House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has been on a roll recently. At the beginning of this year, he annihilated his competition in an attempted palace coup for control of his gavel. By a 127-11 margin, Straus brought together all the Democrats and a healthy majority of his party, the Republicans. Only the most zealous, obtuse and obstreperous Tea Party-backed rabble rousers opposed his bipartisan mandate to rule over the House. For the first month of the session, Straus has focused on neutralizing not only the right-wing's representatives, but their key policy points as well.
This has stood in sharp contrast to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, elected last year in a contentious Republican primary predominantly because of those same ultra-conservatives. Patrick, in his dual capacity as the President of the Texas Senate, has pushed for increasingly out-of-touch right-wing pipe dreams in his brief time in office. These include allowing open carrying of licensed handguns and allowing handguns on college campuses, as well as rescinding the 2001 Texas Dream Act, which allows for undocumented students to be granted in-state tuition at public universities, including this one. In doing so, Straus has not only stood up to both Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, but also the platform of the Texas Republican Party.
Straus has always stuck out as a moderate on many issues, but he has only recently begun to show his true colors. He first elected in 2009, deposing the previous Speaker, Tom Craddick, R-Midland, by cobbling together a bare-boned coalition of the most moderate Republicans and Democrats. Thereafter, Straus embarked on a noble experiment: he let the House members run the House. A diverse selection of legislation, some of which I definitely found myself opposed to, came to the floor and was passed by a majority of the members. In the three speaker's elections that have followed, Straus has been re-elected unanimously or nearly-unanimously.
But the right-wing has never been fully comfortable with Straus. Part of this has to do with his comfort working across the aisle with the Democrats. Part of it has to do with his religion: Straus is the first Jewish major officeholder in Texas. In 2010, when a few high profile contenders first flirted with short-lived candidacies to depose Straus, the crux of their complaints chiefly revolved around the need for Texas to be lead by a "Christian conservative." A few weeks ago, when I was in a Capitol elevator, I overheard two lobbyists for a gun rights organization make anti-Semitic remarks about Straus.
Perhaps Straus has gotten tired of attempting to mollify enemies who intrinsically loathe him, perhaps from a position of bigotry, and is thus becoming more forceful in his assertions. In 2011, Straus was notably more hesitant on taking a position on campus carry, when pressed by the Texas Tribune. Recently, however, he was far less ambiguous.
"Personally, I would caution anyone to ignore [UT Chancellor William] McRaven when you’re talking about arms and ammunition," Straus said in recent comments at the Texas Politics Project on campus. McRaven, of course, recently came down forcefully against the campus carry proposal, arguing it would makes campuses "less safe."
Straus was similarly forceful in his opposition to repealing the Dream Act.
"These are young people who have played by the rules, who've qualified for admission at our colleges, who've gone to our public schools and, personally, I can think of a lot worse things these people can be doing with their lives than pursuing higher education and becoming engaged citizens in our economy and paying taxes," Straus said in the same interview.
Now, if Straus' history at the helm of the lower house is any indication, the body may very well still pass these right-wing bills, given Straus' preference to be a hands-off leader. But his willingness to come out for pragmatic and centrist causes, in a state whose leadership is all racing as far as they can to the extreme right, is a breath of fresh air.
Horwitz is the Senior Associate Editor