Despite the lunacy and political infighting that took place during this year’s legislative session, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, kept a sense of order and dignity within the House of Representatives. He went against his own party and led a bipartisan effort to oppose bills he saw as harmful to the citizens of Texas. Straus even went against Gov. Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick to take down controversial bills like Senate Bill 3 — famously known as the “bathroom bill.”
But on October 25, Straus appeared in front of members of the press and announced that he would not be seeking re-election for a record breaking sixth term as House Speaker.
“I believe that in a representative democracy, those who serve in public office should do so for a time, not for a lifetime. And so I want you to know that my family and I have decided that I will not run for re-election next year,” said Straus in a campaign email sent to constituents.
Straus was elected thanks to a bipartisan effort back in 2009. Then House Speaker Tom Craddick was butting heads with an increasingly frustrated House, and members from both parties wanted him out of office. Straus was initially an unlikely candidate. He had only served a couple of terms as a House Representative, and his name wasn’t in the initial pool to replace Craddick. Straus eventually emerged as a candidate after House Democrats signed on to elect him.
The news of Straus’ departure was disappointing for Democrats and moderate Republicans within the House and Senate, and many of them expressed their gratitude towards Straus. But members of the House Freedom Caucus were thrilled by the announcement. They see the vacancy as an opportunity to elect someone with more conservative ideologies.
A couple of candidates have already filed the paperwork necessary to run for the speaker’s seat; they include State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond.
State Rep. Phil King has represented District 61 since 1999. He is currently the Chair of Homeland Security & Public Safety and a member of the Energy Resources Committee. He was a police officer for fifteen years before becoming a lawyer and politician, and he continues to be a member of the Texas State Guard.
King could be considered a dead-set Republican. He is against overregulation and against the government spending money on public services.
“Local control and limited government must be the first resort not the last,” said King in the “What I Believe” section of his website. “Excessive regulation smothers life and commerce. Therefore, whatever regulation government maintains must be predictable and navigable.”
King’s legislative agenda is what one would expect from a staunch Republican. He was against “sanctuary cities” and supported Senate Bill 4, a measure that would have allowed police officers to question people’s immigration status. He was also a co-author of one the bathroom bills proposed during this last legislative session and was a supporter of constitutional carry, a law that would allow anyone to carry a firearm with or without a permit.
King declared his candidacy for House Speaker back in September, well before Straus announced his departure from the position.
“Over the past several months, many of my colleagues have encouraged me to consider running for Speaker,” King said in a statement. “In order to have an open discussion concerning the future of our Texas House, I have filed the required paperwork to declare my candidacy for Speaker.”
King isn’t part of the anit-Straus coalition, but he has clashed with Straus in the past. He was one of the few Republicans that didn’t vote for Straus back in 2011 and isn’t a huge supporter of Straus’ bipartisan leadership.
State Rep. John Zerwas is closer to Straus politically then King is. Zerwas has served District 28 since 2007 and has been an anesthesiologist in Fort Bend County for the past 30 years. He is a chairman of the Appropriations Committee and one of Straus’ top lieutenants.
Zerwas filed the necessary paperwork to run for House Speaker mere hours after Straus announced his departure.
“I appreciate the respectful, pragmatic leadership Speaker Straus has demonstrated the last five sessions and will offer members leadership that allows them to represent their districts and the values of their districts,” Zerwas said in a news release.
Zerwas is more left of center than King, but he doesn’t hide is conservative values. According to his website, he has fought Obamacare legislation, supported legislation to defund Planned Parenthood, and is endorsed by the NRA for his positions on firearms.
But Zerwas is seen as one the more moderate Republican legislators in the House of Representatives. He supported the expansion of Medicaid in Texas, a move many Republicans were against. They refused to accept any more federal dollars for medical care and the expansion was never passed. Zerwas was also against the bathroom bill, and he helped keep the bill from advancing in the House.
The path towards finding the next House Speaker is filled with uncertainty. A House Republican Caucus is looking to change the bylaws that govern how a House Speaker is selected. The proposed bylaws would allow Republicans to select a candidate before the vote heads to the floor. This would effectively silence Democrats by taking them out of the voting process completely. But the choice made by the caucus members would be non-binding, which means Republicans can break ranks and pick someone new despite their caucus vote.
The list of candidates is also set to increase. State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, and State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas have shown their interest in running. And the make up of the House could look quite different after the 2018 elections. The Democrats could wield more power next year depending on how the elections go.
Straus will continue to serve his term until January 2019, and his eventual departure isn’t keeping him from working any less. He is having lawmakers look into the issues that caused Hurricane Harvey’s devastation so that legislation can be crafted for the next legislative session. He also help create the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness in the wake of the bathroom bill. The committee will look into bringing more businesses into Texas and how to make Texas more economically competitive.