Blown speaker?

San Antonio’s Joe Straus was ushered in as speaker of the Texas House in 2009 thanks to an “Anybody but Craddick” wave of dissatisfaction with former Speaker Tom Craddick. Straus, first elected during a special election in 2005, was seen as a bipartisan leader who could help bridge a difficult divide between Democrats and Republicans created in part by the heavy-handed Midland Republican.

“Collaboration is the key to success in this session,” Straus said in his acceptance speech before the start of the 81st Legislature. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Living up to his billing, Strauss gave about half of the committee chairs to Republicans and little less than that to Democrats.

How times have changed. With a new supermajority of conservative Republicans solidly in power, it is that bipartisan spirit that now has Straus in some Republicans’ crosshairs.

A speaker for the Texas House of Representatives is chosen at the start of each biennial session of the Legislature. The speaker vote will open the business of the Texas House this session on January 11, 2011. One of the most coveted positions in state government, the speaker makes committee chair appointments and decides what legislation is ultimately brought to the floor for consideration.

Many Republicans believe that, given their party’s sweep in November’s election, such power sharing should be a thing of the past, and Representatives Ken Paxton of McKinney and Warren Chisum of Pampa, both Republicans, have set their sights on Straus’s seat. Their challenges come amidst racist taunts over Straus’s Jewish faith. In late November, groups apparently not affiliated with Straus’s opponents sent emails claiming “Straus is going down in Jesus’s name,” while pre-recorded “robo-calls” demanded a “true Christian leader” for speaker.

Both Paxton and Chisum denounced the anti-Semitic remarks, saying that they are concerned with Straus’s politics — not his religion.

Previous to this year’s elections, Democrats had held 73 seats to the Republicans 76. The November vote put Republicans solidly in charge, with 99 of the 150 seats. However, a few weeks after the election, two Democrats changed parties, giving Republicans more than the necessary 100 votes it takes to approve amendments to the Texas Constitution.

Many Republicans are claiming the victory is a mandate that Texans do not want compromise, but desire a more “pure” conservatism, including a complete break with federal programs like Medicaid and tough anti-immigration legislation (see “Out-Arizona-ing Arizona,” Page 12).

Straus did not return calls for comment, and his staffers said that they did not feel like the race was significant enough to address. Chisum, however, was matter-of-fact about his challenge, saying, “I want to be the speaker of the House that the House needs. … a House that’s run fair and recognizes what happened in the past election.”

Chisum has served in the House since 1989, when he was elected as a Democrat (he changed parties in 1996). He had close ties with the ousted Craddick and lost his chairmanship of the House Committee on Appropriations when Straus took over. “I think that the people are tired of moderate Republicans. They’re tired of Republicans who will say one thing and do something else once they get to the Capitol,” Chisum said. “I don’t think that Joe Straus has been very active in pushing conservative legislation.”

In order to gain the Speaker’s position, Straus, Chisum, or Paxton need a majority of House support. At one point Straus claimed to have about 120 members pledged to him, including most (if not all) House Democrats. The workaround solution to unseating Straus? Eliminate the Dems from the process by relying on a Republican caucus vote instead. Chisum announced last week that he has the support needed to bring such a vote, possibly to be held on January 5.

“If we don’t have a caucus `Straus` will likely win,” Paxton told Texas Public Radio recently. “If we can go to a Republican caucus, he loses those 51 votes. And then it’s a straight-up Republican vote. And, in that environment, I have a very good chance of winning.”

Paxton, who was elected to the Texas House in 2003, has been endorsed by former U.S. presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and is the favorite of several Tea Party groups around Texas. He has pledged to balance Texas’s budget and push through a constitutional amendment that would limit the state’s spending to only covering raises in inflation and population.

Even if Straus wins the race as expected, Chisum and Paxton both feel that the right-of-moderate conservatives will have the electorate behind them for years to come. “I don’t think we’ll see these people who voted in the last election changing their minds,” Chisum said. The biggest elephant in the room is the projected budget shortfall that Texas will face in coming years — roughly $20 billion, according to early estimates. All three of the speaker candidates are lucid about their desire to balance the budget not by raising taxes, but by cutting public services, instead. The popularity of that approach is certain to be a mixed bag for voters at the lower end of the economic ladder — a demographic that has only been growing. •