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After Battling Conservatives in Own Party, Texas House Speaker Won't Seek Re-Election

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus will not seek re-election, the San Antonio Republican confirmed Wednesday.

By Lauren McGaughy and Robert T. Garrett

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus will not seek re-election, the San Antonio Republican confirmed Wednesday.

"The time is right" for him to quit presiding over the House after a record five legislative sessions, he told reporters.

"I know it is for my family."

Under Straus, the House has been the last bulwark for business-oriented, socially moderate Republicans in state politics. For several  sessions, it has served as a brake on the ascendancy of movement conservatives -- though only sporadically and rarely for very long.

His departure sets off a 14-month scramble to grab the speaker's gavel. On Wednesday, moderate conservative Republican John Zerwas of Richmond declared his candidacy, joining staunchly conservative Weatherford Republican Phil King. More entrants are likely.

In a press gaggle in his Capitol office, Straus explained his decision with his wife Julie at his side. Loyal aides and key House lawmaker Charlie Geren of Fort Worth looked on somberly. Tears streamed down the face of Patricia Shipton, the speaker's chief of staff.

"I make no apology for trying to work across party lines," said Straus said. He'll raise money for and endorse "responsible Republicans" in House primaries in March, he said. He wouldn't close the door to a statewide race. However, asked if voters would see his name on next year's ballot, he replied, "I highly doubt it."

Straus said he could win the speaker's post again in 2019 but ultimately decided he'd had enough.

"I could do it," said Straus, 58, a professional financial adviser who has an investment, insurance and executive benefits practice in San Antonio.

His popularity remains "very strong" in his northeast Bexar County district, he said, and "support among members is deep."

As Straus said in an earlier Facebook post, though, he's lost a bit of enthusiasm for the job, even as he's proud of his record.

"Just as my ascension to the speaker's office was unconventional and my approach to governing is unusual in these divisive times, I know this is also an unexpected decision," Straus wrote. "It's been decades since someone has left the speaker's office on his own terms. But we have accomplished what I had hoped the House would accomplish when I first entered this office, and I am increasingly eager to contribute to our state in new and different ways."

Some GOP political consultants, though, have said recently that Straus' survival as speaker was increasingly dicey.

Long the target for far right elements within his own party, Straus drew the ire of culture war Republicans this year by opposing some of their key agenda items, like school vouchers and the so-called bathroom bill. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, also a Republican who heads the Texas Senate, has spent the last several months criticizing Straus and his allies in the House.

Minutes after Straus' news spread, one of these top lieutenants, Corsicana Republican Byron Cook, also said he would not run for re-election. Cook, first elected in 2002, chaired the House committee where the bathroom bill died.

Cook did not mention the divisions among the Republican Party in his announcement, simply stating he was "honored" to serve in the House and would now "pursue other opportunities to serve our great state."

Both men, and many of Straus' other allies, have been the target of concerted efforts to oust them from the House in recent years. Empower Texans, an influential far-right Republican group primarily funded by Midland oilman Tim Dunn, has spent millions trying to unseat Straus.

In the last election, the group gave more than $1.4 million to candidates who challenged Straus or his allies. Straus won re-election that year with a 22-point margin.

Straus was first elected to the House in 2005. Less than four years later, he ousted Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and has retained the speakership since then, an unprecedented tenure for a Republican in that position.

As speaker, a number of Republican opponents unsuccessfully challenged him from the right over the years, including Ken Paxton. Paxton was elected attorney general in 2014 and accused of securities fraud the next year by Cook.

Straus said he will "continue to work for a Republican Party that tries to bring Texans together instead of us pulling us apart" and "will have a greater opportunity" to express his own views outside of elected office.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Chris Turner of Grand Prairie said Straus' "deliberative approach to public policy" would be missed.

"Under Speaker Straus, the House led the way on a number of bipartisan accomplishments, including public school accountability reform, water infrastructure and mental health access," Turner said in a statement.

Straus opponents celebrated the news -- characterizing it as a win for Republicans who favor anti-abortion legislation and measures like the bathroom bill -- as did a small group of staunchly conservative Republicans in the House who have butted heads with the speaker.

Rep. Matt Rinaldi, an Irving Republican and member of the self-styled "Freedom Caucus," tweeted a celebratory gif. Tyler Republican Rep. Matt Schaefer, the group's chair, added, "It's morning in Texas again!"

Michael Quinn Sullivan, president and CEO of Empower Texans, tweeted, "Good day for Texas, but now we have to fight harder to make sure his cronies don't keep it."

(c)2017 The Dallas Morning News

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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