I had occasion to listen to Speaker Straus give public remarks at a fundraiser for Rep. Sarah Davis yesterday, and then I later observed a roundtable discussion between the Speaker and a group of Houston’s leading CEO’s. The Speaker articulated his priorities for the upcoming session as education, transportation infrastructure, water and positioning Texas for continued economic success while meeting the needs of a growing state. He noted that “we have more children in our public schools than the individual populations of 28 states, and it costs money to educate those kids.”
Houston CEO’s spoke of the opportunity for Houston and the Gulf Coast to take advantage of the expansion of the Panama Canal, the need for an educated workforce in the 21st Century, and the necessity to bring clarity to healthcare costs and programs.
What struck me, however, was how the Speaker has grown since his election as Speaker in 2009. In many respects, Straus was an accidental speaker. First elected to the House in a February 2005 special election, he was launched onto a trajectory into the Speaker’s office by a 6-5 vote among 11 House Republicans in January 2009. His stated objectives were to bring a tone of civil discourse to the House and empower the members to represent their districts. While restoring decorum to the Texas House, however, he initially seemed reluctant to provide decisive leadership. He also went through a baptism by fire from doctrinaire conservatives during the 2009 session and in a vitriolic speaker’s race prior to the 2011 session, which was not settled until opening day.
What has emerged is a man who is comfortable with who he is and what he stands for, and who is unafraid. Although he is facing a primary opponent from the right (very unusual for a sitting Speaker), he is energized by the challenge and intends to “win decisively.” When others in Texas have rushed to wrap themselves around Sen. Santorum in order, some would argue, to court favor with hard right conservatives, Straus has defiantly and vocally endorsed Gov. Mitt Romney. He has put together a well-funded and smoothly functioning political operation, and is preparing to wade into Republican primaries and help friendly incumbents. In short, I have watched him grow a tough hide and a strong backbone.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, some are born leaders, some achieve leadership, and some have leadership thrust upon them. Straus had leadership thrust upon him. I see a man who is now beginning to seize those reins of leadership, and put his imprint on the Texas House. He states “Texas is a center-right state, it is not a far right state.” He clearly intends to lead Texas in a center-right direction. If he is able to successfully do that in this political environment of extreme partisanship and vitriol, he will have the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy.