Republicans dominate the Texas House. So why is a Democrat running for speaker?

by Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, speaks with a colleague on the House floor in Austin on May 6, 2017. Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Hey, Texplainer: Eric Johnson, a Democrat, is running for speaker of the Texas House. Why would a member of the minority party do that?  

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, sounded confident when he announced he was running for speaker.

“I’m in it, and I’m in it to win it,” he told The Texas Tribune.

But he is certainly a long shot. There are only 55 Democrats in the House, compared to 95 Republicans.

Unlike the U.S. House, where the speaker is usually determined solely by the party in power, lawmakers in the Texas House are often more open to crossing party lines to elect a consensus choice for speaker. But that usually means a member of the minority party voting for someone in the majority. And Republicans are already working to keep Democrats out of the decision-making process. Ahead of the next regular session, House Republicans agreed to select a speaker among themselves and then vote as a bloc on the floor.

“A Democrat can’t win support today with the House in its current configuration and become speaker,” said Jeff Blaylock, the publisher of Texas Election Source. “For virtually all of the state’s history, the minority party has not had anywhere near enough votes to matter for electing a speaker.”

But running for speaker while a member of the minority party can have its benefits. An unsuccessful run could still promote party unity or help a candidate secure a plum committee assignment.

Harold Cook, a Democratic political strategist based in Austin, said members of the minority party run if they think their party will be in the majority by the time the Legislature convenes, to give members of their party a candidate to rally behind or to prevent their party’s members from supporting someone in the majority.

“If no Democrat was running for speaker, it’d be a lot easier for various Republican speaker candidates to call Democrats and try to pick them off one by one,” Cook said. “If the Democrats want to have any influence in the speaker’s race, they have to stick together.”

That’s what happened in 2009, the year current Speaker Joe Straus won the job. At the time, Republicans had a razor-thin 76-74 advantage. Democrats rallied behind Straus and helped him win the race.

“At this point in the game, you can’t have Democrats wandering off agreeing to support a Republican for speaker,” Cook said. “If the Democrats stick together, that’ll be a huge voting bloc for somebody. If they don’t stick together, they’re really going to end up being spectators to their own demise.”

But experts agree: When it comes to speaker’s races, most are decided before the session convenes.

“Once a candidate has enough pledges, they come forward and say, ‘I got it,’ and that typically ends the race,” Blaylock said. “It’s very rare to see something go all the way to the floor and that we open a session not knowing who the speaker is going to be.”

Johnson isn’t the first member of the minority party to launch a bid for House speaker. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, declared her candidacy ahead of the 2007 and 2009 sessions against incumbent Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick of Midland. Former state Rep. Sylvester Turner, now Houston’s mayor, also filed to run for the 2009 legislative session.

Neither Thompson nor Turner were nominated when it came time to vote for a House speaker — meaning they either decided to back someone else or realized they didn’t have the votes needed to win.

“I felt like I could’ve done a good job, but we did not have the numbers, and at some point — if you use your good sense — you recognize those things,” Thompson said. “And you make a decision on whether you want to go down, or if you want to take your position and see whether you can use it as a bargaining chip to help your party. Those were the things I did each time.”

Thompson said she was aiming to use her leverage for better committee assignments for both herself and fellow Democrats. Under Straus, she has served as chairwoman of the House Local and Consent Calendars Committee.

In a statement announcing his run for speaker, Johnson said he began thinking about running soon after Straus announced his retirement. He said Texas has become “a one-party state, and this has been to [its] detriment,” adding that, as speaker, he’d serve as a counterbalance “to a far-right governor and lieutenant governor.”

Will it work?

“I think everybody who runs has a chance,” Thompson said. “That’s just my honest opinion.”

The bottom line: Experts say members of the minority party run if they think their party will be in the majority by the time the Legislature convenes, to give members of their party a candidate to rally behind or to prevent their party’s members from supporting someone in the majority.