Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus’ announcement that he wasn’t running for re-election sent shockwaves through the state political sphere. Imagining a Texas Legislature without Straus, often viewed as the adult in the room, is sickening.
If you want to know why Texas’ politics are increasingly toxic, you need look no farther than the contrasting leadership styles of Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who’s in charge of the Texas Senate. Upon taking office, Patrick changed the majority needed to pass a bill from two-thirds to three-fifths. Because that chamber is more than three-fifths Republican, Patrick essentially ensured that he’d never need the Democrats’ approval to pass a bill. Rather than building a bipartisan consensus on important issues, he’s repeatedly shoved red meat issues such as the bathroom bill down our throats to appease his conservative base.
In contrast, Straus has been a unifying figure. He’s used his record-tying five terms as speaker to promote issues that matter to Texans. Rep. Four Price, a Straus ally, came into the 85th Legislature determined to pass a bill that would improve benefits for Texans with mental health problems. With the encouragement of Speaker Straus, House Bill 10 passed both chambers with flying colors. Rep. Dan Huberty, another Straus lieutenant, spent the entire legislative session prioritizing funding for Texas’ underperforming school systems. Although his school funding bill failed to pass the Senate because of Patrick’s obsession with school vouchers, he brought together a remarkable coalition of stakeholders to support a $1.8 billion school funding package.
Straus also advocated bills targeted at more traditionally conservative issues, such as abortion restrictions and gerrymandered congressional districts, but he prioritized bipartisan policies to help Texans. Instead of cordoning the Democrats off like Patrick has, he’s brought Democrats to the table, showing a respect for them as his peers and a genuine interest in solving Texas’ numerous problems.
In a legislative chamber that is almost two-thirds Republican, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the next speaker will be conservative as well. It’s certain that most Democrats would have ideological differences with any Republican who takes the mantle. It’s important that we find someone who can match Speaker Straus’ governing style and temperament. In a time of increasingly divisive partisan politics, let’s make sure that at least one of our state legislative chambers is focused on bipartisan solutions. If we don’t, the next generation will inherit a less prosperous and weaker state.
Some of the potential candidates are promising. Rep. Eric Johnson is a Dallas-area Democrat who has been outspoken against Texas’ gerrymandering of political maps and the confederate monuments on the grounds of the Texas Capitol. Rep. John Zerwas is an established conservative and longtime ally of Speaker Straus with strong budget experience who often takes it upon himself as a doctor to educate his colleagues on medical issues.
Whoever takes the helm will inherit a number of unsolved problems: the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, an increasingly inefficient tax system and a disgraceful school funding system. We need a speaker who will prioritize these problems, not posture for their own political gain.
Price is a government sophomore from Austin.