Confronted by increasing dissension in the Republican ranks, House Speaker Joe Straus announced on Wednesday that he is retiring.
It was a stunning turn for the veteran lawmaker who was unanimously re-elected Speaker for a fifth time at the start of the 2017 session.
“I believe that in a representative democracy, those who serve in public office should do so for a time, not for a lifetime,” the San Antonio Republican posted on his Facebook page.
But Straus said he would not just fade away.
“Instead of acting on behalf of the entire House, I will now have a greater opportunity to express my own views and priorities. I will also continue to work for a Republican Party that tries to bring Texans together instead of pulling us apart.”
Straus’ critics argue that, on the contrary, he created discord within Republican ranks last session by blocking Senate-approved bills that would have promoted school choice, enacted property tax relief, and outlawed the compulsory collection of union dues.
He also inflamed social conservatives by bottling up legislation restricting the use of transgender bathrooms.
This month, a group called the New Leadership PAC announced plans to fund campaigns against Straus and his lieutenants.
NLP Treasurer Don Dyer said Straus’ retirement alone won’t change “the corrupt culture in the House.”
“Texans should beware of simple promotion of any hand-picked successors to Straus who would represent the status quo,” Dyer said.
Straus, first elected to the House in 2005, became increasingly at odds with grassroots Republicans, as well as Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
“He’s a wealthy man whose only real role would be to block more legislation next session,” said Mark Jones, political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “Hearing the constant scorn of being a RINO [Republican in Name Only] wasn’t going to be all that appealing.”
While Straus’s seat appeared safe with his Alamo Heights base, the speakership was becoming problematic.
“It was more than a symbolic challenge,” Jones noted.
Within hours of Straus’ announcement, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, jumped into the speaker contest.
Zerwas has relied heavily on lobbyist contributions, mirroring the funding pattern of Straus and his allies. An analysis by The Texas Monitor showed that Zerwas received 75.9 percent of his funds from special interest lobby groups.
Zerwas, who chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee, was third in the use of campaign funds for lifestyle-related expenses, spending $83,523 over the 2015-2016 biennium, according to The Texas Monitor’s “Living Large Index.”
King ranked 9th, at $49,380. He chairs the Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee.
With King and Zerwas already in the chase, others will undoubtedly follow, seeking to carve out a niche in the GOP ranks.
One lawmaker who won’t be contending is Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana. Straus’ chief lieutenant announced he, too, was retiring. The speaker had appointed Cook to chair the newly created Texas House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness, and Cook pledged to “work hard throughout the remaining 14 months of my current term” to complete the assignment.
In a previously calendared meeting, the House Republican Caucus is scheduled to convene Nov. 8 to consider amending rules for electing the speaker. One proposal would bind House Republicans to support the caucus vote. That would effectively nullify the role of minority Democrats, who brought Straus to power.
With Straus leaving the field, it’s a whole new ballgame in the Texas House.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect Speaker Joe Straus’ relationship with some political opponents.