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By Ryan M. Leach
On Wednesday morning, House Speaker Joe Straus made the surprise announcement that he will not seek re-election to his seat in the Texas Legislature in 2018.
Straus’ decision not to run again, along with that of his lieutenant, Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), has people on both sides of the aisle wondering what’s next, as more and more moderate Republicans step down from positions of leadership in a country where President Donald Trump appears to be redefining the GOP.
LGBTQ Texans have even more reason to be concerned. Straus was the only moderate Republican in a major leadership role that seemed to hold close to the traditional principles of the Republican Party, which has reigned for decades over state government. During the regular and special sessions this year, Straus was vocal in his opposition to anti-transgender bathroom bills. Both moderate Republicans and Democrats viewed him as the last firewall protecting Texas from laws viewed as bad for business and worse for trans Texans.
“Joe Straus’ retirement from the Texas House of Representatives, and from the speakership in particular, means losing the GOP leader who most stridently stood against the divisive ‘bathroom bill’ politics of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick,” Equality Texas CEO Chuck Smith told OutSmart on Wednesday. “We can certainly expect a ferocious battle between moderate, business-minded Republicans and their extremist counterparts. That battle has just ratcheted up in intensity. Doom can be avoided if a member of the Straus leadership team, or another moderate Republican, can succeed Straus as speaker.”
As speaker, Straus also had the authority to assign committee chairs who could assist him in slowing down and killing legislation. Cook serves as chair of the House Committee on State Affairs, which held a hearing on one of the bathroom bills, but ultimately allowed it to die on the vine. Cook was also a vocal opponent of the discriminatory measure, much to the chagrin of the House’s growing right-wing minority.
“It wasn’t an accident that no harmful LGBTQ legislation was passed in the last two sessions,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston. “It was a determined effort and that depended on who was in leadership and others. The challenge going forward will be electing a Speaker who is as thoughtful in their leadership and holds the same view that Representatives should be free to represent the people in their districts.
“The election of a speaker is a very ‘inside baseball’ sort of thing,” Coleman added. “Speaker Staus was a bright light when it came to thoughtful bipartisan public policy. With him not presiding it leaves things up in the air. The same applies to Byron Cook. The thoughtfulness will be a real loss.”
Although Straus did not close the door on a run for higher office in the future, he said he doubts he will be on the ballot in 2018.
Coleman said he doesn’t think there’s enough time for any Republican to mount a serious challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott.
“He has $41 million dollars,” Coleman said of Abbott’s war chest. “It would be nearly impossible for anyone in a March primary to have a real shot at winning.”
Straus was first elected speaker in 2005. He has held the position for five terms and had filed to run for a sixth before his unexpected announcement. Straus clashed publicly with both Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott numerous times during this year’s regular and special sessions.
The speaker is famously quoted as saying, “Tell the lieutenant governor I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands,” in reference to bathroom bills. Abbott and Patrick were staunch supporters of anti-LGBTQ legislation proposed this year. Abbott signed into law a bill that allows taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people based on religious beliefs. All other anti-LGBTQ legislation was stopped short thanks to the efforts of organizations like Equality Texas.
Smith said Equality Texas isn’t waiting for the chips to fall following Straus’ announcement.
“Equality Texas is already mobilizing, and we need to enlist support to execute our work,” Smith said. “We must register new voters, educate the public on the critical issues facing our state, and mobilize people to participate in the electoral process, including the Republican and Democratic party primaries in March 2018.”