Straus’ de­par­ture leaves Texas Repub­li­cans with­out a bal­ance

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - LISA FALKEN­BERG

The first words Texas Speaker Joe Straus said on the phone Fri­day un­der­scored ev­ery­thing about the feed­back he’s got­ten since he shocked the state days ear­lier, an­nounc­ing his de­par­ture from the pow­er­ful post.

“Did I let you down?” the San An­to­nio Repub­li­can asked, with only a tinge of hu­mor. I laughed, but I knew plenty of his sup­port­ers felt let down, dis­ap­pointed, dis­il­lu­sioned and any num­ber of other de­press­ing ad­jec­tives. They are in mourn­ing at the loss of the only coun­ter­bal­ance to arch­con­ser­va­tives Gov. Greg Ab­bott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Rep. Sarah Davis, Straus’ close Repub­li­can ally who rep­re­sents Uni­ver­sity Place, could de­scribe her­self only as “shell-shocked,” try­ing to stay pos­i­tive but “ner­vous about the fu­ture.”

When I asked whether she thought the long­time speaker’s exit amounted to a “death knell,” as one po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist called it, for mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans like her and Straus, her re­sponse was telling as well:

“Don’t call me that! I’m up for re-elec­tion. I gotta win a pri­mary,” she said, again with only a tinge of hu­mor.

One laughs so that one doesn’t cry. That’s the state of Texas pol­i­tics to­day.

Straus says his abrupt an­nounce­ment to leave the post he has held for five terms, as long as any­body in Texas his­tory, wasn’t the re­sult of one event — not even a bru­tal leg­isla­tive ses­sion and spe­cial ses­sion de­voted to the ur­gent so­cial is­sue of bath­rooms.

He’d ac­com­plished much of what he set out to do, he said. He didn’t want to be the old guy hold­ing on to of­fice past his time, and al­though he’s con­fi­dent his col­leagues would have elected him to a sixth term to lead the House, he wanted to leave on his own terms.

He said the de­ci­sion came after deep re­flec­tion. His de­par­ture should prompt the same among Tex­ans, es­pe­cially those who feel let down.

It takes more than one brave per­son to make change.

Just how long did those folks ex­pect Straus to keep his fin­ger in the dike? In the le­gend, even the lit­tle Dutch boy even­tu­ally got re­in­force­ments who came to fix the leak. In Texas pol­i­tics these days, the re­in­force­ments are scarce, slow and scared.

To many Tex­ans alarmed by grow­ing promi­nence of ex­trem­ist ide­ol­ogy in the state we love, it was a great com­fort to have Straus at the helm — fight­ing off the froth­ing Jade Helm types in the House. He kept swing­ing at chal­lengers while staving off the tor­rent of di­vi­sive so­cial leg­is­la­tion has­ten­ing in from the far-right. Bath­room bills. Vouchers. Bans on so-called sanc­tu­ary cities that don’t ex­ist. Hid­ing moder­ates

Straus and his lieu­tenants pri­or­i­tized the is­sues av­er­age Tex­ans ac­tu­ally care about: ed­u­ca­tion, men­tal health, the Texas econ­omy. Even those who sharply dis­agreed with him on is­sues such as abor­tion re­stric­tions ap­pre­ci­ated his Sisyphean at­tempts to build con­sen­sus.

“We never thought of com­pro­mise as a dirty word,” Straus told me.

He pushed the boul­der while the zealots in his own party cast their stones — for nearly a decade.

We took it for granted that Straus would just keep at it.

Now that he’s on the way out, many Tex­ans are in de­spair, with some talk­ing of drop­ping out for a while. As one Repub­li­can busi­ness­woman, Kathryn Con­nelly in Round Rock, told my col­league Mike Ward, “At­tila the Hun and friends will be in to­tal con­trol, at least un­til Tex­ans get sick of this brand of pol­i­tics.”

What will it take to make us sick enough? What will it take for those who plead pri­vately with peo­ple like Straus to fight di­vi­sive leg­is­la­tion to stop bankrolling the politi­cians who file it? What will it take for in­flu­en­tial Repub­li­cans who are truly re­pulsed by the di­rec­tion of their party to speak out?

I asked Straus what mes­sage he had, if any, for those who en­gage in po­lit­i­cal dou­ble­s­peak in this state.

“My mes­sage to them is, lis­ten to the voices that were raised this sum­mer in our un­nec­es­sary spe­cial ses­sion. We had the business com­mu­nity step­ping up in an over­due but strong way,” he said. “We had faith lead­ers who don’t nor­mally par­tic­i­pate in the process who emerged this sum­mer to be a voice of rea­son and com­pas­sion. We had first re­spon­ders. We had ed­u­ca­tors, and judg­ing from my mail … a lot of Repub­li­cans who were telling me, were thank­ing me for stand­ing up for views that they hold.”

And that’s the thing that makes the de­cline of Repub­li­can moder­ates so frus­trat­ing. There are still so many of them — check a closet near you. It would be one thing if they’d earned their en­dan­gered species sta­tus by fail­ing to adapt to their en­vi­ron­ment, by los­ing touch with the at­ti­tudes and opin­ions of av­er­age Tex­ans.

But that’s not the case. Straus’ think­ing is still main­stream. Polls show most Tex­ans didn’t think the bath­room bill was all that im­por­tant. Most do not think im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus should be checked in rou­tine traf­fic stops. They don’t want the bor­der wall. Few feel strongly about vouchers, and most be­lieve we should bet­ter fund ed­u­ca­tion.

Mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans are los­ing ground not be­cause they failed to adapt, but be­cause they failed to give in to the small but loud fringe groups. And be­cause of a sad elec­toral re­al­ity: Around 1.5 mil­lion vot­ers, just 5 per­cent of the votin­gage pop­u­la­tion, who show up for the Texas Repub­li­can pri­mary, speak for all 26 mil­lion of the rest of us Tex­ans — men, women and chil­dren.

“Un­til the Novem­ber voter be­gins to vote in March, we are in a pat­tern that’s trou­bling,” he said. Po­ten­tial come­back?

He stresses that he’s leav­ing his po­si­tion, not pol­i­tics en­tirely. He won’t rule out a fu­ture statewide run but says for the time be­ing, he wants to help other re­spon­si­ble Repub­li­cans in any way he can. Sit­ting on a $10 mil­lion war chest, he can still have plenty of in­flu­ence with­out the speaker’s gavel in hand. I asked if he had any plans to start a foil to the far-right con­ser­va­tive group, Em­power Tex­ans, a non­profit led by lob­by­ist Michael Quinn Sul­li­van and known for its ruth­less at­tacks on moder­ates.

“I would never try to em­u­late them in any way,” he said, with a wry laugh. “I do think there’s a hunger — I’ve seen it my­self, trav­el­ing the state — for Repub­li­can voices who speak for most peo­ple and not for a small, an­gry few.”

With Straus’ exit, that hunger will get worse. Moder­ates will be left with a choice: Get brave or starve.

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