(This is the first of a series of profiles of the candidates for the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives for the 86th session of the Legislature in 2019.)
State Rep. Phil King has studied his history. He is seeking to fill the first open House Speaker’s seat since 1991, the first for a Republican majority since 2003.
King, R-Weatherford, is running for speaker for the first time, and for the first time he will need the support of two-thirds of the Republican Caucus before he asks for a majority of the 150 members of the House.
Perhaps more than anyone he’ll face (state Rep. Tan Parker and John Zerwas have also announced their candidacies and as many as half a dozen others are thought to be considering it), King knows that to be successful, the next speaker will have to negotiate the most divided party since Republicans took control.
King was the first to announce and the only candidate who did it knowing he would be challenging five-term House Speaker Joe Straus. In October, a month after King’s announcement, Straus said he would not run again for the House.
“I gave this a great deal of thought. The reality was the House was so divided I was convinced that Joe Straus could no longer continue to lead the House,” King said. “To my surprise, he decided not to run again. It changes the nature of the race, but it doesn’t change the nature of what I’ve been trying to do, which is to change the way the House operates structurally.”
While the votes won’t be cast until the first day of the session — Jan. 8, 2019 — and no one knows the entire cast of candidates, political analysts like King’s chances.
When the Republican Caucus voted unanimously in early December to change its bylaws to mandate it select its preferred candidate before the general vote, it almost guaranteed the next House speaker would be more conservative than Straus.
But rather than signaling a shift to the hard right, state political experts believe Republicans will want to choose a speaker candidate acceptable to both conservatives and moderates to prevent the dealmaking with Democrats that guaranteed the ascension of Straus a decade ago.
“We’re going to see a slide to [the] right because Straus was so far to the center,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University who closely follows the Texas Legislature. “Even a compromise candidate is going to be more conservative. The risk is in pulling the party too far to the right. How far is too far? I can’t objectively tell you where that is.”
By at least two subjective standards, neither King nor his two challengers have voting records suggesting they will test the right’s conservative boundary.
Based on their votes in the last session, Jones rated King the 48th most conservative member of the House (see our accompanying chart for a complete candidate comparison). He rated Parker 47th and Zerwas, an ally of Straus, 80th.
According to the Fiscal Responsibility Index kept by Empower Texans, a political advocacy organization devoted to testing and promoting the fiscally conservative boundary, King got a rating of 59, ranking him 47th in the House. Parker got a 57, putting him at 52nd. Zerwas, got a 44, behind 69 other Republicans (see a complete breakdown of Speaker candidate contributions here).
As it stands in March, King appears to be the favorite for the speaker’s gavel, Cary Cheshire, vice president of the Fiscal Responsibility project, said.
“I can see a candidate who’s slightly to the right emerging,” Cheshire, whose organization will not be endorsing a speaker candidate, said. “With the two-thirds rule from the Caucus there is an easier path for Phil. Tan Parker has not been as willing to stand up to leadership. And John Zerwas is too politically toxic.”
This isn’t to say Cheshire is an enthusiastic advocate for King, who was considered a rather hard line conservative when he joined the House in 1999.
“King is absolutely frozen in time,” Cheshire said. “He’s stayed the same while the state has gotten markedly more conservative.”
King would agree with at least half of that assessment. “I have always considered myself a traditional Reagan conservative. That’s what I’ve always been,” he said. “And for all of the talk about a divided House, I don’t think there is that much ideological spread between the most and the least conservative Republicans. There is very legitimate debate on policy, but the underlying principles of conservatism are there.”
With Straus out of the House, King has recalibrated his message for what he calls a “reset,” a dramatic step back from the divisiveness, starting with a reform of the role of the speaker.
His platform calls for a constitutional amendment to limit the speaker to three two-year terms. Representatives would be limited to three consecutive terms as chairman of any one committee.
Seniority would be honored in a fully transparent selection for committee appointments and those appointments would be posted no later than 15 days after the adoption of the House rules.
King says he wants to create a system where bills, even marginal or unpopular, get to the floor without arbitrary intervention by the speaker or leadership of either the majority or minority party.
And here King returns to his history. Throughout the history of the Texas House, it was common for speakers to serve one or two terms. In the last decades of the Democratic majority, speakers regularly served four or five terms. Pete Laney was in his fifth term in 2003 when Republicans became the majority party.
Texas is one of just three states where its House has just one elected official. This has concentrated too much power with the speaker, King said.
“The House is set up to be more of a people’s body,” he said. “We have to change the way we do things structurally for a traditional return to its roots.”
All of this might sound to hard-line conservatives like a candidate throwing bones to moderates and Democrats for support. King calls it “treating everyone the way they want to be treated.”
“Everybody in the House has to have a role. One of the ways you do that is to level the playing field — is to set up the rules of order to allow people to get their bills to the floor, to have votes. If I were to completely cut out the Democrats — someone once told me that if your opponents don’t have something to do, they’re going to find something to do and you’re not going to like it.”
That “something to do,” in past sessions was form alliances that allowed Straus to block bills like property tax reform and several important to social conservatives like the “bathroom bill.”
Jon Taylor, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, said Straus may be gone, but a lunge toward the hard right could still create the conditions that produced the Straus coalition.
The Republican Caucus has asked its members to sign a pledge that they will support the party’s nominee for speaker in the general House vote. King and Parker have signed. Zerwas has not.
“I’ll give Zerwas credit for stating that he believes that both parties should have a say on who presides over the House and that the GOP cannot — and must not — marginalize the Democratic caucus,” Taylor said.
State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chairman of that Democratic Caucus, told The Texas Monitor he expects Republicans will not choose someone with the intent to marginalize their party.
Turner declined to say if he preferred any of the announced candidates or to say whether one or another is favored, assuming several other candidates will eventually join the race.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, is chairing a Caucus committee to study how the speaker’s race might play out. That committee will not, however, be making a recommendation, Turner said.
“We haven’t drawn any lines in the sand,” Turner said. “In general, Democrats want to see the House operate in a bipartisan manner. The bottom line is I believe the speaker will be elected in a bipartisan way, just as past speakers have been elected.”
Republicans will also have to be mindful that the next speaker be able to work successfully with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Jones said. Ideology and tenure favor King, although Parker’s role as Republican Caucus chair until he resigned to run for speaker should help him, Jones said.
“A speaker has to stand up for House interests,” Jones said. “The House doesn’t want to be seen as a rubber stamp for the Senate. The worst thing a speaker candidate can do is actively seek the endorsement of the lieutenant governor. It’s better to try to maintain feet in both camps.”
King seems to have calculated all of it. The new voting rules from the Caucus, he said, should be an advantage. “If I can’t get 60 percent of my own caucus, I don’t need to be the speaker.
“I realize I’m in a unique position,” he said. “I’m the right person for right now.”
A lot can happen over the next 10 months, but at least for now, Taylor agreed. “If I were a betting man, and I’m not,” Taylor said, “I would expect Phil King to eventually win this thing.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected]