Spooked by the Speaker and Other Data Points from the Week in Texas Politics

The week drew to an end with a meeting about how to treat the past, after the Senate Finance Committee looked to the future as it pondered life after Harvey.  Several rounds of court battles resulted in an undocumented teenager in federal custody receiving the abortion she had requested and the Trump administration had tried to block.  Trump himself came to Dallas on Wednesday, but his visit got knocked off the front page in Texas by the unexpected announcement of Speaker Joe Straus that he wasn't running for re-election next year, though he was staying in his seat -- and the Speaker's office.  Read on for fresh public opinion data related to this week's news from the just-released October 2017 University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll.  (See hundreds of graphics from the poll results at our latest poll page, too.)

1. Plaque build-up. State Representative Eric Johnson was scheduled to have a meeting with Governor Abbott today about State Rep. Johnson’s request to the Texas State Preservation Board to remove a historically inaccurate plaque in the State Capitol and, per Jonathan Silver’s coverage in the Austin American Statesman, “to discuss Confederate symbols inside and on the grounds of the Capitol.” The plaque itself, which includes a pledge “to study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is, that the war between the states was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery)” is a particular example of the Confederate “statues and monuments” we asked Texans about in the October 2017 UT/Texas Tribune Poll. The Children of the Confederacy plaque Johnson wants removed involved a specific objection -- historical inaccuracy -- that is narrower than the scope of the question we asked. Question and responses follow:

Which of the following is closest to your opinion regarding Confederate statues and

monuments on public property?

1. They should be removed from public view

2. They should be moved to a museum or other site where they can be presented in historical context

3. They should remain where they are with historical context provided

4. They should remain where they are unchanged

5. Don't know

The bald inaccuracy of the plaque might good candidate for the kind of historical treatment given to the Jefferson Davis statue at UT Austin’s Briscoe Center: it could be put in a museum or similar site -- in this case, surrounded by the story of how this false version of history became memorialized in the state capitol, and what both its installation and relocation tells us about the still unfolding history of race, politics, and culture in the state. In the UT/TT poll -- again responding to the more general situation -- 30 percent favored that approach, as did 56 percent of Democrats; but only 8 percent of Republicans favored this route. The most frequent response among Republicans, favored by 55 percent of GOP Texans in the poll, was for statues and monuments to remain where they are, unchanged.  It will be interesting to see if Governor Abbott, who chairs the Preservation Board, thinks his constituents might make qualify that position in the case of clear historical inaccuracy.

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Removed from view8%
Moved to museum30%
Remain, add context22%
Remain as is, unchanged34%
Don't know6%

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Removed from view19%3%1%
Moved to museum56%27%8%
Remain, add context10%23%32%
Remain as is, unchanged9%42%55%
Don't know7%5%4%

2. Smoke on the water. Chairwoman Jane Nelson convened the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday for a long day of frequently gripping testimony on the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.  One of the interesting parts of the day came during Harvey Czar and Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp’s testimony about ongoing debris removal and the practice of burning it in the interest of getting rid of it quickly and efficiently. As he did in an interview at a Texas Tribune event a few weeks ago, Sharp offered reassurance that the burning was being done responsibly, and was necessary under the circumstances.  The issue rests at the intersection of two issues we included in a battery of questions about what Texans thought were the most pressing problems to deal with Harvey’s wake.  Debris clean up ranked first, environmental contamination was in the middle of the list, but ranked more highly among Democrats than Republicans.  Keeping the “blowing smoke” joke in reserve until more data comes in on the execution and effects of the burning.

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Public Education2%
Public health22%
Environmental contamination15%
Debris cleanup and disposal28%
Damage to local businesses2%

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Public Education1%0%1%
Public health25%16%21%
Environmental contamination21%16%10%
Debris cleanup and disposal19%33%35%
Damage to local businesses1%3%4%


3. The request by an undocumented teenager in federal custody to terminate her unwanted pregnancy was the subject of a court battle this week that concluded with her obtaining an abortion Wednesday morning.  Lawyers for the young woman had accused federal officials of attempting to prevent her from undergoing the procedure, with Attorney General Ken Paxton supporting the federal position.  While the phrasing might have been a little tone deaf, the characterization of the situation by lead-ACLU attorney on the case, Brigitte Amiri, was apt. “It is the perfect storm between abortion and immigration, and the Trump administration has shown absolute hostility to both of those issues,” Amiri said, per Manny Fernandez’s New York Times Tuesday story. The partisan patterns in attitudes on the political issue in play are pretty stark -- and evident in the rhetoric of the responses to the outcome.

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categoryNo high schoolHigh school graduateSome college2-year4-yearPost-grad
Approve strongly32%38%32%49%39%36%
Approve somewhat32%30%34%23%29%35%
Neither approve nor disapprove10%11%15%15%12%15%
Disapprove somewhat2%5%4%5%8%3%
Disapprove strongly19%6%5%3%3%2%
Don't know5%9%10%5%9%9%


4. Trumped by a state legislator - sad! Donald Trump visited Dallas Wednesday for a fundraiser. He finds a state not unlike many others in terms of their views of him:  Republicans are sticking with him, though Democrats are thoroughly, deeply, and unambiguously disapproving of the job he’s done as president.  We provided a thorough compendium of fascinating Trump-related results from the October 2017 UT/Texas Tribune Poll in a Tuesday posting in anticipation of the big story of the day.  Which, of course, Joe Straus stepped on in a huge size 15E sort of way.

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Don't know2%6%3%

5. Say it ain’t so, Joe!  We put out a Straus-apalooza of data & video right after Joe Straus stopped time in Austin, at least for the political class.  It seems wisest to wait a while before drawing any big conclusions about what it means and, especially, what will happen in the 86th legislature -- which, ahem, has not even been elected yet.  The immediate reactions were all over the place but had as a common theme some mixture of hyperbole and a weird combination of mourning, panic, and, among his detractors, an oddly misplaced sense of victory, given that Straus left on his own power and at the apex of his influence in the political system.  It’s definitely a testament to Straus’s deft handling of the job that there was so much freaking out among the political class.  Some of this was just the surprise of it, but the quick embrace of the apocalyptic interpretation (e.g. “The political center collapsed in the Lone Star State,” “Straus earthquake could shake up Texas politics for years,”) seems a little heavy on the melodrama. After all, Joe Straus had been in the chair for a long time, and it’s not a lifetime position -- and even though it was in lots of people’s interest to make Joe Straus seem like the last surviving pre-Tea Party era Republican with the will to fight left in the business, that just not the case.  The idea that Straus represented the last gasp and only hope of omnivorous Republicans in the face of their red-meat eating fellow Republicans seems a bit hysterical, or at the very least not very mindful of the facts on the ground and recent history.  The frequent casting of Straus as the last sane man in the Texas GOP underestimates the degree to which Straus willingly took on that identity so that others could be less public about their own comparatively moderate beliefs and thus reduce their exposure to primary challenges and other political inconveniences.  But if Straus were alone, there wouldn’t have been anyone needing his protection.  On one hand, one shouldn’t underestimate the willingness of elected officials to take the path of least resistance, even if it means embracing issues they are not interested in or even disagree with in substance.  But on the other hand, at least some of the Republicans in the legislature -- and interest groups in the Republican Party --  who let Straus take all the heat and do the lion’s share of the work to steer the agenda within more pragmatic lines may well choose to do some of that work themselves, and more publicly, if they absolutely must. There’s a lot more to be thought through and written about this -- the balance of power in the party, the implications of Straus’s changed position during the remainder of his speakership for the dynamic between the Governor and Lt. Governor, a level-headed assessment of Straus’s speakership, Straus’ future  --  coming in our near future. Any serious handicapping of who will succeed Straus as speaker should await the outcome of the two round of elections that will define the House that will elect him, though this suggestion already falls on deaf ears.  At least this time, the Texas political press will have a real speaker’s race to write about rather the airy nothing burgers of 2013 and 2015 that nonetheless had the state’s media rushing around to gin up site traffic from the 512 area code.

P.S. Straus isn’t going to change parties or run as in independent, for two reasons that kept in the Speakership for so long: he’s a Republican, and he’s not stupid.

P.S.S.  For a few hot takes on Straus's departure: Peggy Fikac, Brandi GrissomJonathan TiloveRoss RamseyChris Hooks.  Each deserves comment, but saving that for later, too.

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ApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't know
November 201531%11%58%
February 201630%14%57%
June 201630%13%56%
October 201630%11%59%
February 201736%12%52%
June 201737%18%46%
October 201731%21%47%