- Rep. Joe Straus
Five-term Texas House Speaker Joe Straus will not be running for re-election in 2018.
“A confident leader knows when it’s time to give it back,” Straus said during a Wednesday morning press conference. "It’s the first time in decades that the speaker has been able to leave this office, you know, on his own terms."
Straus has been a state representative for San Antonio since 2005, and has served as speaker since 2009. With five terms under his belt, he is the longest-serving Republican speaker of the Texas House.
In a Wednesday statement, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called Straus a "voice of reason in the chaotic world of Texas politics" and a "true friend" to San Antonio.
"Cities will have to work harder to get an increasingly polarized Legislature to understand the needs of the constituents we all represent," he said. "It is impossible to overstate the impact of his compassion for all Texans."
The unexpected announcement comes after a particularly antagonistic legislative session that pitted Straus against Senate leader Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Straus, a moderate Republican, used his leadership in the House to keep Tea Party representatives from elbowing extremely contentious bills through the state legislature.
For example, Straus made a point to water down the Senate's version of the so-called "bathroom bill" to protect trans kids. He told the New Yorker it was because he didn't want "the suicide of a single Texan" on his hands. He also kept a bill which would have rolled back state taxpayer dollars from Planned Parenthood from slipping through the House. These actions inspired the Bexar County Republican Party to vote against electing Straus in the 2018 election. But now, they won't even have the option.
Straus said he was especially proud of his recent work in particular.
"I feel really good about the last year or so. I’ve been able to speak for myself on issues that I care about," he said Wednesday. "The reception I’ve gotten since I've been more outspoken has been really strong, really positive — so I want to do more than that, find other ways to serve this state."
His more outspoken (read: moderate) behavior has made Straus a foil for most far-right legislators in the Capitol, especially a group of Tea Party Republicans dubbed the "Freedom Caucus."
Caucus members, who have actively pushed to oust Straus, applauded his announcement on Twitter. Rep. Matt Rinaldi (known for announcing he called ICE on protesters in the Capitol and threatening to “put a bullet” in another representative’s head) celebrated with a gif of Will Ferrell pumping his fists into the air. Rep. Jonathan Stickland, one of Straus' snarkiest critics, tweeted: “Victory!!!!!”
Other GOP leaders who've clashed with Straus were less overt in their delight.
“Any man who enters the arena deserves respect," wrote Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a statement. "The media often tried to portray our differences as personal when they were actually just a markedly different approach to governance and political ideology."
(This is the same man who called Straus a quitter after the legislature's special session ended in August. “Thank goodness Travis didn’t have the speaker at the Alamo. He might have been the first one over the wall," Patrick told reporters at the time.)
Governor Greg Abbott kept his message to the speaker brief.
"Joe Straus has served with distinction for both the people in his district and for the Texas House of Representatives," Abbott said in a curt press release. "I thank Speaker Straus for his service and for his commitment to the state of Texas.”
Straus still has 14 months left in office. But that won't necessarily be the end of his career, he hinted Wednesday.
"I’m not one to close doors," he said. "I think there is a hunger for a Republican voice out there that stresses issues that maybe haven’t gotten enough attention around the Capitol the last few years."
Straus did not explicitly say he wasn't going to run for another public office in 2018.
Regardless, Straus' departure leaves state liberals on edge. Texas Democrats, who haven’t won a statewide office since 1994, have relied on Straus' moderate ideals to stop the more extreme legislation coming from his party's far-right corner. The loss of their moderate GOP speaker could allow a far more conservative Republican to climb up the ladder. Two state GOP representatives, Phil King and John Zerwas, have already announced they will be seeking to replace Straus as speaker.
Ed Espinoza, director of Progress Texas, said Straus' departure is a sign of moderate Republicans "giving up" on the far-right, fringe politics of the Texas GOP.
"Voters should know that a new Republican speaker will put Lt. Governor Dan Patrick's wildly extreme proposals like bathroom bills and school vouchers back on the table and back in jeopardy of becoming law," he wrote in a email statement.
"We disagree with Joe Straus on much of the agenda he steered in 2017," Espinoza went on. "But we do agree that, in a sea of increasingly irrational Republicans, he is one of the few grown-ups in the room."
Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa put it even more bluntly:
"The Republican Party is dead. Compassionate conservatism is no more and Trumpism has infected every corner of the Grand Ole Party."