House leader draws heat from both sides
Criticism points to delicate balancing act Straus faces
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is under fire from the left and right.
Some staunch conservatives have looked skeptically at Straus ever since he became speaker last year with the support of Democrats and moderate Republicans. Now some of the Democrats who were part of his initial coalition say he’s neglecting them as he tries to win over his crit- ics on the right.
“He’s bending over backwards for people who are never, ever going to support him,” said Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston. “Those of us who would like to work with him in running the state, he’s taking for granted.”
What’s unclear — and what could be critical to Straus’ bid to win re-election as speaker
Continued from A1 — is how deep that sentiment runs in the Democratic ranks. Many say they remain pleased.
“The speaker’s always been fair and accessible and open,” said Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said she and Straus don’t always agree on policy, but he allows her to do her work.
“I would definitely say I’ve been treated fairly,” Howard said. “The mood in the House is much different than before Speaker Straus came on board. There’s an environment where we as legislators are allowed to do our jobs and work the system without obstruction.”
Whatever criticism Straus faces from the left and right points to the delicate coalition that made him speaker in the first place.
In January 2009, 11 Republicans who were unhappy with the strong-arm leadership of Speaker Tom Craddick anointed Straus as their chosen candidate to replace him. Most Democrats, who were just as tired of Craddick as the GOP moderates, joined with the GOP insurgents to elect Straus in the membersonly speaker’s race — which left dozens of conservatives who had supported Craddick on the losing team.
With the House split last year between 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats, Straus emphasized a bipartisan approach to lawmaking, and he had a number of successes. For example, the House approved a state budget — often an agonizing process rife with controversy — without a dissenting vote from either party.
But early in last year’s legislative session, some Democrats complained that Straus shortchanged their party on committee assignments, and temperatures rose further when Democrats used a stalling technique late in the session to stop legislation requiring more voter identification at the polls.
In the year since, the gripes from Democratic leaders have grown louder.
In a memo he titled “A Summer of Long Knives,” House Democratic leader Jim Dunnam of Waco complained to other Democrats this week that two House committees, the Redistricting Committee and the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee, are holding joint hearings to prepare for next year’s task of redrawing legislative districts. Typically, such hearings are Democrats who supported House Speaker Joe Straus have been criticizing him on redistricting and appointments to the Sunset Advisory Commission. satisfy everyone with every decision.
“Noise from the far fringes of the House comes with the territory,” Young said. “With so many pressing issues facing our state — like the large budget shortfall — the speaker makes appointments based on the experience that members bring to the state’s business.”
But the Democrats now criticizing Straus supported him when he was first elected, and he may need them again. One Republican, Rep. Leo Berman of Tyler, has already launched a campaign against Straus and is likely to attract some Republican votes. Knowing that he will again seek their votes, Straus’ critics may be looking for leverage.
“Criticism is just part of the job description when the House is closely divided,” said lobbyist Bill Miller, a key ally to Craddick during his speakership. “Both sides want his attention, and criticism is a way of getting his attention and his goodwill.”
Some on the right remain skeptical. At last month’s Republican state convention in Dallas, conservative activist David Barton circulated a four-page written denunciation of Straus. Among his beefs was that Straus has given Democrats too great a voice in redistricting — the flip side of Dunnam’s complaint.
Still, a number of Republicans who supported Craddick appear to be firmly implanted on Straus’ team. And with many Democrats claiming to be happy as well, he remains a good, if not certain, bet to keep the job.
“Generally the people in the middle are the ones who tend to keep quiet,” Miller said. “I do think he’ll be re-elected speaker.”
Rep. Joe Straus
San Antonio Republican backed by coalition.