“I think we’re on our way to change.”
By KAREN BROOKS
The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN — Joe Straus of San Antonio emerged late Friday as the consensus candidate for key House Republicans who say he has the best chance at building a winning, bipartisan coalition to topple three-term House Speaker Tom Craddick.
Emerging from a 2 1/2-hour meeting at a legislator’s home, Straus said he hopes to let the “paralyzed” House make a “fresh start” to get past the bitterness that he believes Craddick has cultivated in the chamber. “Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t have to fight every day,” he said. “We can disagree, but we shouldn’t have to fight.”
He vowed to help members, regardless of party, “get things done for their people back home.”
A bloc of 10 other Republicans — many declared speaker candidates themselves — threw their support behind Straus, who is likely to work throughout the weekend to shore up the support of colleagues for the Jan. 13 speaker’s race.
“I look forward to hearing what he sees as his goals for the session,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Jim Dunnam of Waco, adding that he hadn’t talked to Straus yet. “I think we’re on our way to change.”
Craddick said Friday evening that he is confident that he will keep his post.
“There are great challenges facing the state, and there are clear differences in experience and philosophy between Mr. Straus and myself,” he said. “I am confident that I will be re-elected speaker.”
Straus, who has been a lawmaker for only three years and is far down on the seniority list, said he hopes to have the race tied up before Jan. 13.
Although Friday’s announcement is a step forward for the so-called insurgency, it is by no means a guarantee that Craddick will lose the post he has held for six years.
A GOP first
A 40-year legislative veteran, Craddick was rewarded for his longtime campaign to bring a GOP majority to the House in 2003 when he became the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction.
Craddick immediately led his new-found majority to push a conservative agenda, including midterm redistricting, lawsuit limits, abortion restrictions and a failed bid to give vouchers for school children to use in private schools. He sometimes crafted legislation in his back office, insisted on party loyalty and often excluded Democrats from deliberations, dismissing their objections.
The contentious style led to the Democrats famously fleeing to Oklahoma to break a quorum and to prevent a GOP redistricting plan from being pushed through during the 2003 regular session. Eventually — after three special sessions — the plan passed.
Conservatives have hailed Craddick as a breach-no-compromise leader. But over the past two election cycles, his GOP majority has been decimated, and he currently faces a House with a thinly divided 76-74 majority of Republicans.
Many of the Republicans who huddled Friday have vowed for a return of bipartisanship in the House and an end to Craddick’s autocratic style.
In a session that promises to deal with dwindling state revenues, toll roads, homeowner’s insurance and higher education tuition, the person who presides over the House and names its committees will have tremendous sway over state policy. The speaker also controls the success of individual House members, and so the politics of toppling a politically skilled incumbent is fraught with danger for the insurgents.
There are other contenders. Republicans Dan Gattis of Georgetown and John Smithee of Amarillo, who are outside the so-called consensus group, are still considered viable. And five Democrats are formal candidates for the post that is decided by members of the House.
Straus is seen as even-handed and smart and someone who has worked with members on both sides of the aisle. He also is seen as a newcomer, which might cause some members to balk at elevating him.
“There’s a lot of experience, a lot of talent in the House,” Straus said. “I think that judgment doesn’t come from just years. Good judgment comes from knowing who to listen to, who to reach out to, and I think I’ve been pretty good at that.”
Republicans who form “the Group of 11” are trusting that their number, coupled with 64 Democrats who have signed a pledge not to vote for Craddick under any circumstances, will prove a momentum and a math that is hard to overcome: 75 out of 150 House members oppose Craddick’s re-election as speaker.
Those 64 Democrats, presumably, will be hearing from Straus over the weekend.
“I do know from observing him during the session that he’s a thoughtful person who is a person of his word,” said Dunnam, contacted by phone after the meeting. “Those are good traits. I haven’t talked to him, and I imagine every Republican and Democrat is going to want to visit with him.”
Barring some of Craddick’s supporters splitting off — or some currently uncommitted Republicans going public — the 11 will need to show quick support from the Democratic bloc.
The announcement came as Craddick allies prepare to meet in Austin on Sunday to discuss strategy, count votes and decide whether and how to proceed with his increasingly challenging bid for a fourth term.
Group of 11
Increasingly known as the “Group of 11,” the following House Republicans met Friday to decide their consensus candidate to run against House Speaker Tom Craddick:
Byron Cook, Corsicana
Rob Eissler, The Woodlands
Charlie Geren, Fort Worth
Delwin Jones, Lubbock
James Keffer, Eastland
Edmund Kuempel, Seguin
Brian McCall, Plano
Tommy Merritt, Longview
Jim Pitts, Waxahachie
Burt Solomons, Carrollton
Joe Straus, San Antonio
Birthdate: Sept. 1, 1959
Occupation: Insurance and investments
Elected to House: 2005 special election
Represents: northeast San Antonio, including Alamo Heights
Education: Vanderbilt University, bachelor’s degree in political science
Other positions held: In George Bush’s administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, deputy director of business liaison; in Ronald Reagan’s administration, executive assistant to the commissioner of customs
© 2009 The Dallas Morning News: www.dallasnews.com
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