Texas

Texas House speaker Joe Straus not seeking re-election

El Paso legislators weigh in on...

AUSTIN - Texas' Republican House speaker who blocked a "bathroom bill" targeting transgender people abruptly announced his retirement Wednesday after a decade as a powerful moderating influence on a state GOP party emboldened by the rise of President Donald Trump.
    
The unexpected departure of Joe Straus sent shock waves through the Texas Capitol and removes a roadblock to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who had grown publicly critical of the House leader for slowing his agenda of tax cuts, immigration crackdowns and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious schools.
    
Straus bemoaned politics growing more "trial and divisive" in a parting shot that echoed the forceful condemnation Republican U.S. Sen Jeff Flake of Arizona gave the GOP in announcing his retirement Tuesday.
    
"Bread and butter issues that are important to people is what I want to continue to be talking about," Straus told reporters in his Capitol office. "Some of the other ideas that I didn't think were the best, if I played a role in keeping them from happening, some people appreciate that."
    
Straus, 58, is a friend of the Bush family who has remained a traditional business-friendly Republican while the rest of the Texas GOP has drifted increasingly rightward. One telling sign of his place in Texas Republican politics: Straus announced his retirement in Austin as Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick were set to appear with Trump at a Dallas fundraiser.
    
Straus served a record-tying five terms as Texas speaker. But mounting pressure from the GOP's ascendant wing of social conservatives made his prospects of leading the House again in 2019 far from certain.
    
His defining moment as House speaker came this year when he twice scuttled a North Carolina-style proposal that would have required transgender Texans to use public restrooms according to the gender on their birth certificates. Straus was forceful in his denouncement on both moral grounds and the economic blowback he predicted the bill would wreak on Texas.
    
Texas Democrats, who are largely powerless in the state Capitol and haven't won a statewide office since 1994, had grown reliant on Straus to stop legislation that they viewed as the most extreme.
    
"Compassionate conservatism is no more and Trumpism has infected every corner of the Grand Ole Party," said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.
    
The House speaker decides committee assignments and Straus used top lieutenants to block top legislation such as the bathroom bill. Conservative groups have for years decried Straus as a closet Democrat, but he crushed primary challenges backed by the tea party movement in recent electoral cycles.
    
In January, his colleagues elected Straus to a record-tying fifth term unanimously, signifying at the time that he was at the height of his power. But by summer he had come under attack from Abbott and was increasingly targeted by deep-pocketed conservative donors. In a statement, Abbott thanked Straus for serving "with distinction" for both his San Antonio district and the Texas House.
    
Straus said that although some in Texas might like to see him run for governor, he said it was doubtful he will seek statewide office in 2018.
    
"It's been decades since someone has left the Speaker's office on his own terms," Straus said. "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."