CRTX News’ Call to Remove Straus Making the News (7/5/17, Peggy Fikac, Austin Bureau Chief, San Antonio Express-News)
The president of a conservative Republican group that wants to oust House Speaker Joe Straus said it will promote an alternative candidate for the leadership post by next week, ahead of the special legislative session that begins July 18.
“I think Straus’s days as speaker are numbered,” said Jared Woodfill, president of Conservative Republicans of Texas. “But he would probably disagree.”
Others also disagreed. Trying to topple a speaker during a legislative session — in the midst of his term as leader — would be a rare, dramatic move.
Nevertheless, Woodfill’s group is working to build support for the challenge.
It’s targeting Straus with accusations that he’s not conservative enough and is focusing on his opposition to legislation that would restrict the public restrooms that transgender people can use in schools, universities and government buildings.
Straus and others have voiced concern about an economic backlash if the state passes a measure seen as discriminatory.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has put the Conservative Republicans of Texas on its list of hate groups due to the way it works on issues affecting lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people.
Woodfill said the center — which came to prominence fighting racial discrimination and has broadened its watchdog role — is “ultra-liberal” and “a hate group opposed to family values.”
He added that his group was put on the list after opposing the Houston equal rights ordinance.
Conservative Republicans of Texas is working through social media and phone calls to GOP primary voters, urging them to contact their state representatives to advocate replacing Straus.
It says an automated phone survey in GOP House districts shows Republican primary voters want a new speaker.
There is some precedent for trying. Straus’ predecessor as speaker, Rep. Tom Craddick of Midland, faced a wave of unrest at the end of the 2007 regular session but said he wouldn’t recognize lawmakers for a motion to vacate the speaker’s post.
A leadership change didn’t occur until the next scheduled speaker’s election at the start of the 2009 regular session, when Democrats and Republicans brought Straus to power.
Rules since have been changed to allow an appeal if the speaker refuses to recognize a lawmaker who wants to remove him. It would require a request signed by 76 of the 150 House members.
Straus, R-San Antonio, has knocked back challengers since 2009 and was elected unanimously in January by the House to a record-tying fifth term as speaker.
While the acrimonious regular legislative session stirred disappointment and anger among the right and the left in the House, a number of lawmakers in the chamber have said Straus remains in a strong position.
“I don’t think they’re going to be successful. I think he still has strength in the House,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.
He said an effort to vacate the speaker’s post “is always disruptive, and it hurts the effort of passing conservative legislation.”
Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, said a move to get rid of Straus in the special session would be “very futile. My sense from my colleagues is that he’s on solid footing with the House, and we’re prepared to follow his lead in the special session.”
Straus’ spokesman didn’t provide a comment.
It would be a Herculean task to convince a majority of House members to not only reject Straus, but to agree on an alternative in such short order.
“There are lot of linkages here that have to be connected. You just don’t have enough time or the critical mass to do that,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “I think there’s an effort out there to make an issue out of the speaker and to make it seem as if his position is less secure than it is. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this. It’s even less plausible when you’re talking about having a few weeks in which to do all the politicking.”
Henson also pointed out that conservatives had a number of victories in the regular session, saying: “I don’t know that you can really go to a lot of these primary voters and very convincingly say, ‘The Legislature didn’t give you anything that you wanted, and we really need a big change in the leadership in the chamber.”
Conservatives applauded the passage of legislation in the regular session including a sanctuary cities ban, a requirement for health care providers to bury or cremate fetal remains and protection for religiously affiliated adoption organizations that deny adoptions based on “sincerely held religious beliefs,” which critics say will allow discrimination against gay people among others.
The to-do list set out by Gov. Greg Abbott for the special session contains other high-profile priorities that failed, including school vouchers, automatic rollback elections when cities or counties raise property taxes above a certain amount and regulations on the public restrooms — or at least school restrooms — used by transgender people.
The Senate, under Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, passed all three in the regular session. The House rejected the idea of vouchers, didn’t vote on automatic rollbacks and approved a bill on school bathrooms that people, including Patrick, said wouldn’t do much.
Straus has said the House’s priorities instead include issues such as reforming and better funding the public school finance system, saying that would improve education while addressing the property tax issue, since schools rely on local property taxes along with state aid and some federal money.
Woodfill’s group is seizing on comments by Straus, including a speech in San Antonio in which he compared Abbott’s special-session agenda to a pile of manure — citing a Ronald Reagan joke about the boy who when confronted by a pile of manure, said delightedly: “There must be a pony in here somewhere.”
“Our most recent effort is to get folks to call and encourage their representative to remove Straus as speaker and to put someone in who is going to move forward with the Republican Party of Texas platform and make sure the conservative legislation that has gone to the House and died passes in a special session,” Woodfill said.
The group’s Steven Hotze of Houston, who has been a Patrick supporter and worked along with him to fight Houston’s equal rights ordinance, made a Facebook video with the same message.
“If they don’t hear from their constituents, all they are hearing from are the lobbyists and the Austin insiders,” Woodfill said. “Most of them campaigned on these promises to pass these pieces of legislation that are not even seeing the light of day in the House. We want the representatives to know that the people are watching. And some of these, we are going to be looking for primary opponents.”
Woodfill said a statewide phone poll done by the Yates Co. of more than 1,000 Republican primary voters in GOP House districts found 68 percent wanted Straus removed as speaker in the special session. He said the margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The speaker is chosen by House members from around the state, but Straus isn’t elected statewide. He is elected to the House from District 121.
The wording of the survey, Woodfill said, was this: “Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has proposed conservative legislation for the upcoming special session which House Speaker Joe Straus had blocked. Should Texas House Speaker Joe Straus be removed as speaker of the Texas House and replaced with a conservative Republican so conservative legislation can pass?”
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