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Political synchronicity: In the same week, Jonathan Stickland decides not to run for reelection and Joe Straus starts a political action committee. The first, a conservative populist whose career in Austin is measured by the number of rhetorical and political grenades he rolled up the center aisle of the House; the second, a measured, soft-spoken and moderate five-term speaker of the House.
In an email to supporters announcing his decision, Stickland said, “It was never my intention to grow old in office. I don’t want to turn into what we’ve been fighting and become part of the establishment. When I first considered running, I dreamt of one day leaving on my own terms, not being rejected by my neighbors after staying for too long or losing sight of the values they sent me to defend. I am thankful that I’m now blessed with the opportunity to do just that. A Constitutional Republic can only succeed and flourish with citizen legislators — not career politicians.”
In an email of his own, Straus said the new “Texas Forever Forward” group will “enable me to continue advocating a thoughtful, responsible approach to governing.” He put $2.5 million — left over from his political campaign accounts — into the new operation.
Their decisions were made separately, but this feels like a change in the political seasons.
The civic weather in Texas began to change months ago, with the 2018 election. It was apparent during the 86th Legislature — the first since Straus left and, as it turns out, the last one in which Stickland will serve — in a regular session marked by a focus on nuts-and-bolts issues like education, school finance, property taxes, Hurricane Harvey recovery and mental health care. It was a Legislature that largely ignored the kinds of issues, like 2017’s “bathroom bill,” that have preoccupied it in other sessions.
It was not a Stickland kind of session. It was the Straus kind.
Straus, a San Antonio Republican, came to Austin after winning a special election in February 2005, a turbulent time that found the House in the early stages of the discontent that culminated, four years later, with the ouster of House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. He was replaced by Straus, a most unlikely candidate — the greenest of the 11 Republicans who gathered at an Austin house to choose a challenger from their own ranks. The House’s Republican-Democrat split after the 2008 elections was a skinny 76-74, and Straus became the speaker-apparent with fewer than half of the Republicans and most of the Democrats. (In the official vote, Straus was elected by acclamation.) His first set of committee chairs reflected that: 18 were Republicans, 16 were Democrats.
Stickland, R-Bedford, came later, elected in 2012 — without Democratic opposition — and took office as Straus entered a third term as speaker. On the other end of the Capitol that year, future Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was starting his last legislative session as a senator. The GOP’s shift to the right was coming to a head. The 2010 election gave Republicans 99 seats to the Democrats’ 51; in Stickland’s first session, Republicans had a 95-55 edge.
Straus was still the speaker, though, and had the support of most House Republicans for all of his five terms, but that first win and the Democrats’ help left him open to attack from the populist end of the GOP for his full decade in that top job.
Stickland, as much as anyone, gave voice to that group, railing against more moderate Republicans — like the speaker — who his supporters viewed as practicing a watered-down version of their political ideas.
It’s nearly impossible to find, in the public record, an instance of Joe Straus uttering a populist word. He’s from the George H.W. Bush school of Republican politics, where the arguing is done in low voices and views on cultural and social matters are moderate and usually on the back-burner.
And at the moment, the winds have turned their way. The just-ended nuts-and-bolts legislative session was favorably viewed by 38% of Texas voters, while 29% had a negative opinion of the work lawmakers did, according to the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. That’s a considerable improvement over voter sentiment two years ago, when a UT/TT Poll at the end of the 85th Legislature’s “bathroom” session got good marks from 33% of voters and bad ones from 42%.
Stickland won his last election with 49.8% of the vote — a tepid showing for a well-known, outspoken, bomb-throwing conservative. And Straus’ kind of governance seems to be coming back into style.
If it hadn’t happened the same week, who’d have noticed?