House leader draws heat from both sides

Crit­i­cism points to del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act Straus faces

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ja­son Em­bry

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.

Jay Jan­ner

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