EDITORIAL: The legacy of Speaker Joe Straus

A seismic political shock wave rolled across Texas last week that relatively few constituents across the state will understand: The surprise announcement by the speaker of the Texas House that he will not be seeking re-election next year.

Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is not a statewide elected official, but he has emerged as one of the most consequential statewide leaders in the decade that he has been speaker.

We congratulate Speaker Straus on his decision to leave on his own terms, but we caution that the significance of his departure cannot be overstated. Simply put: Political moderation in Texas is imperiled without Straus.

His departure potentially delivers complete control of state government to a small but powerful subset of the Republican Party and an even smaller minority of the electorate overall — the far right social conservative wing of the party.

Straus, in his leadership role, has contended gracefully with vicious, sometimes baffling attacks on his leadership by both social conservatives and by those who wish to placate that faction, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Earlier this year, for example, the Bexar County Republican Party, a party that Straus and his family essentially helped to create — and certainly helped to empower in what was once a solidly Democratic state — passed a vote of no confidence in the speaker.

His sin? Looking out for the interests of the business community over the interests of those who are intent on regulating our personal behavior. This includes those intent on passing the so-called bathroom bill that would discriminate against fellow Texans in the face of strong evidence from other states that such legislation would have had a huge negative impact on our state’s business community.

Straus did not have the visibility of Gov. Abbott and he didn’t have the taste for cameras that Lt. Gov. Patrick has; but Speaker Straus had a much larger dose of an increasingly rare commodity in public office today: Courage.

He stood up to tremendous pressure from his own party in favor of public policy that he believed was good for all Texans.

It’s significant that the democratically solid delegation from the Rio Grande Valley spoke highly of Speaker Straus upon hearing news of his decision to step away from the political game last week.

As state Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, told The Monitor: Straus was good for the Rio Grande Valley. And most evidence supports Guerra’s contention.

Granted, Straus did allow his chamber to add a deeply anti-Hispanic amendment to an already anti-Hispanic sanctuary city bill during the last regular session when Republicans codified into law the ability for law enforcement to demand proof of citizenship during even the most minor of traffic stops.

But we believe that was a tactical error and not a more duplicitous strategic error for which Abbott and Patrick are guilty.

By and large, Straus was always the more meaningful voice of reason among the triumvirate of leaders who run our state. It often manifested itself the way the framers of our state constitution wanted it to manifest itself, by slowing down and even killing bad public policy that may be steeped in emotion.

That’s the reason that the Texas constitution specifies that our lawmakers meet only every other year and only for 140 days. It’s to slow down the human instinct to legislate everything.

Straus’s departure could have huge ramifications that have yet to play out.

Act II of this drama occurs during next year’s election. While there is little doubt that Republicans will remain in solid control of our state, the question becomes which branch of the Republican Party? Is it the branch focused on business? On slackening regulations? On lowering taxes?

Or is it the branch intent on regulating our private lives?

Act III occurs when the Texas House convenes for its regular session in 2019 and, as its first act, votes in a new speaker to lead that chamber.

We desperately hope that the person who emerges to succeed Straus will measure public policy in terms of what is good for all of Texas, instead of in terms of what is good for the party or for personal political ambition.

In short, we hope the next speaker, like Straus, views political moderation as a virtue instead of a sin.