus demonstrated in speaking with him, particularly regarding the speaker’s interactions with Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick. Indeed, in the article Straus and Wright come across like they are best buds, with each man enamored by the other.
Wright claims that he first met with Straus for a lunch of crab cakes in the speaker’s apartment on March 2nd – Texas Independence Day. During the meeting, Wright claims, Straus was watching a televised press-conference of the Texas Freedom Caucus in which the group of conservatives laid out its priorities, including pro-life reforms, constitutional carry, and spending limits, amongst others.
“As he watched the conference, Straus shot me a weary look,” Wright comments.
In that first meeting, Wright asked Straus about the Texas Privacy Act, or the “bathroom bill,” as Wright calls it. Although Straus was claiming publicly that the bill was not supported by members of the House, he was more honest with Wright. “If it gets to the floor, it could be a close vote,” he told the writer.
Wright’s second meeting with Straus came about during one of the session’s most controversial moments. On budget night, when State Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R–Bedford) attempted to defund the feral hog abatement program, another Republican, State Rep. Drew Springer of Muenster, pushed an amendment attempting to punish Stickland’s constituents by defunding highway construction in Bedford.
It was a petty, personal attack on Stickland (and his constituents) and a breach of House rules regarding both germaneness and decorum. It was Straus’ job as speaker to put a stop to it and get lawmakers back on track.
Instead, Wright claims that Straus walked over to chat with him as the ordeal unfolded.
“He [Straus] seemed totally at ease: smiling, hands in his pockets. He said, ‘I guess all the hogs are going to move to Arlington’—which is partly in Stickland’s district. Straus was in no hurry to impose order. He looked at the scrum of lawmakers around Stickland. ‘Just think,’ he said. ‘These are the people responsible for spending two hundred and eighteen billion dollars.’
Instead of doing his job during the incident, Straus was busy chatting with a New Yorker columnist and making derisive comments about his colleagues.
As the fight over the Texas Privacy Act flared up towards the end of session, Straus again confided in Wright, this time attacking Steve Hotze, one of the bill’s supporters. “Steve Hotze exists on the fringes,” Straus told Wright. “Mainstream Republicans don’t take him seriously.”
Straus also shared with Wright some details related to various interactions he had with Patrick and Abbott. He told Wright the terms of a deal Lt. Gov. Patrick had privately sent to him. The House had to pass the Privacy Act and SB 2, the property tax reform bill. In return, the Senate would agree to pass a sunset safety-net bill, as well as the budget and several other items, including the school finance reform bill pushed by Straus.
Likewise, Straus told Wright that Gov. Abbott had warned him before he came out and demanded action on the Texas Privacy Act. He also shared that he had rejected a meeting with two senators to reach an agreement on compromise language for the Privacy Act. Straus allegedly told the senators he was “disgusted by all this” and that he believed the bill would lead to suicides.
Straus met with Wright again the day after the legislative session. According to Wright, Straus “looked far more relaxed than [Wright] thought was warranted” and “seemed satisfied” with himself. He boasted to Wright that “his priorities … had mostly been accomplished.” When Wright prodded Straus about the upcoming conflict during the special session, Straus compared his fight against conservatives with the conflict between the north and the south during the civil war.
During the meeting, Straus gave Wright a preview of his continued obstruction of conservative reforms during a then-expected special session, specifically the Privacy Act.
“The legislature is not obligated to act upon [Gov. Abbott’s] agenda items within the thirty-day period,” Straus said. When Wright asked whether the Privacy Act “could stay in committee and not get voted out,” – the process used to kill the House version of the bill during the regular session – Straus just smiled at him.
The pair met again, one final time after Gov. Abbott had announced his bold agenda for a special session in July. Abbott added not just the Privacy Act, but also school choice, caps on local and state spending, pro-life reforms, and a $1000 teacher pay raise that would be accomplished by moving money back into the classroom.
According to Wright, Straus was not “intimidated” by the governor. “We’re under no obligation to pass anything,” he said.