Texas House of Representatives Speaker Joe Straus faces a challenge to his position when the Texas Legislature convenes in January, a fight the San Antonio Republican has grown accustomed to as he prepares to seek a third session at the head of the chamber.
State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, recently elected to a second term, has announced his plans to seek the speaker position because he objects to what he called “the culture of intimidation and retribution that has developed under his leadership.”
Simpson said he objects less to Straus' politics than to his leadership style, which he said is too authoritarian.
“The culture of ‘go along to get along’ politics, where members face intimidation and retribution should they disagree with a leadership decision, stifles representative government,” Simpson said earlier this month when he filed papers to challenge Straus.
Straus said through a spokesman that he has plenty of support and looks forward to continuing the work of the Legislature after the opening day fight is over.
“A strong bipartisan majority of members and members-elect have expressed support for Speaker Straus' leadership, and that coalition continues to grow,” Straus spokesman Jason Embry said. “The speaker is grateful for their support and believes that the House should focus on the priorities that matter most to Texans, such as improving education, strengthening the economy and securing reliable supplies of water and energy.”
The speaker election is Jan. 8, the first day of the session. The House speaker is responsible for guiding the 150-member chamber through the legislative process, appointing committee heads and affecting the flow of bills.
The House speaker is chosen by House members. In a chamber dominated by Republicans, who have a 95-55 majority over Democrats, the speaker will be a Republican. The speaker needs only a simple majority to win the position.
For many sessions, the speaker’s race was considered inside baseball. But in recent years, grassroots groups have taken an interest in the election, using it as a litmus test for members of their own parties and complicating matters for lawmakers who wish to sail to re-election as other more recent speakers have.
The speaker’s race has also become an issue in primary elections, to the extent that average voters seem to know or care about who leads the House.
Observers said they believe that Straus, who was elected as speaker in 2009 after ousting Midland Republican Tom Craddick with the help of House Democrats, will have no problem retaining his leadership.
Democratic leaders said they are reluctant to throw their public support behind Straus, either because they do not agree with his politics or because it does not win any favors for Straus among grass-roots conservatives.
Observers said, however, that Straus will most likely not need support from Democrats.
“Speakers only get defeated when there are shifts in partisan lines or they have so abused their colleagues that their colleagues no longer want to put up with him,” said Harvey Kronberg, a longtime political observer in Austin and founder of the Quorum Report, an online political newsletter. “And none of those circumstances have taken place here.”
Straus won his election after moderate House Republicans and the majority of Democrats staged a coup in the wake of a particularly rancorous 2007 session under Craddick, whose control of the House led to a walkout by members and a mutiny by his appointed House chairs near the end of the session.
Two years later, Straus faced a challenge by conservative grass-roots lawmaker Ken Paxton, a well-liked and soft-spoken McKinney Republican who said Straus simply was not conservative enough.
By the time the session began, the rhetoric surrounding the race had become heated—but after weeks of lobbying, Paxton garnered just 15 of 150 votes.
Simpson asserted that Straus has ruled with too much control and has acted outside House rules, a campaign Simpson began in 2011 when his bill banning pat-down searches at Texas airports failed to become a law after passing the House twice.
It died after the House and Senate could not agree on a version of the bill despite support by Gov. Rick Perry, who was contemplating a run for U.S. president at the time.
Simpson placed blame for the bill's failure squarely at the feet of Straus, who claimed the bill was an "ill-advised publicity stunt" and would make Texas "a laughingstock."
After the bill's second death in June, Simpson launched a 15-minute diatribe on the House floor and cemented his reputation among conservatives as a Tea Party darling and defender of personal rights.
Simpson is likely, Kronberg said, to face difficulties building support for his legislation among his colleagues and House leadership if he follows through with his challenge.
“The House is about building coalitions and getting votes, and when you bill yourself as a conscientious objector, it’s hard to raise political capital,” Kronberg said. "What happens is you vote against a popular speaker, and people just kind of get up and move away from you.”