|Speaker Joe Straus|
As provided by the Texas Constitution, the Texas Legislature will meet in regular session at high noon on the 2nd Tuesday of the next odd-numbered year. The first order of business will be the selection of the presiding officer of the House, decided by a majority vote of the members of the Texas House of Representatives. The Secretary of State will call the body to order, nominations and seconding speeches will be made, and, thereafter, depending on the procedure adopted by the body at the time, an election of Speaker will be had.
On occasion, decision on the speakership has been a rambunctious affair with the two sides fighting over whether there would be a secret ballot, open ballot, or no ballot at all, simply a voice vote or counting of heads on the floor of the House. Generally, the Speaker has been selected long before the body meets in its initial meeting of the session. Generally, the Speaker is elected by an informal process by which various members give written pledges to vote for a particular candidate. Speakers used to stay on for one or two sessions and then either run for higher office or decide to retire to a better job. The exception to that norm came about in recent years with Bill Clayton, Gib Lewis and Tom Craddick, all of whom decided to stay for multiple terms.
Currently, a race has developed between the incumbent Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio and Bryan Hughes from East Texas. Straus was elected when dissatisfaction arose over the heavy-handed tactics of Tom Craddick of Midland. Straus was supported by a large number of Democrats and subsequently has attempted to preside over the House in a fairly even-handed way, appointing a representative mix of Democrats and Republicans to key positions.
As you may recall from an earlier blog post, during his second term--which was the last regular session of the Legislature--Speaker Straus faced some opposition led by the religious right arm of the Republican Party on the grounds the Texas House of Representatives should not be presided over by a non-Christian. Straus is from an old Jewish family from San Antonio. Although he’s been in the Republican Party for many years, the severe right segment of the Republican Party does not believe him to be in the spirit of true Republicanism in Texas.
Opposition to Speaker Straus has continued on the grounds that he appoints too many Democrats to positions of authority, that he is too liberal to fit within the mold of a Texas Republican, and some of the religious bigotry still exists over his religion. The far right, particularly led by the Tea Party, has thrown their backing to Representative Hughes. Hughes has now announced for Speaker and is going about seeking pledges to replace Speaker Straus in the coming session.
Leaders among the Democrats in the State House have urged their fellow Democrats to remain uncommitted in hopes they can make the difference in the Speaker’s race, as well they should be able to do should they remain united. The problem, however, is reflected in an old statement by former Congressman Bob Eckhardt, who once said organizing liberals in politics is about like organizing quail to hunt bird dogs. Although some Democrats are disgruntled with Speaker Straus, those to whom he has awarded chairmanships and vice-chairmanships, I am certain, will be extremely reluctant to jump ship and support someone of an unknown quality. It would be particularly surprising if Democrats found common ground and supported a candidate supported by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. Democrats gained members of the House of Representatives in the recent election, and are expected to gain more in the next few elections due to the heavy population increase among Hispanics. There are currently 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats. If the two Republican candidates come near dividing the 95 Republicans anywhere close to even, the Democrats in the House will certainly be in a position to have a great deal of influence on whomever is elected Speaker.
All Texans should watch with interest the selection process of the Speaker of the House in that the Speaker during the 140-day regular session wields enormous power--some say even more power than that of the Governor, at least for the period of time the Legislature is in session. The person chosen to be Speaker will have a direct impact on the lives of all Texans when major decisions are made concerning health, public safety and education. We should all watch with interest the actions of our elected state representatives and with whom they cast their lot in the coming session.