Texas House committees and pro-LGBT bills

DANIEL WILLIAMS  |  Legislative Queery

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus has finally announced the committee assignments for the 82nd Texas House. As I predicted last month the partisan breakdown of the committee chairs roughly reflects the distribution of party control in the House with 11 Democratic chairs and 25 Republicans (not including the four select and joint committee chairs, all Republicans).

House committees that queer Texans will want to watch very carefully:

Public Education — Will get the anti-bullying bills. Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, scheduled the hearing for HB 1323 (last session’s anti-bullying bill) very late last session, but he did schedule a hearing and the committee eventually voted to send the bill to the floor for a vote of the whole House. Unfortunately, time ran out last session (more info on HB 1323 is here). Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, whose HB 224 is expected to be the water bearer for anti-bullying bills, is on the committee this session.

Public Health – Will get HB 405, which would allow same-sex parents to get accurate birth certificates for their children. Chairwoman Lois Kolkhorst, R-Austin, was visibly moved by testimony last session on this bill. Let’s hope that causes her to schedule it for an early hearing.

Criminal Jurisprudence – Will get HB 604, the repeal of Texas’s unconstitutional sodomy law and HB 172, the study of the effectiveness of the Texas Hate Crimes Act. Chairman Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, has a solid record of voting in the best interest of queer Texans, but repealing the unconstitutional sodomy law, however common-sense, is going to be a hard sell. Plus, with virulent homophobes Wayne Christian, Bill Zedler and Will Hartnett on the committee, it seems unlikely that common sense will beat out bigotry. The Hate Crimes study has a better chance. It made it out of committee last session, but it’s hard to predict what will happen this session.

Insurance – Will get HB 208 prohibiting insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Chairman John Smithee, R-Amarillo, hasn’t let this bill through in past sessions, and I’d be shocked if he lets it through this session. Smithee takes every chance he can get to hurt queer Texans. He’s not likely to pass this chance up, either.

State Affairs – Will get HB 665, which would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. This bill, or a version of it, has been filed every session for over a decade, and it never gets a hearing. While new Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, is an immense improvement over old Chairman Burt Solomons, it’s unlikely that this bill will go anywhere.

Now that we have committees, bills are going to start moving left and right. The 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature is finally getting going!

—  admin

A good sign for Texas’ LGBT community

Log Cabin Dallas President Rob Schlein

Joe Straus’ re-election as speaker of the House proves that social conservatives no longer can control the Republican political agenda

ROB SCHLEIN  |  Special Contributor

Unless you’re “wired in” to the inside baseball of Texas politics, you may not know there was a cantankerous fight for the position of Texas House speaker.

House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican from San Antonio, showed himself to be a moderate on social issues last session. Yet, after a momentous midterm election where a slight Republican majority turned into a Republican supermajority in the House, calls for a “true conservative” to be elected speaker started to ring louder and louder among social conservative activists who regularly attend GOP party functions.

Many of these people are the same individuals that helped create the Republican Party of Texas platform that we all know too well includes the language on “homosexuals” revealed and discussed right here in Dallas Voice every election season.

State representatives who had already pledged to support Straus were being lobbied hard to reverse their support, via a war of words on Facebook, by those who changed their profile pictures with logos that declared “Oust Straus,” with statewide e-mail campaigns, and large, organized visits to field offices.

Precinct chairs in Harris, Denton and Dallas counties — perhaps others — convened during the holidays to pass resolutions demanding the election of a “conservative speaker,” implying that Joe Straus wasn’t conservative enough because of his social views.

Activists made threats to “primary,” which means to find someone to run in the next election season primary, against any Republican representatives that didn’t go along with their desire for change in leadership. Their bullying was amplified when hundreds of them descended on Austin on Jan. 10 to observe a caucus gathering of Republican representatives.

The caucus was demanded by the activists as a strategy to replace Straus by forcing a unified Republican vote, because last session Straus took over from Tom Craddick as speaker when Straus garnered the votes of all Democrats and just a handful of Republicans.

What the activists didn’t know was that the caucus would vote solidly for Straus, and after 70 votes were cast (representing more than two-thirds of the caucus present), voting was suspended and the choice was clearly made.
The social conservatives didn’t like the outcome and contradicted themselves about the process, first calling for an open ballot so they could see who voted for whom, and then complaining later that it should have been done in secret because the outcome might have differed.

The social conservatives were perplexed when their chosen candidate, Rep. Ken Paxton of McKinney, dropped from the race after assurances he would stay in, and after the other candidate, Rep. Warren Chisum of Pampa, switched his support from Paxton to Straus.

On Jan. 11, when the formal selection of a House Speaker was concluded, calls for a recorded vote were made and approved, and more than 130 representatives voted for Joe Straus for speaker, with 15 “No” votes or abstentions — handing the social conservatives a serious defeat.

So, what does this mean for the LGBT community?

It means that there is a continual and growing disconnect between the hard-line social conservatives who are a part of the Republican Party of Texas, the average Republican voter and the actual Republican legislators who govern our state. This is good news for the LGBT community, which often fears possible legislation that could be put forward by the extreme elements of our party.

The selection of Joe Straus as speaker means that Republicans will focus most of their time and energy on balancing a state budget that is some $24 billion short over the next two years due to the slowdown of our economy, and will spend considerable effort reviewing programs that automatically sunset every session.

I would be quite surprised if the legislature spends much time on any social items.

Log Cabin Republican members spent considerable time getting to know their local state representatives. We offered direct support and encouragement for their initial pledges to Joe Straus, and were in continual contact by e-mail and very open in our Facebook rebuttals, asking them to stay loyal to their pledges.

Now our direct interaction with Republican elected officials is paying dividends in less anti-gay rhetoric in campaigns and no anti-gay legislation being proposed in this session that we are aware of.

The election of Joe Straus as speaker means that the impact of the Republican Party of Texas platform on legislation continues to be muted. Social conservative activists always complain that the legislators “never govern by the platform.”

So, when you ask gay Republicans about the platform, or if you point to the passages in the platform about “homosexuality,” understand that the re-election of Joe Straus confirms what we have been saying for some time now: The platform isn’t used as a legislative vehicle and only expresses the opinions of a small minority of people in the party who are loud, but not in the majority among everyday Republicans.

What matters to most Republican voters and legislators are the true principles of conservatism, meaning government stays out of our pockets and our bedrooms!

Rob Schlein is president of Log Cabin Republicans of Dallas.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 21, 2011.

—  John Wright

WATCH LIVE: House re-elects Joe Straus as speaker

Speaker Joe Straus

State Reps. Warren Chisum and Ken Paxton both dropped out of the race earlier today. House members are currently making nominating speeches for Rep. Joe Straus, and they’ll be voting shortly. As we’ve said repeatedly, Straus’ re-election is a good thing for the LGBT community. Watch live by going here and clicking on the live feed.

UPDATE: Straus was re-elected by a vote of 132-15 with two members present but not voting.

—  John Wright

The Nooner: Verizon iPhone; Chisum drops out of speaker’s race; Log Cabin presses DADT lawsuit

Warren Chisum

Your lunchtime quickie from Instant Tea:

• Log Cabin presses ahead with DADT lawsuit.

• Anti-gay State Rep. Warren Chisum drops out of speaker’s race, will vote for incumbent Joe Straus.

What it would cost you to switch from AT&T to Verizon, which will begin selling the iPhone in February.

• Transgender vets push for military access.

• Watch live: Texas Legislature convenes.

—  John Wright

House GOP caucus endorses Straus for speaker; LGBT community breathes sigh of relief

Although more conservative factions in the state had been calling for the ouster of Rep. Joe Straus as speaker of the Texas House, the House Republican Caucus today endorsed Straus — known as a moderate Republican — for the seat.

Rep. Joe Straus

That news comes as something of a relief for LGBT advocates who had feared that someone further to the right would be chosen as speaker and given the chance to control the legislative agenda. Back in November, Reps. Warren Chisum of Pampa and Ken Paxton of McKinney both announced they were running for speaker. Chisum has long been known as one of the most anti-gay members of the House, routinely introducing and/or supporting bills on such topics as preventing LGBT people from becoming foster or adoptive parents. Chisum also was the primary author of the constitutional amendment passed in 2005 to ban same-sex marriage in Texas. Paxton was a co-author of the amendment and also voted in favor of banning LGBT foster and adoptive parents.

Among those fighting the hardest to defeat Straus’ bid for another term as speaker were leaders of the anti-gay Texas Eagle Forum, who had warned lawmakers the group would base half its score for legislators on who they supported for speaker. Others who have been outspoken in opposing Straus are Liberty Institute President and CEO Kelly Shackelford, Heritage Alliance President Richard Ford and Texas Eagle Forum founder Cathie Adams.

And in December, The Texas Observer reported that John Cook, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, said he was campaigning against Straus — who is Jewish and attends a synagogue that supports LGBT rights — because, “I got into politics to put Christian conservatives into office.” Cook also accused Straus of being pro-choice and pro-gay rights.

The Houston Chronicle reported today that 70 of the 100 lawmakers attending the House Republican Caucus meeting today voted to back Straus for speaker. The Chronicle report noted that the caucus vote is non-binding but “virtually guarantees Straus’ re-election Tuesday when the Texas Legislature opens a new session.”

—  admin

Anti-gay Texas Eagle Forum tries to bully legislators into ousting Speaker Joe Straus

Speaker Joe Straus

The anti-gay Texas Eagle Forum is trying to bully state legislators into opposing Joe Straus’ bid for re-election as speaker of the House. As we’ve said before, Straus, R-San Antonio, is socially moderate and could be our last line of defense against possible anti-gay attacks in the upcoming session. The other candidates for speaker are Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, who authored the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, who voted to ban gay foster parents.

The Austin American-Statesman reports that Pat Carlson, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, is circulating a form letter for activists to send their legislators:

The letter says the Eagle Forum, which monitors issues such as abortion and gay rights, will base half of its legislative scorecard on who lawmakers support for speaker when the House convenes next week.

The Eagle Forum and many other groups on the right and left use scorecards to track key votes during a legislative session and then rate lawmakers. A poor rating from the Eagle Forum, for instance, could cause trouble for a lawmaker seeking re-election in a Republican primary.

“Texans have spoken at the ballot box by returning a strong conservative Republican majority to the Texas House,” the letter says. “They expect this conservative majority to vote for a conservative speaker. Unfortunately, Speaker Straus is not a conservative. Anyone who says otherwise, was not paying attention during the last legislative session or has not looked at Speaker Straus’ political associations and background or both.”

The story goes on to note that a vast majority of House members have pledged support for Straus, who is considered a favorite to remain speaker.

—  John Wright

SREC member wants to oust Speaker Joe Straus because he’s Jewish, doesn’t hate gays enough

Speaker Joe Straus

We’ve already told you about the anti-gay forces that have undoubtedly been working behind the scenes in the race for speaker of the Texas House, but now it looks like they may be starting to emerge publicly. The Texas Observer posted a story Friday in which John Cook, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, explained his opposition to Speaker Joe Straus. Cook’s biggest problem with Straus, apparently, is that he’s Jewish: “I got into politics to put Christian conservatives into office,” Cook says. But Cook also accuses Straus of being pro-choice and pro-gay rights:

His opposition to Straus, he said, was rooted largely in his belief that the current Speaker is both pro-choice and pro-gay rights. “He’s a pro choice person basically,” Cook said. (Earlier in his career, Straus did vote against banning gay couples from serving as foster parents and against a ban on late-term abortions, but Kyleen Wright, president of Texans for Life, has been one of his biggest supporters.) Cook called the Republicans who worked with Democrats to elect Straus “turncoat RINOs.” (Republicans in Name Only.)

As the legislative session draws closer, it’ll be interesting to see whether the so-called tea party folks who oppose Straus start to escalate their attacks based on his 2005 vote against the gay foster parenting ban. Particularly since Straus has said he voted against the ban because it would have cost the state a lot of money and gone against his libertarian principles. From a January 2009 interview in which Texas Monthly asked Straus about the vote:

STRAUS: …  I’m not supportive of adoption by homosexual couples, but the whole issue of government with a fiscal note attached and government employees investigating people’s private lives caused me a great deal of heartburn. I remember looking at the expenditure of taxpayer money for that and it was a lot. And it required what? Going into people’s homes? Watching the way people dress or the way they talk? I have some pretty strong libertarian leanings, and sometimes that causes a conflict. What gave me confidence to hit the button I hit was that I was very certain that Barry Goldwater would have done the same thing.

—  John Wright

If one of these nutjobs defeats Joe Straus for House speaker, we could be in deep doo-doo

Rep. Joe Straus is shown alongside Rep. Senfronia Thompson after being elected speaker in 2009.

If Rep. Joe Straus is ousted as speaker of the Texas House, it’s safe to say it will not be a good thing for the LGBT community. Dennis Coleman, executive director of Equality Texas, confirmed the obvious yesterday when he told us the statewide gay-rights group is sincerely hoping Straus can hang on to his post.

One of Straus’ challengers, Rep. Warren Chisum of Pampa, is among the biggest homophobes in the Texas Legislature. Chisum was the primary author of Texas’ 2005 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and he’s also been behind efforts to outlaw gay foster and adoptive parents.

Another candidate for speaker, Rep. Ken Paxton of McKinney, who entered the race this week, doesn’t appear to be much better than Chisum on LGBT issues. Paxton was a co-author of the marriage amendment and voted in favor of a ban on gay foster parents in 2005.

Straus, meanwhile, voted in favor of the marriage amendment — not to do so might have been political suicide  — but he did not sign on as an author. He also voted against the gay foster parent ban, which was actually killed by socially moderate Republicans like himself. Straus attends a gay-affirming synagogue that performs same-sex marriages in San Antonio. Read more about all that here.

But if you really want to know why we should be pulling for Straus to remain speaker, all you have to do is consider who’s behind the effort to oust him. It’s a who’s who of nutjobs, and they’ve all signed an open letter posted on the website of Empower Texans. Prominent signatories include people like Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of Plano-based Liberty Institute; Richard Ford, president of the Heritage Alliance; and Cathie Adams, founder of the anti-gay Texas Eagle Forum. Any of those names ring a bell? The list goes on and on, but the bottom line is that if these groups are successful in ousting Straus, we’ll be at much greater risk of anti-gay legislation in the 2011 session. And with a two-thirds Republican majority in the House, our best and only defense may be distractions like redistricting and the budget shortfall.

According to its website, Empower Texans is conducting its anti-Straus campaign under the guise of fiscal conservatism. But since Straus is pretty darn fiscally conservative, we suspect there are other motives. Surely these right-wing groups don’t like the fact that Straus was elected speaker two years ago thanks to support from Democrats, which he continues to enjoy. They also don’t like the fact that he’s socially moderate — on abortion, immigration and yes, gay rights.

The speaker of the House is arguably the most powerful position in state government, and right now, Joe Straus may be the LGBT community’s best friend in the Texas Legislature. That being said, we aren’t sure there’s much the the community can do at this point to help Straus hang on to the post, except maybe pray.

—  John Wright

If Leo Berman becomes House speaker, it might really be 'God's punishment' on Texas

State Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler
State Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler

Right-wing State Rep. Leo Berman of Tyler has filed to challenge House Speaker Joe Straus for the job in 2011.

I couldn’t resist the headline, which may be a stretch. But if Berman were to defeat Straus, a Republican who’s been under fire from conservatives in his own party, it would probably be a bad thing for the LGBT community. Straus is a moderate Republican who attends a gay-affirming church and has a mixed voting record on LGBT issues.

Berman was a co-author of Texas’ constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Berman told WFAA he plans to introduce a bill next year similar to the anti-immigration measure that passed recently in Arizona. He also plans to file a measure that would require presidential candidates to provide proof they were born in the U.S. to be listed on the Texas ballot, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

At a Glenn Beck-headlined rally in April, Berman told the crowd that President Barack Obama is “God’s punishment on us.” In other words, this guy could be even worse than Tom Craddick.

—  John Wright