Texas House Speaker Joe Straus speaks to supporters. Photo by Scott Ball.
Former Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus speaks to supporters during a campaign event in 2016. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

For the first time in a decade, the Texas Legislature has opened its session without San Antonio’s Joe Straus in the powerful post of Speaker of the House. Happily, his spirit is still strong in Austin.

Straus’ successor, Dennis Bonnen of Angleton, has sent strong signals that he will follow Straus’ model in two important ways. The first is as a “servant leader,” rather than the dictatorial model presented by Straus’ predecessor, Tom Craddick of Midland. The second: Focus on what’s important, in contrast to Straus’ Senate counterpart, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

That choice is a pretty easy call. Craddick demanded a level of partisan and personal loyalty so strong he would back challengers to Republican members who didn’t vote his way on tough issues. By his second term, a number of Republican members were in open rebellion. Two Republicans challenged him in the speaker election at the beginning of that term, but withdrew when their motion to hold a secret ballot was rejected.

Toward the end of that term, a Republican member made a motion for a vote to remove Craddick as speaker. Craddick ruled the motion to be out of order, which so offended his hand-picked parliamentarian that she and her assistant resigned.

There’s a good chance Craddick would have lost that vote. On the eve of the following session in 2007, 11 Republican members met and chose Straus to oppose Craddick. Together with all 74 Democrats, they prevailed.

Unlike Craddick, Straus saw his job as to serve his members, including Democrats, not to whip them into line. Following a long tradition, he appointed Democrats as committee chairs. Bonnen, who is currently drawing up committee assignments, has denied rumors that he would give them only to Republicans.

This is one tradition that enables Austin not to be Washington. In the nation’s capital, if a party has a majority of just one in the Senate or House of Representative, that party gets all the committee chairmanships and its leaders have absolute control over what bills are submitted to a full vote. Recent Republican House leaders enforced a rule that only bills that had the support of a majority of Republicans would be brought to the floor for a vote. This disenfranchised citizens (a majority in recent elections) who voted for Democrats or even for more moderate Republicans.

Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen
Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen Credit: Courtesy / Texas Government

In Texas, conservative Republicans last fall won a caucus vote to choose their speaker the Washington way, in a closed caucus. But Bonnen short-circuited their plans. Just one week after the November election he announced he had lined up support from a majority of Republican members and a near majority of Democratic ones.

Another way Bonnen has signaled his intention to follow the Straus model is that he has indicated from the beginning that he wanted the House to focus on serious issues, not hot-button controversies designed to stir up Republican primary voters. Take, for example, the famous bathroom issue of two years ago.

Two and a half years ago Patrick drew on his right-wing radio talk show roots to paint that issue as one of the most important ones facing the session. Just hours after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the State’s school finance system was inadequate but not unconstitutional, Patrick held a press conference to express relief since now the Legislature could address what he called “the biggest issue facing families and schools in America since prayer was taken out of public school.”

A Fort Worth school superintendent had permitted transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice. This, Patrick said, could mean the end of public education. He pushed a bill through the Senate, but Straus’ team blocked it in the House. Most of his members were grateful. Business leaders who provided much of their support were strongly opposed, given the boycotts of North Carolina that similar legislation had provoked. Still, it was a dangerous issue in the Republican primaries.

Patrick forced a special session by blocking a noncontroversial “sunset bill” that would keep some state agencies operating. Gov. Greg Abbott was so intimidated by Patrick that he acceded to his call for the bathroom bill to be included on the special session agenda, saying the bill was necessary. When some of his major contributors objected, Abbott cravenly told them in private not to worry about it: Straus would kill the bill. He was right.

Bonnen, who is more conservative than Straus, was a co-signer of a House version of the bathroom bill, but was not a crusader for it. He now is focused, as was Straus, on coming up with a fix for both school finance and property taxes, which have waxed as state funding for public schools has waned.

What about the bathroom crisis? Poof! It’s gone. At a press conference with Bonnen and Abbott last week, Patrick announced that the battle had been won.

Bonnen didn’t make the issue disappear. Probably November’s election had a much bigger impact. Patrick, who won his election by 20 points four years earlier, won only 51 percent of the vote this year. Trivia question: Who was his Democratic opponent? (Answer: Mike Collier.) By contrast Abbott, who is perceived to be more moderate, won 56 percent.

Meanwhile, Democrats picked up 12 seats in the House. Several hard-line “Texas House Freedom Caucus” members lost, including Ron Simmons of Carrollton, a bathroom-bill author.

But perhaps the most persuasive reason for Bonnen to follow Straus’ model of leadership in the House is this: Craddick was nearly ousted by a rebellion at the end of his second term and lost the post after three terms. Straus shares the Texas record by serving as speaker for five terms, and all but the most doctrinaire conservatives were disappointed last year when he announced his retirement.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.