Some of the qualities that appear to disqualify him might actually be assets for state Rep. Travis Clardy, who is running for speaker of the Texas House.
Clardy has served in the House for just three terms. He has not served as a committee chairman. He cannot point to a major piece of legislation that he has sponsored. And Clardy’s District 11 in East Texas has no major metropolitan area to give him clout.
“I can’t see him being chosen speaker,” Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor, said. “At most, he’s a bit player.”
Depending upon how much the conservative wing of the party has to say about who will replace outgoing Speaker Joe Straus, Clardy could also be viewed as hopelessly moderate, Jones said.
But it’s that struggle between moderates and hard-line conservatives, ongoing since Straus was elected speaker in 2009, that is likely to define the House’s choice when its 150 members return for the 2019 legislative session in January.
As a moderate, Clardy has a voting record that landed him on a “dirty dozen” list of Republicans whose insufficient conservatism marked them as politically vulnerable according to the New Leadership Political Action Committee. Several of those on the list are staunch Straus loyalists.
But Clardy has never been a major player among Straus Republicans. He has not made the kind of political enemies a committee chairman can make. And he has no strong stands on legislation to hold against him.
“Is he a long shot? Maybe not, given the divisions and lack of consensus among House Republicans,” Jon Taylor, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, said. “Never say never. He doesn’t have a lot of time in the House, which might actually be a plus given the last few years of contention. He’s more conservative than Straus but not hard right. And he’s got a decent relationship with Gov. Abbott. He could ultimately be seen as the ‘he’ll do’ choice.”
The Texas Monitor contacted Clardy’s office in Nacogdoches to request an interview, but Clardy had not responded at the time this profile was published.
Unlike the other four candidates, Clardy didn’t file his declaration with the Texas Ethics Commission early. Nor did he wait until the weeks leading up to the session when the politicking for speaker really churns.
His timing, Clardy told the Tyler Morning Telegraph, was based on nothing more than conversations he had with fellow House members who thought he ought to run.When Straus announced he would not run for reelection, Clardy said he was considering a bid to succeed him
“As I’ve talked to my colleagues … I really feel like I’m the best-qualified person for the job, but more than that, I think I’m a person who works really well with my colleagues in the House,” Clardy told the Morning Telegraph.
As to why he wants to be the speaker, Clardy said, “It’s not so much that I have this genius for directing policy. I think I have a skillset to work with other power members and develop [them]. That’s a different skill.
“I know that I’m a leader,” he said, “but I also know that I’m respected among them and, again, think there’s mutual respect and that’s going to foster a very positive working environment.”
Clardy’s biggest challenge will be to navigate a substantial Republican majority riven by factionalism during the Straus years. After Straus’ announcement, the Republican Caucus in early December changed its bylaws to mandate the selection of a preferred candidate before the whole House votes on the speaker on the first day of the session.
Observers like Jones, a fellow with Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, and Taylor are split on whether the bylaws change will result in a speaker more conservative than the moderate Straus or fuel the backdoor deal-making with Democrats that brought him to power in the first place.
A majority of those House Republicans have signed pledges to support the preferred candidate in the general vote, something they are not obliged to do. Clardy and Zerwas are among roughly 20 Republicans who so far have not signed a pledge.
Should the November election leave the House with a Republican majority of at least 85 members, a centrist like Clardy would probably need all 20 of those unsigned Republicans acting as a bloc with Democrats to win.
“I can’t imagine it happening in any way, shape or form,” Jones said. “Republicans have seen what happened in past sessions. It’s like ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me.’ To quote The Who, ‘We won’t get fooled again.’”
If Jones’ scenario plays out, Clardy’s assets of relative anonymity and inoffensiveness would likely be cancelled out by his voting record. In his first three sessions, Clardy earned a career grade of F on the Fiscal Responsibility Index kept by the conservative political organization Empower Texans.
House members, however, do not choose a speaker solely on voting records, said Cary Cheshire, vice president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, which tracks those voting records for Empower Texans.
“People don’t pull out their ideology-o-meter and say I’m not going to vote for you,” Cheshire said. “There are a lot of factors that go into it.”
Smart, savvy and sincere, Clardy has an advantage over the better known and more accomplished Zerwas because Zerwas brings with him the baggage of having served as a Straus lieutenant, Cheshire said.
Clardy may have chosen to announce his candidacy earlier than otherwise because of the growing speculation that state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, will enter the race.
Darby, whose chairmanships were granted by Straus, is seen as the most likely moderate Republican to woo Democrats into the kind of coalition dreaded by conservatives.
“Clearly he [Clardy] made the announcement to say ‘I am going to lead the moderate wing of the House Republicans,’” Cheshire said. “I think that people who had been making that case [for moderate leadership] in the past are gone and the people who are left are not doing a very good job.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].