Why a tempest in the tea pot matters

Usually, voters have to wait until new officials are sworn in to start feeling disappointed by their elected officials. However, the Texas House is off to a fast start with a nasty battle over the speakership. People will divide up and blame different sides for the fight and its tone. However, it’s clear that Texans should be embarrassed by at least one side in this nasty fight. Here we are just days after the Republicans’ huge victory at the polls, and the fighting is already looking like an episode of Real Housewives.

What happened?

The roots of the fight go back to the ousting of Speaker Tom Craddick before the 2009 session and his replacement by Joe Straus. The battle began anew during the Texas Republican convention in June of 2010 when David Barton, a former vice chairman of the state party  called for language in the platform calling for the removal of Republican speaker Joe Straus because many social conservatives him considered too liberal. From June through early November, Republicans were too busy thrashing Democrats to be bothered with internal squabbles. Now, with the Democrats safely vanquished, Republican found time to turn their energies toward each other.

So, how has this battle unfolded (so far)?

Shortly after the election a coalition of conservative interest group leaders released a letter calling for the ousting of Straus. They felt he didn’t meet their definition of conservatism. While some of the fight is being taken up by new people brought into the GOP by the Tea Party movement, some Republicans believe that the battle is being directed by colleagues who have been in office for years.

Representative Leo Berman turned up the heat in the debate with some inflammatory language in an “open letter to the Speaker” that began by quoting Lincoln’s saying that, “You can fool all of the people some of the time; some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Berman goes on to accuse the Speaker of being a traitor to Republican causes  and closes with a call for member of the House to reject Strauss.

Don’t compromise yours by voting with Straus and writing fictitious statements about the service he provided.  It was a farce!  My military career forced me to detest those who would compromise their integrity for personal gain.  You all know what I mean!

Sid Miller responded to Berman’s letter with a more measured response that explained: “While I have a great deal of respect for your service to our nation and our state, I don’t respect your name calling. I am disappointed in your vicious attacks against our Republicans brothers and sisters.”

On November 10, Bryan Hughes (Mineola) publicly withdrew his previous pledge to Straus. In his letter Hughes claimed that a member of the Speaker’s leadership team said that redistricting would be used to punish members that failed to support Speaker Straus.  Hughes went on to make a dramatic claim:

More specifically, this member told me that maps were already being drawn to get rid of  Representative-Elect Erwin Cain (R-Sulphur Springs) and Representative Dan Flynn (R-Van), because they were not on the Speaker’s list of supporters.

Straus quickly denied the allegations he called on Hughes to name the person who allegedly made the threat. He went on to assert:  “I did not and would never authorize, allow, or condone linking redistricting in any way with the Speaker’s race, and anyone who knows me knows better than to give that assertion any credence.” Hughes provided the name to Strauss who turned the to Representative Chuck Hopson who chairs the General Investigating committee of the Texas House.

On the same day, Warren Chisum (Pampa) issued a press release in support of his candidacy for speaker that and urged Straus to release members of House from their written pledges to support him. (This seemed somewhat pointless given that Hughes had just withdrawn his pledge to support Straus.)

Straus responded by asking Chisum, “Have you no shame?”  Straus went on to level his own accusations: “The calls, emails and letters threatening Republicans with future primary opposition if they support my candidacy have clearly not been generated by me, or my supporters.”

On November 11, Ken Paxton officially announced his entry into the race for speaker.

On November 12, eighteen House chairs released a letter affirming their support for Straus. “We have found him to be a staunch fiscal conservative in the model of President Reagan, whom he once served in Washington.” Obviously, dropping Reagan’s name into the debate is intended to send a clear message.

Sometime over the November 13-14 weekend, the House Republican Caucus Executive Committee decided to conduct a “straw poll” among Republican members of the Texas House about their choice for Speaker.

Things have quiet down for the moment. Stories in the Amarillo Globe-News, Houston Chronicle, and New York Times recount parts of the story from a variety of perspectives.

Does this matter?

On one hand, this is a tempest in the tea pot. Most Texans don’t care about what goes on inside the Legislature and are more concerned about what comes out of it. It’s like a lot of issues that the media likes to dwell on. It sounds like the most important event ever… until the next event.

So, this fight will do little to change citizens’ view the Texas Legislature. And, that’s exactly the problem. The Legislature has a bad reputation and this would have been a good opportunity to change that. Instead, 2010 has become an opportunity to reinforce the image of the Texas legislature as a bunch of clowns.

This battle is over the claim to ownership of the 2010 election victory and largely some old-fashioned muscle flexing. Every election is followed by a phase of crediting claiming as everyone tries to make the victory their own. Scholars understand that elections are decided by broad factors such as the economy and tossing around labels like “liberal” and “conservative” mean very little to voters concerned about the state of the economy or the conduct of a war. Voters care about results and legislators would be wise to spend more time focusing on getting their job done and less time on imposing purity tests associated with ambiguous labels.

The Legislature needs to learn handle its business better. Texas has had unruly behavior before. Bob Bullock generated plenty of political storms. However, he eventually gave up the bottle and settled down. Exactly what the current fighters need to give up has yet to be determined.

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