The Texas House of Representatives' Freedom Caucus hopes in 2019 to keep five-term House Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Republican, from winning a sixth.

As part of that effort, they successfully pushed for a Republican Caucus meeting the day after the special legislative session ended Aug. 15.

They want the Republican Caucus members to commit to support their choice as speaker when the full House votes. Whether that'll happen, or indeed oust Straus if it does, remains to be seen.

But Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, the former House speaker who was himself ousted by Straus in 2009, endorsed the idea, according to Craddick's hometown  Midland Reporter-Telegram.

Craddick helped engineer the 2002 election to help the Republicans win their first House majority in over a century.

In 2003, the hefty new GOP majority chose Craddick as the first Republican speaker since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period ended.

Craddick, whose 48 years in the House make him Texas's longest-serving legislator, ever, served six as speaker in three two-year terms, from 2003 to 2009.

His speaker tenure might not have ended in 2009, had his party used the caucus choice method – like Congress, and most state legislatures, which organize along party lines.

The majority party elects the speaker, and chooses the chairs of all the committees.

But Texas, so far, is one of a handful of states that have avoided that party division. Many Texans are glad; they think it can lead to the partisan gridlock that bedevils Congress. 

The Texas House chooses the speaker, who then appoints members, of both the Democratic and Republican parties, to chair committees.

While Craddick, 74 on Sept. 19, wants the GOP House caucus choosing the speaker, he nonetheless favors the speaker continuing to choose committee chairs from both parties, as Craddick did.

“That is the way Texas has been since the ’70s when I crossed and became chairman of the Natural Resources Committee,” Craddick told the Midland newspaper.

Proponents think that encourages bipartisan cooperation, rather than division from the majority party having all the perks of power. Backers hope to avoid congressional-style partisan gridlock.

The Texas House speaker selection method came from the Democratic domination of Texas politics since just after the Civil War.

A one-party system is essentially a no-party system. Elections are a popularity system of personal organizations, and so was choosing a speaker.

Speaker hopefuls jockey to attract enough supporters -- from both parties -- to reach at least 76 votes in the 150-member House.

As Texas evolved into a two-party state from the 1960s into the 1980s, Democratic speaker candidates assembled teams across party lines. As a result, the eventual winners would appoint Republicans as well as Democrats as committee chairs, usually rewarding their supporters from both parties.

Those bipartisan teams began when House Republicans could hold their party caucus in a large SUV.

When Craddick was elected to the House in 1968, just eight of the 150 House members were Republican – up from three two years before.

Craddick as speaker ruled the House in what even several Republicans thought was an autocratic and heavy-handed way.

The result was that 11 Republicans, who came to be called ABC Republicans – Anybody But Craddick – met at one of their homes in late 2008 to decide what to do.

They wound up voting among themselves, to pick someone who would then be supported as well by the 64 ABC House Democrats.  

One more vote was needed to achieve the 76 votes needed for a majority in the 150-member House.

By Sunday afternoon, Jan. 4 – nine days before the Jan. 13 legislative session's opening day, and speaker election -- the Straus team released a list of 85 supporters. That quickly grew to 88.

Craddick shortly released supporters pledged to back him. That support swung to Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo.

But it was too little, too late. By the time Straus held a press conference in the capitol rotunda at 11:30 a.m. on Monday, before the Tuesday opening day, his list was up to 93 – 73 Democrats and 20 Republicans.

That would produce a Republican speaker whose Democratic backers outnumbered the Republican ones by more than three to one.

That afternoon, Smithee dropped out. The next day, Straus was unanimously elected speaker.

The problem with the party caucuses choosing the speaker is that partisan gerrymandering in most states has produced so many districts drawn to favor the party in power, and punish the other, that the political middle has disappeared.

Most legislators nationally are chosen in party primaries; the general election is a non-event. That concentrates power at the partisan poles, and has largely destroyed representation of the political middle.

Which is a shame. Government needs more bipartisan cooperation to work well, not less.

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