Texas Speaker race starts 82nd session off with a bang

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January 6, 2011

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By Jimmy Ardis

Texas lawmakers are gearing up for the 82nd legislative session which begins on Tuesday. The House's first order of business will be to put an end to the months-long and much-watched battle over who will lead the new Republican supermajority by casting their votes for Speaker of the House.

AUSTIN, Texas: Headlines soared throughout the Lone Star State on November 3rd with news of Texas Republicans' dramatic victories in the House of Representatives. Going into the election with a razor-thin majority (76-73), House Republicans finished with a whopping 99 seats - one seat short of a supermajority. The supermajority was soon after clinched when two Democrats jumped ship and switched their party affiliations, leaving Republicans with 101 of the 150 House seats.[1] While solidarity may have been expected after such a victory, the newly swelled Republican House found itself in the midst of a heated internal leadership struggle before the ink had dried from the election headlines. Conservative legislators, citizens, and activists across Texas are demanding that moderate incumbent Joe Straus be replaced with a more conservative Speaker. Ken Paxton of District 70 and Warren Chisum of District 88 are both challenging Straus for the Speaker seat with promises of leadership that more closely reflects conservative values.[1]

The contentious Speaker race has been making headlines across Texas since the election. Internal party tensions even boiled over into national headlines in November after emails from a Texas Tea Party activist that mentioned Joe Straus' Jewish heritage while calling for a Speaker that reflected Texans' Christian conservative values were made public. Accusations of anti-Semitic motivations soon flooded the debate. While the religious controversy has garnered much of the press attention, there is a much larger and more complex history at play in the Speaker race.

A showdown between Republican conservatives and moderates has been brewing since the day Joe Straus grabbed the gavel from Tom Craddick in 2009 in a move that soured conservatives across Texas. Straus has long been accused of being a RINO (Republican In Name Only), a label that won't win you many friends in Texas conservative territory. Whether or not the epithet has merit, this perception amongst many Texas conservatives is at the heart of the tensions in the 2011 Speaker race. As evidence for their case Straus' opponents point to the fact the he became Speaker with just 11 moderate Republican votes and 65 Democrats.[1] Opponents also place blame with Straus for the failure of pet conservative legislation during his first term as Speaker, such as voter identification and requiring women to view a sonogram before receiving an abortion.[2]

Partisan breakdown of states after November 2 election.
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Of course the makeup of the House was much different in 2009 when Republicans held only a slight 76-74 majority over Democrats. Straus and his supporters contend that such across the aisle cooperation was required to effectively lead in the political environment of the time. Straus maintains that his commitment to conservative principles is unwavering, says he isn't going anywhere and has more than enough votes to hold on to his Speaker seat. Supporters point to his work with conservative groups and donations to conservative causes in response to the repeated RINO allegations.[3] But Straus' opponents are not convinced. They say that Texas voters sent clear messages in November and that he does not reflect the conservative values of the current Republican majority. Representative Leo Berman of Tyler summed up the opposition saying "Joe Straus is not going to be a liberal speaker of a conservative House."[1]

In a sense this sort of infighting is to be expected. This is politics and this is Texas; feathers are bound to be ruffled. But the coming decennial redistricting, which will redraw political lines for both Texas state government and the U.S. House of Representatives, means a lot more is at stake in the 82nd session. Since the Texas Legislature essentially runs the process, the Speaker of the House will have considerable influence over redistricting. With recently released 2010 Census apportionment data showing Texas gaining four Congressional seats, more than any other state in the nation, Texas will have an even more significant influence in the affairs of the nation.[4] This fact has attracted unprecedented attention from voices outside of Texas hoping to influence the outcome of the Speaker race. GOP stalwarts such as Dick Armey, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, and Mike Huckabee are but a few of the many Texas outsiders chiming in and endorsing candidates, a testament to what's on the line when legislators cast their votes on January 11th.[2]

The rhetoric will undoubtedly remain high until the final vote is cast and the new Speaker of the Texas House is sworn in. Until then one thing is for sure, whoever ends up with the gavel in his hand on Tuesday will have the power to influence Texas politics for the coming decade.

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