State Rep. Tan Parker keeping reasons for House Speaker bid close to vest

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Unlike the two other challengers who got in early, state Rep. Tan Parker waited until two days after the March 6 primaries to announce his intention to run for Texas House Speaker.

Parker stepped down as Chairman of the House Republican Caucus that had, three months earlier, supported a unanimous decision by the 95 members to vote for a candidate for speaker chosen by a two-thirds majority.

The Republican Party of Texas also called on House Republicans to sign pledges that they would stick to their vote in the general House election on the opening day of the 86th legislative session this coming January.

His announcement gave little indication as to why he wanted to be the speaker, and no clue as to the timing. Parker has given no interviews on the subject and when asked by The Texas Monitor, he declined even to answer questions written out for him.

“I am ready to continue to serve Texas in a new leadership role bringing a unified effort for the betterment of our members and this great state,” he wrote in a press release. “I am also very proud of my record as Chair of the Texas House Republican Caucus and the trust my fellow colleagues placed in me over the past three years. We have much more work ahead, and I am prepared to lead.”

Parker’s announcement barely created a ripple with the two major newspapers in the orbit of District 63, which he has represented for six terms. The Dallas Morning News lifted his press release and didn’t speak to him. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram borrowed a story from the Texas Tribune.

Maybe it was because unlike several high profile Republican House members, Parker ran unopposed in the primary and is expected to easily defeat a Democratic challenger for a seventh term.

In what analysts agree is a historically important speaker’s race, for the first open seat in nearly three decades, the meaning of the primary results for a dozen other high-profile House Republicans cannot have been lost on Parker 

With an endorsement by Gov. Greg Abbott and a push from the Freedom Caucus, a small but vocal group of hard-line conservatives, Mayes Middleton took out incumbent state Rep. Wayne Faircloth, R-Galveston.

At the same time, two other challengers with Abbott endorsements failed to beat incumbent state Reps. Sarah Davis or Lyle Larson. Incumbents targeted by conservative activists as Straus allies or insufficiently conservative — state Reps. Giovanni Capriglione, Charlie Geren, Dan Flynn, and J.D. Sheffield — handled their primary challenges comfortably.

The message may be that Texas Republican voters are not willing to push too hard to the right. But for the man who’s ridden herd on the Republican Caucus for the past three years, it is also a signal that the two men the next House speaker will have to work most closely with — Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — believe Republican leadership is not pushing hard enough, Jon Taylor, chairman of the Political Science Department at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, said.

“We have a governor who just spent a quarter of a million dollars to unsuccessfully defeat Sarah Davis,” Taylor said. “Attacking Sarah Davis, Lyle Larson, and Wayne Faircloth was an outgrowth of Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick’s frustrations with Speaker Straus.”

On paper, Parker might be the candidate who fits the moment for a House dominated by a divided Republican party. As the party’s Caucus chair, no one has a better vantage from which to follow the fissures. Caucus support suggests trust.

Fiscal conservatives see strength and experience in his chairmanship of the House Committee on Investments and Financial Services. But Parker is not a member of the Freedom Caucus. His voting record ranks Parker 47th most conservative on Rice Prof. Mark Jones’ biennial list of House members.

Parker’s two challengers for speaker so far, state Reps. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and John Zerwas, R-Richmond, rank 48th and 80th respectively. (see our accompanying chart for a complete candidate comparison).

The conservative advocacy group Empower Texans’ Fiscal Responsibility Index gives Parker a 57, compared to King at 59 and Zerwas at 44.

The Texas Monitor has done profiles earlier this week on King and on Zerwas.

Of the three, Parker and King are the two most likely to be acceptable to conservatives and moderates within the party, Jones said. With nine months to go before the vote, there will almost certainly be at least one speaker candidate with a more conservative voting record, he said.

But like Taylor, Jones said he thinks House Republicans across the ideological spectrum will be paying close attention to a candidate’s ability to navigate a conservative governor and a more conservative lieutenant governor.

“With Tan Parker running the GOP Caucus, you have someone with some of the same responsibilities as a speaker,” Jones said. “But I do not have a good read on his relationship with Patrick.”

Empower Texans was critical of Parker’s leadership at critical times during the regular and special sessions last year. Michael Quinn Sullivan, its president, blamed Parker for watering down government spending legislation, only to have the legislation killed on a parliamentary point Sullivan blamed on Straus’ leadership team.

“One of Straus’ closest allies, state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, blamed Parker for not ensuring that the legislation moved correctly through the process,” Sullivan wrote last August. “In truth, Geren, Straus and the House leadership was showing Parker he had been played the fool.”

Near the end of the regular session, Sullivan referred to Parker as “ineffectual.”

“Unwilling to fight for school choice, a real ban on sanctuary cities, or protecting women from predators, the chairman of the Texas House Republican caucus is defending a decision of the chamber’s leadership to help Democrats chub the legislative calendar with a minimum wage hike,” Sullivan wrote. “State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, has refused to speak out as priorities of the state’s Republican Party and Gov. Greg Abbott have been labeled “dead on arrival” by the Democrat coalition leadership in the Texas House.”

Cary Cheshire, Vice President of Empower Texans’ Fiscal Responsibility Project, told The Texas Monitor that Parker’s inability to stand up to leadership is going to hurt his chances of being elected by the Caucus. “I think Tan’s a little too skittish.”

Which isn’t to say Parker should be counted out, Cheshire said. The Caucus bylaws change, which changed “a Kabuki process to a straight majority for a more conservative speaker,” Cheshire said. It will likely produce “a candidate slightly to the right.”

“I think it makes the path easier for a Phil King or a Tan Parker,” he said.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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