Battle lines are forming in the newest “culture war” flash point in Texas: the state House of Representatives. In fact, religious-right pressure groups are working furiously to replace Republican Joe Straus of San Antonio with a hard-right Speaker of the House. Each day brings a new attack in the far right’s “scorched earth” strategy, with pressure groups denouncing Speaker Straus and his GOP supporters as “liberals” and “RINOs,” or “Republicans in name only.”
Dave Welch, head of the far-right Texas Pastor Council, suggests that Straus stands in the way of “moral law.” In an e-mail Monday, Welch even called on clergy to contact House members in opposition to Straus.
On Tuesday the president of the anti-everything Texas Eagle Forum, Pat Carlson, sent an e-mail to far-right activists attacking Straus: “We must not allow him to be elected speaker again.”
Carlson’s e-mail included an anti-Straus rant from right-wing gadfly Donna “Jeffrey Dahmer Believed in Evolution” Garner and a similar screed from David Barton, head of the Texas-based WallBuilders organization. Barton blames Straus for the Texas House’s failure to pass a number of far-right bills in 2009. Such criticism ignores the fact that the bills were so extreme that lawmakers from both parties — in a House almost evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats — simply couldn’t stomach them.
Barton also dismisses as “liberals” those Republicans who supported the election of Straus as Speaker two years ago. Is he seriously arguing that Texas Republicans have been nominating “liberals” in primary elections? Barton knows better, but he represents the GOP’s radical wing. That wing is so extreme it identifies even GOP opponents as heretics who should be erased from party rolls and exiled into the political wilderness.
Liberty Institute, the Texas affiliate of the far-right national group Focus on the Family, has been firing a constant barrage of criticism at Straus since the very night of the November 2 elections. Among LI’s complaints: Straus expressed his dismay at the way the State Board of Education has politicized and disrupted curriculum revisions and textbook adoptions for public schools. But Straus isn’t alone. A poll conducted for the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund last May showed that a large majority of Texans are fed up with how the state board decides what students will learn in their classrooms.
Among the loudest objections from the far right is that Straus has appointed Democrats to chair House committees. Yet House speakers of both parties — including Craddick, whom Straus replaced in 2009 — have done the same thing for many years. Lieutenant governors have run the Texas Senate the same way. But that won’t do for political extremists who see their moment of opportunity to seize total control of public policy in Texas. No one, they are arrogantly warning, should dare stand in their way.
What Do They Want?
Simply put, religious-right groups want an obedient and autocratic speaker who will ram through their radical legislative agenda in the House next year. Under Speaker Straus, individual House members have largely been left to decide for themselves which legislation to support or oppose. After all, they know what constituents in their districts want. Craddick, however, used his power as Speaker to twist arms and force the passage of legislation supported by far-right pressure groups and their Austin lobbyists, punishing House members who refused to buckle.
In fact, the House came within two votes in 2005 of passing a private school voucher scheme that would have drained millions of dollars from public schools to pay for tuition at private and religious schools. House members were privately (and, in some cases, publicly) angered by Craddick’s strong-arm tactics, especially when they faced tough re-election battles at least in part due to their pro-voucher votes.
What Happens Now?
Religious-right groups appear to be coming together behind either of two other candidates for speaker: Republicans Warren Chisum of Pampa and
Leo Berman of Tyler Ken Paxton of McKinney. Both are school voucher supporters and strident opponents of separation of church and state. In addition, they support severe restrictions on women’s reproductive rights, promote state-sponsored discrimination against gay and lesbian Texans, oppose responsible sex education for teens and back the State Board of Education’s extremist faction.
Fortunately, many Republican House members are resisting far-right pressure to replace Straus with another autocratic ideologue pushing a radical social agenda. Indeed, lawmakers already will have their hands full just fixing a massive budget deficit partly created by tax legislation passed in 2007 by the Craddick-dominated House.
The Texas Freedom Network will closely monitor the brewing Republican civil war and efforts by radical pressure groups to undermine the independence of Texas House members of both parties. But don’t expect that war to end with the election of a Speaker in January. Republicans control state government from top to bottom, and the party’s radical wing is determined to take advantage of that power.