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In Texas House Speaker, GOP Sees A Star
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In Texas House Speaker, GOP Sees A Star

Politics

In Texas House Speaker, GOP Sees A Star

In Texas House Speaker, GOP Sees A Star
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Texas House Speaker Joe Straus i

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is one of the newest stars of the Republican Party, but whether he can carry his appeal nationally remains to be seen. Harry Cabluck/AP hide caption

toggle caption Harry Cabluck/AP
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is one of the newest stars of the Republican Party, but whether he can carry his appeal nationally remains to be seen.

Harry Cabluck/AP

When Republicans go looking for leaders, Texas has long been one of their first stops. The Lone Star State is something of an incubator for the GOP, and one of the newest stars there is just finishing his first year as speaker of the Texas House.

Republicans hold every statewide office in Texas and have for years. But when Joe Straus was born, the Texas GOP could practically caucus in a phone booth. His mother, Joci, was in that phone booth from the very beginning.

"I came from a pioneer Republican family," Straus says. "My mother in the '60s, when I was a very young child, she was the organizer of the Nixon Girls in San Antonio."

Straus was raised on Republican politics — growing the party was part of growing up. He played golf and rode horses; his family owned and raced prized thoroughbreds. After Vanderbilt, he went to Washington to work for Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1982.

In his 40s, Straus turned to a career he had been groomed for much of his life. In a special election in 2005, he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives from San Antonio. Although Republicans controlled the Texas House, Senate and governor's mansion, there were deep divisions inside the party, especially in the House.

"We became a little arrogant, and a small minority in our party went on a bit of purge," Straus recalls. "They were looking for Republicans that didn't fit their mold and I very strongly disagreed with that approach."

Unseating The Old Guard

While some of this had to do with ideology — conservatives purging moderate Republicans — most of it had to do with raw power. Tom Craddick, the speaker of the Texas House during the last decade, had a reputation of ruling with an iron hand. Straus took his impeccable Republican bona fides and joined forces with the Republican opposition group called the Gang of 11.

It was a bare-knuckle political fight, but with the help of the minority Democrats, the renegade Republicans pulled off a palace coup: Craddick was voted out and, to nearly everyone's surprise, Straus was elected speaker in January of last year.

"It was stunning when they picked Straus because he'd only been there two terms," says Paul Burka, senior executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine. "He's very smart. He's very public spirited. I think Straus is somebody who listens. He doesn't bring his own agenda, which is very refreshing for a speaker."

If the previous speaker fashioned a reputation for putting the Republican Party's political interests before other considerations, Straus struck more of a balance. He let legislation bubble up from the members; he included Democrats in negotiations; he played the politician, not the autocrat.

Proudest Moment

Standing on the dais of the Texas House of Representatives, Straus says the proudest moment of his young political career came at the end of his first session as speaker.

"I remember looking out at this scene: It was about 4 in the morning in May at the end of the session. We took a final vote on the budget and it passed 150 to zero — 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats all voted yes to the budget," Straus says.

It was a singular achievement — as improbable as members of the House of Representatives in Washington voting unanimously on the next budget bill.

But the next session will not be so easy. Texas is looking at a $10 billion shortfall, and once again the Legislature must redistrict the state's congressional seats. If Straus can hurdle these fences, more of his mettle will be revealed.

"I think he can go wherever he wants to go because of his family connections," Burka says. "And the fact that he gets along with Democrats and Republicans. Another thing is that he's from San Antonio, which is the action city politically. That's where you have the mixture of Anglos and Hispanics that have learned to share common ground, which is really the future of the state."

Straus is a Republican more in the mold of the first President Bush than the second. Whether he will appeal to and can lead a party that has been pushed further to the right by the success of the Texas Tea Parties remains to be seen.

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