Everybody in the Texas House of Representatives knew Joe Straus was one of its brightest newcomers, but nobody expected him to become speaker this year in just his second term. As it turned out, however, he was the right man at the right time.
The previous speaker, Tom Craddick, had acquired a reputation as an autocrat, giving rise to constant grumbling among his own Republican colleagues. But he lasted six years in the job because his GOP rivals could never agree on a challenger.
This January, with the Republican House majority trimmed to 76-74, Craddick looked more vulnerable than ever. But there still wasn't a consensus candidate. At a New Year's meeting, six would-be speakers pleaded their case, but none proved acceptable to the whole group.
That's when they turned to Straus, a moderate who hadn't been seeking the position. Given his record, Democrats made it clear they, too, would be willing to support him, and Straus, 49 years old and with two years of political experience compared with Craddick's four decades, was elected by acclamation. "Anybody in charge of this was going to have to have very tight control of the Republican Party and shut the Dems out," says Ross Ramsey, editor of Texas Weekly, "or moderate a bit and run it from the middle." It was the middle strategy that won out.
It was a bombshell in Austin -- although not exactly unusual right now in American legislatures. Straus is one of five current chamber leaders elected in part with the backing of the minority party, including the Alaska and New Mexico Senate presidents and the House speakers in Louisiana and Tennessee. This may not be the start of any "post-partisan" revolution, but the fact is that such "coalition" leaders often end up being effective -- precisely because they are forced to govern from the center.
Dennis O'Brien, a Republican who served as speaker of the Pennsylvania House for the past two years after being elected with Democratic votes, points to a long list of achievements: revisions to the state's criminal code, insurance coverage for autism and an open-records law. "Sometimes," O'Brien says, "chaos allows possibilities for compromise."
Typically, as in O'Brien's case, the coalition leader gets removed following the next election, when one party takes firmer control. But that may not happen to Straus. Democrats like him because he's with them on some issues, such as alternative sources of energy. Conservative Republicans -- the majority in the GOP caucus -- remain suspicious, but they know he has legitimate party credentials: Straus worked for the Commissioner of Customs in the Reagan administration, and in the Commerce Department under George H.W. Bush. His family has a long history of party-building in the San Antonio area.
The fact that Straus is a lifelong urbanite points to a challenge that may be more daunting than the partisan situation. Most Texans now live in big cities and metroplexes along the I-35 and I-45 corridors, but virtually all speakers in recent decades have come from rural backgrounds. As in many chambers, the urban and suburban districts have the numbers to dominate but often are trumped by rural members of long service who stick together effectively.
"A lot of times, the optics are Republican-Democrat," says state Representative Dan Branch. "But if you go to the legislature, you realize that there are more urban-rural splits." Straus may have worked his way through one set of rivalries only to confront an even more complex one.