The following is an excerpt from a comprehensive report on Retama Park and the Straus Family. To learn more about the Retama boondoggle and cast of unsavory characters who brought it about, click here.
First, the commonly reported concept that the Straus family are dyed-in-the-wool Republicans is without merit. In a 2009 article about Straus becoming Speaker, the Austin American Statesman honestly portrayed Straus as a flimsy Republican.
“Worse for [Republican] party loyalists: At the polls, Straus occasionally chooses Democrats. He even favors legislation forbidding automatic straight-ticket voting.”
Additionally, in 1998, Straus III and his wife donated to the campaign of Democrat Paul Hobby. His father Joe Straus Jr. publicly supported Hobby’s campaign for Comptroller.
When it comes to gambling in the state of Texas, and specifically the parimutuel variant, Democrats have been heavily involved.
Democrat Hugo Berlanga sponsored the 1986 legislation that legalized pari-mutuel wagering in Texas. He was later linked to a dog racing track in 1991 as he worked to get taxes on pari-mutuel gambling lowered.
Democrat Speaker of the House, Gib Lewis “played a pivotal role in the passage of legislation allowing pari-mutuel horse and dog racing in Texas.” Lewis’ Speakership was brought to an end in part due to his close connections, business dealings, and travel with a horse racing lobbyist.
Berlanga and Lewis, along with horsemen and legislative proponents Sen. Ike Harris (R-Dallas) and Rep. Lloyd Criss (D-Galveston), were credited with the eventual passage of the Texas Racing Act in 1986.
In 1989 Democrat Senator Hector Uribe authored SB 820 which empowered municipalities to take on debt via bonds that would be repayable subject to horse track profits. The issuance of bonds circumvented voters. This bill and mechanism was used to sell the Retama development to the City of Selma.
Legislation that enabled Straus to begin development on Retama, the 80% tax cut, was made a priority by Democrat Ann Richards.
In December 1990, Richards’ spokesman stated that pari-mutuel wagering was very close to the top of her agenda and that, “She wants those tracks opened and running.” In 1991 the tax cut was granted. The bill was advanced with by Democrats.
In 1995, former Democratic member of the Texas House Lloyd Criss lobbied the legislature for casino gambling at Texas racetracks. His daughter, Judge Susan Criss, in 2010 awarded Steve Mostyn millions allowing the trial lawyer to further bankroll Democrat campaigns.
Gordon Johnson, a Democrat, former lobbyist, longtime Straus ally and business partner, and Straus’s current top political advisor, was the attorney for Retama during its licensing process with the Texas Racing Commission.
Clyde Alexander, a former Democrat member of the Texas House, was Speaker Straus’ first Chief of Staff. Jesse Ancira, Straus’ chief of staff for the 83rd and 84th legislatures also has a hard-Democrat voting history.
On the eve of his election as Speaker in 2009, Straus was given a standing ovation in the Democrat caucus. Straus is quoted as saying after the event his House would have two rules: “Play fair and be nice.”
To learn more about the Retama Park boondoggle, read the complete report here.