By James Russell
Special to the TJP
Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus rocked Texas politics Oct. 25 by announcing his retirement after more than a decade in office, with a majority of those years serving as the first Jewish speaker.
The Republican from San Antonio left a legacy of increasing the Republican majority in the House, slashing taxes by billions of dollars and increasing investment for transportation and the water supply.
He also leaves behind an unsettling legacy of anti-Semitic criticism, most notably from the staunchly conservative wing of his party.
Straus did not intend to become speaker when he was first elected to the House in 2005. Midland Republican Tom Craddick was the first Republican speaker in 130 years. The body chooses who serves in the position. Historically members of both parties vote for a single candidate. Craddick’s governing style was seen as increasingly dictatorial, leading to multiple failed intraparty challenges to his candidacy. He consistently won re-election.
But in 2009 a coalition of Republican and Democrat representatives nominated Straus to become speaker. The move had been a year in the making, largely by a group of Republicans led by current State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook of Corsicana who met secretly for more than a year with a goal of replacing Craddick. After multiple meetings, the group chose Straus as their preferred candidate. The Republicans only needed to secure a handful of Republicans to cross over and join a majority of Democrats in supporting Straus. With enough votes secured, Craddick stepped down as speaker and cleared the way for Straus.
Straus faced challenges to his lifelong Republican credentials and anti-Semitic attacks from the start. After his election, multiple hyper-conservative donors challenged Straus’ speakership. Among them are Midland oil and gas magnate Tim Dunn, who leads the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin, as well as the group Empower Texans.
In 2010, conservative activists urged Texas House members to elect a Christian conservative as speaker. His faith was not directly mentioned but this was seen as a clearly anti-Semitic attack. In 2014, his Republican primary opponent Jeff Judson warned voters of disconnects between conservative Christian voters and Straus.
Judson, a former Texas Public Policy Foundation president, denied the accusations of anti-Semitism,
Straus was seen as an old guard, business-friendly Republican. His family are lifelong Republicans. He worked for former President George H.W. Bush in various roles. He is a lifelong member of Temple Beth-El, a Reform synagogue in San Antonio.
His political identity also concerns Capitol observers that the House, under a different speaker, will be open to passing legislation like the so-called bathroom bill restricting bathroom access to transgender individuals. The bill was a point of contention between Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, and Gov. Greg Abbott, who made it a priority during the special session this past summer.
Straus’ departure also diminishes the number of Jewish members of the legislature. They are all Republicans who are up for re-election this year.
Beside Straus, who as speaker is one of the most powerful elected officials in the state, there are only three other Jewish members: Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, and Reps. Linda Koop of Dallas and Craig Goldman of Fort Worth. All have announced they are running for re-election, but Seliger and Koop both face primary opponents from the right flank. Seliger, who was first elected in 2004 and is a former Amarillo mayor, faces former Midland Mayor Mike Canon and restaurateur Arthur Leal in his primary. Seliger defeated Canon by double digits in 2014. Seliger’s West Texas seat is safely Republican. Seliger, coincidentally, was the only Republican senator who declined to support Patrick for re-election.
Koop and Goldman are both seen as rising stars in their party. Koop is more vulnerable than Goldman, however.
She faces two threats, including Scott Kilgore in a primary and two Democrats in the general election. Koop’s seat, which includes parts of North Dallas and Richardson, is seen as an increasingly competitive swing seat.
Goldman’s Southwest Fort Worth seat is safely Republican as well. So far Democrats Beth McLaughlin and Seth Martin have filed.
Filing for candidates officially opens Nov. 11 and closes Dec. 11. The primaries for the 2018 elections are March 6, 2018.