AUSTIN — Even people who watch Texas politics for a living don’t claim to have seen House Speaker Joe Straus’ decision to step aside coming, but in hindsight it’s not a complete shocker, given the 2017 legislative sessions.
“He’s been the whetstone so many Republicans have used to sharpen their blades on,” said Brandon Rottingaus, a University of Houston political scientist. “It was not that pleasant to be in the middle of.”
Straus announced his decision in a mid-morning Wednesday Facebook post.
“I believe that in a representative democracy, those who serve in public office should do so for a time, not for a lifetime,” Straus wrote. “My time as a state representative and as speaker will end at the conclusion of my current term.”
Public praise came even from those who’d battled Straus, with Gov. Greg Abbott saying in a statement that “Joe Straus has served with distinction for both the people in his district and for the Texas House of Representatives,” but the kind words in no way paved over the political fault lines he negotiated in five terms as speaker.
“There were dark clouds over his head,” said Phil Sevilla, a San Antonio Republican who has been working to have Straus censured by the party. “He lost the battle of hearts and minds.”
Nowhere did the battle play out more dramatically than in the contest to pass a so-called bathroom bill.
Critics said a law mandating which public restrooms people who are transgender use would be bad for business.
Straus shut down both the governor and lieutenant governor on the issue.
Jeff Moseley, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said in a statement that Straus was a “true crusader for bringing real solutions to real challenges and showed his commitment time and time again to private-growth.”
Moseley also went on to praise Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who on Wednesday announced that he, too, would not seek re-election.
Cook was a Straus supporter who chaired the state affairs committee, a place that Sevilla said was the “graveyard” for bills the Straus wanted to kill.
It was the successful efforts to kill legislation such as tax reform and school choice — a term opponents consider a euphemism for vouchers — that led Sevilla to seek Straus’ censure.
He’s still pursuing censure even as the speaker bows out.
“It’s a warning not just to him but to others of his ilk,” Sevilla said. “If he runs for other political office that censure would be on the record.”
Rottinghaus couldn’t recall a speaker moving on to higher office since Ben Barnes become lieutenant governor in 1969 after wielding the House gavel for four years.
Yet the fact that grassroots members of his own party want to press for censure dramatizes the divisions in Texas’ GOP.
“It’s a Republican party that’s at war with itself,” said Manny Garcia, Texas Democratic Party deputy executive director.
State Rep. DeWayne Burns, R-Cleburne, said the Texas GOP “is as strong as it’s ever been” and praised Straus’ leadership.
But in the wake of the bruising special session, discussions are underway about changing the way House Republicans elect their speaker candidate.
A committee is expected to report soon, and Burns said he would support a proposal that would “unify us.”
Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, said that regardless of the outcome of that discussion, he wants the House to remain a place where “we don’t have an aisle to reach across” and members “mix and mingle.”
Like Burns, Clardy praised Straus, and lauded his leadership during sessions in which “we had fights threatened on the floor and people got bent out of shape.”
Clardy said selecting the next speaker involves House “really an existential discussion” and should take into account avoiding missteps Democrats have made.
“We’re running their failed playbook of extremes, circa 1973,” Clardy said. “We need to have some critical self analysis.”
Clardy believes Straus would have won re-election in 2019, but said it made sense for the speaker to remove himself from a fractious political equation.
“He did the right thing at the right time for the right reasons,” Clardy said.