The move was not unexpected and the reaction swift. Zerwas, R-Richmond, had become one of Straus’ most trusted allies, serving as his chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, arguably the chamber’s most powerful committee.
Special interest Political Action Committees, the so-called Austin Lobby, rallied to Zerwas, who had been one of nearly two dozen Republicans designated as “priorities” for reelection by the outgoing Straus.
In response, Straus opponents formed the New Leadership PAC, putting up “bounties” on what they called a “Dirty Dozen” of those priority House incumbents. Zerwas was at the top of its list.
“Unless they are removed,” New Leadership Treasurer Don Dyer told The Texas Monitor, “the same old corrupt culture will prevail at the behest of special interest masters — at the expense of ordinary Texans.”
Armed and ready for a pitched battle on both sides, no one came forward to challenge Zerwas in the House District 28 primary. He is expected to easily win a seventh term in November, facing a Democratic political newcomer in Meghan Scoggins.
For both sides in the race to replace Straus as Speaker of the House, Zerwas is the face of the old leadership. Both of his challengers to this point, veteran state Reps. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and former Republican Caucus chairman, Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, are, based on their voting records, much more conservative.
The Texas Monitor reached an assistant in Zerwas’ office to request an interview for this story. Zerwas did not respond to the request.
Everyone interviewed by The Texas Monitor for this story agreed Straus’ departure signaled the coming of a more conservative speaker. In December, the Republican Caucus changed its bylaws and voted unanimously to select a preferred speaker candidate for the general election on Jan. 8, 2019, the first day of the 86th session of the Texas Legislature.
In addition, the Republican Party of Texas asked its members to sign a pledge agreeing to vote in the general election for the candidate selected by a super-majority of the Caucus.
King and Parker signed their pledges. Zerwas did not. At a Texas Tribune event in November in Austin, Zerwas told Tribune CEO Evan Smith he declined to sign because he believed the speaker selection should be inclusive. “Whatever process we come up with, it cannot — and it must not — marginate the Democratic Caucus.”
His refusal is a bitter reminder to the more conservative members of the House, like those members of the House Freedom Caucus, of a climate of intrigue, with moderate Republicans cutting deals with a Democratic minority to keep Straus in place for a decade at the expense of more small government, free market legislation.
It’s this climate that has political analysts wondering if Zerwas’ candidacy for House Speaker is legitimate. Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University who tracks the Legislature closely, told The Texas Monitor the political conditions that produced the Straus coalition no longer exist.
A decade ago, Democrats held nearly 20 more seats in the House and offered much greater opportunity for a more durable bond with Republicans bridling under an authoritarian House Speaker Tom Craddick, Jones said.
A decade of Straus gave rise to a trenchant and growing Freedom Caucus, insisting the speaker and his allies were betraying the Republican Party. While Republicans are bound to lose a few seats in November, as is usually the case with a Republican president in office, Jones said he doesn’t see many hard-line conservative seats threatened.
“Zerwas is the nuclear option,” Jones said. “The only way he has a chance [is] if the conditions are the same as 2009, and they’re not.”
Instead, Jones and other analysts think Zerwas is a stalking horse, or front, to worry House Republicans into accepting a candidate more conservative than Zerwas and less conservative than someone like King or Parker.
That someone, Jones said, is state Rep. Walter “Four” Price, R-Amarillo, who has not yet announced for speaker.
Price’s voting record in the 2017 session put him slightly more conservative than Zerwas and much less than King or Parker on Jones’ biennial ranking of the House (Please see chart).
Empower Texans, a conservative political advocacy group, gave Zerwas and Price identical grades of 44 on it Fiscal Responsibility Index — near the bottom for Republicans.
Price is also currently chairman of the House Public Health Committee and co-chair of the Health & Human Services Transition Oversight Committee, both pivotal positions on issues of great importance to Democrats, particularly those representing Texas’ biggest cities.
Zerwas might also end up as a stalking horse for unannounced others with close ties to Straus, including state Reps. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi or Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, Jones said. Larson drew attention when Gov. Greg Abbott endorsed his more conservative challenger in the recent Republican primary, a candidate Larson dispatched collecting 60 percent of the vote.
Zerwas has expressed his differences with the more conservative wing of the party for years. A doctor, Zerwas was an early proponent of setting up a state health care exchange, an idea embraced by Obamacare supporters and rebuked by state conservatives all the way up to Gov. Rick Perry.
Although he insisted he was opposed to Obamacare, Zerwas continued in several following sessions to urge the Legislature to expand Medicaid to be able to accept more Obamacare funding.
In the last session Zerwas drew the ire of conservatives for a failed proposal to draw $2.4 billion from the taxpayers underwritten Rainy Day Fund to pay for already budgeted programs, many of them social safety net programs.
For an organization that measures success and failure by the vote, Zerwas is an entirely unacceptable speaker candidate for true conservatives, said Cary Cheshire, Vice President of the Fiscal Responsibility Index Project. For Zerwas to chair the Appropriations Committee after eight years on the committee — four as chair of its Health and Human Services Subcommittee — is dangerous to fiscal conservatives.
“He (Zerwas) doesn’t really try to hide it,” Cheshire said. “Zerwas is always on the wrong end of spending limits issues.”
Not surprisingly, it was on budget issues overseen by Straus and Zerwas that Chris Turner, Chairman of the Democratic Caucus, found Republicans to be much more bipartisan. “Give credit where credit is due to Joe Straus,” Turner, D-Grand Prairie, told The Texas Monitor.
Turner also singled out Price’s work on mental health funding as an example of this bipartisanship.
Bipartisanship, he said, will factor large in an assessment of potential speaker candidates underway by a Democratic Caucus committee headed by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. Turner, however, wasn’t naming any names of Republicans who might be acceptable to Democrats.
“Joe Straus is, by and large, respected and well regarded by the House membership,” Turner said. “I think Joe was very mindful not to shut out close to 40 percent of the House. I think he wanted House Democrats to be engaged.”
It isn’t out of the question that the Republican Caucus could make a statement by choosing a hard-line conservative for speaker. In the primary, Republican voters endorsed the Caucus bylaw change for a preferred speaker candidate with more than 85 percent of the vote.
But those voters and their Republican representatives are loath to recreate an environment that would allow for a Zerwas or even a Price, said Jon Taylor, Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
Of the announced candidates, Taylor thinks King will likely be chosen as speaker, precisely to move the body to the right, but not too far. King has told The Texas Monitor he is committed to a more open and bipartisan body.
Rejecting Zerwas and choosing King rather than someone more conservative will send a signal, Taylor said, that Republicans are taking a first step to mending their divided party.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].