Close allies of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus were rejected by Republican primary voters last March, and his Democratic allies were routed in their efforts to “turn Texas purple” in November. Yet Straus refuses to relinquish power and give the people of Texas the conservative leadership they demand.
Straus’s system of rewards and punishments may allow him to hold on to power, but he can only hold out against the will of Texas voters for so long. There is an expiration date on the Straus regime, and the clock is ticking.
A trip down memory lane provides a glimpse of the false and perverse rhetoric that Straus relies on to hold on to the gavel.
Straus’s first race for reelection as Speaker took place in November and December of 2010. With Straus’s Democratic allies swept from office and a record number of Republicans elected to the House, Straus was being challenged by State Rep. Warren Chisum (and later by now-Attorney General Ken Paxton) for the Speaker’s office.
Chisum penned a letter calling on Straus to release members from the pledge cards he had required them to sign in return for campaign contributions during election season. Chisum refrained from alleging any actual impropriety, but suggested that releasing members from their pledges would “protect the integrity of members” and “protect the integrity of the House” by ensuring a transparent process free from coercion.
Straus responded with a snotty letter, accusing Chisum of having “no shame.” He blamed Chisum for calls, emails, and letters coming from the grassroots that called for a new Speaker who represented their interests. Straus refused to release members from their pledges.
But it was a twist of words in Straus’s letter that is so instructive. Chisum had called for Straus to protect the integrity of members and of the House. Straus responded that he agreed that it was the Speaker’s job to protect the members themselves.
By this, Straus meant that he wanted to protect members (or his supporters at least) from being held accountable to their voters. He called on Chisum to stop the calls, emails, and letters (what he called a “scorched earth campaign”).
Straus continues today to claim that he “protects” the House as an institution and the members who support him from “outside interests.” He knows that every member is subject to reelection and for reasons of pride, wealth, and power, most are desperate to come back, session after session. His rhetoric fosters an “us vs. them” mentality amongst the members. And by misrepresenting the wishes of the people of Texas, he actually makes the members who support his agenda even more reliant on money only he can collect from the lobby for their reelection.
Unfortunately for his supporters, Straus’s talk about “protecting members” is just an empty promise, intended to coax members into using up their political capital so that Straus and his enablers can put a few more grains of sand in a political hourglass that is guaranteed to eventually run out. Core members of the Straus leadership team get millions for their difficult reelections while his rank-and-file see token support on their way to defeat.
Worse though, his rhetoric is offensive to basic precepts of representative democracy. It implies that the will of the people can be overcome with enough money and power. Warren Chisum had no power to silence the people and their demands for a conservative Speaker. Furthermore, Straus today has no way of holding on to power forever. He can use members up, and make them misrepresent their voters, and he can coax new fodder with empty promises of shared power. But the power truly rests with the people, and they will always eventually win over entrenched interests.