Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Texas House Speakers: An Historical Overview

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. We argue that Texas House Speakers labor in obscurity but exercise a disproportionate share of influence over events not just in Austin but also in Washington, D.C.. In this passage, we outline the majors steps in the evolution of the Texas House speakership from a minor position into a major force in Texas llfe.

During the history of the Texas Republic, from 1836 to 1845, nine men rapidly rotated through the Texas House speakership. The position remained so inconsequential after statehood that five men held the post during the first legislative session in 1846. None of these speakers held the office long enough to pose for an official portrait.

Speakers in the 19th century obviously created little personal political power in brief tenures lasting two years at the most. Some speakers appeared to have arisen from nowhere to the House leadership, only to return to obscurity after their term of public service. The one term tradition clearly weakened the power of the office. Of the first 52 speakerships (1846 to 1933), only three (Marion DeKalb Taylor, Constantine Buckley, and John Cochran) served more than one full term in the office, and all three served non-consecutive terms. A rotating speakership that presided over a high-turnover House membership kept political power diffuse, allowing the planter and business classes to remain the unfettered de facto rulers of the state from 1846 to 1933.

The Texas House speakership has evolved in style and role through seven loosely defined historical periods. From 1846, the speakership changed from a once-limited, obscure office to one that slowly accumulated power. This happened partly because its powers were so loosely defined in a series of state constitutions and because the Texas constitution adopted in 1876 and still in effect today so sharply delineated the authority of the governor and lieutenant governor. In politics power abhors a vacuum, so while in the 19th century House speakers stood the least among equals, far less influential than governors and lieutenant governors, by the early 20th century this power relationship changed. By the 1970s and 1980s, speakers like Billy Clayton and Gib Lewis had created a fiefdom that came to dominate state government.

The “Presiding Speakership,” lasting roughly from 1846 to 1900, marks a period dominated by slaveowners and post-Civil War planter elites. This period represented the highest and most rapid turnover of Speakers and is characterized by a collective style of House leadership.
Reconstruction marked a brief interruption in planter hegemony, and the only two Republican House speakers in 19th century Texas, Ira Hobart Evans and William Henry Sinclair, presided over a House that greatly expanded the state government’s support of education and business development as well as African American voting rights. This false summer of activist government proved brief, Evans and Sinclair presiding over the lower chamber only from 1870-1873. Texas, similar to its southern neighbors, resisted federal attempts to bring the state into the national political mainstream. For the next one hundred years, Texas and its people ranked at the bottom of nearly every national socioeconomic index, severely under-funding universities, hospitals, and other services.

With the inglorious conclusion of the Reconstruction era, Conservative Democrats returned to power, gutted public education and support for the handicapped and the insane and excluded former slaves from the political process. Dissident Populists forced the state House to be more sympathetic to the plight of impoverished farmers of the late 19th century and to impose some regulations on rapacious businesses that came to dominate the increasingly industrial and urban Texas economy, but Democratic speakers and their elite peers continued to doubt whether the state government should have any power outside occasionally crushing labor unions and sanctioning pogroms against Mexican Americans and Indians.

The tone of government greatly changed during the “Progressive Speakership,” from 1900 to 1921. Throughout the state’s history, economic development became the tail wagging the legislative dog. The declining role of agriculture, immigration from other states, the increase in manufacturing and growing racial, regional, religious and ethnic diversity forced the Legislature to become more active. Speakers became more ideological, winning leadership posts not just because they were well-liked, but because of how they stood on Prohibition, the resurrected Ku Klux Klan of the teens and twenties, regulation of railroads and other early twentieth century controversies.

Politically, many speakers in this period found it necessary to strongly oppose alcohol and teaching evolution in public schools or to complete the disenfranchisement of poor whites and blacks as rich Anglos increasingly feared losing control of the state’s politics and culture.
Speakers still rotated in and out of office in the Progressive period, but a more activist agenda created opportunities and power for charismatic individuals. This trend solidified during the “Early Modern Speakership” from 1921 to 1949. Future Governor Coke Stevenson greatly enhanced the power and visibility of the speaker’s office. In 1935, Stevenson became the first speaker to serve two consecutive terms. In Stevenson’s speakership race his opponent, future speaker Robert W. Calvert, warned that allowing a member to serve multiple terms as speaker threatened “tyranny.” A precedent had been set, however, and after World War II speakerships lasting several terms became the norm.

By the time of Stevenson’s 1935 re-election campaign, governors and ex-governors deeply involved themselves in speakers’ races. Speakers, concerned about maintaining policies, more openly arranged for the election of their successors. In this era, an increasingly visible division between conservatives and liberals arose within the Democratic Party. Conservatives themselves divided among pragmatic business conservatives who sought government support for education and health care as a sound investment that would create job growth and traditionalists like Stevenson who viewed nearly all taxes as oppressive and saw little benefit to expanding government agencies that regulated growth, protected workers and consumers, and educated the masses. The liberal-conservative split made managing the House more difficult. The old, unchallenged conservative hegemony gave way to the more complicated task of coalition building even as the state dealt with the Great Depression, World War II, and the rapid industrialization of Texas during the war years.

The office became a power center during the “Dynastic Speakership” era that lasted roughly from 1949 to 1969. Speakers implemented the desegregation of Texas public schools mandated by the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and responded to the rise of modern technologies that transformed the state’s economy. They responded to these demands even as they coped with a rapidly expanding population and the subsequent rising need for government services in education, transportation and health care.

The size of the state government in Austin grew exponentially in the period just after World War II and speakers acquired more authority in the process. In this period, it became the norm for speakers to serve at least two terms and powerful speakers like Reuben Senterfitt and Byron Tunnell established leadership bloodlines that could ensure continuity of policy beyond their tenure. Beginning with Senterfitt, speakers used the press to advance their legislative agenda and at times worked independently of the governor and lieutenant governor. They also began to expand their administrative staffs for oversight and work when the Legislature was not in session.

When Ben Barnes took the speaker’s oath in 1965, only the equally charismatic Gov. John Connally matched his young protégé in political skill and influence. arnes became the first speaker to command front and center for the Capitol press. When the plodding Gov. Preston Smith followed Connally and was elected at the same time Speaker Barnes rose to the office of lieutenant government, media attention focused on Barnes, not the new governor.

Business lobbyists frequently determined who became speaker and also what legislation passed, so lobby support became an essential tool in speakers’ political arsenal. This “pay to play” system came crashing down when banker Frank Sharp faced accusations that he bribed House Speaker Gus Mutscher to shepherd favorable bills through the Legislature. This era, the “Speakership in Crisis,” 1969-1975, resulted in the criminal conviction of Mutscher for corruption and ruined the careers of some men only remotely or not at all connected to the so-called Sharpstown scandal. The next elections swept from office men like Barnes, once touted as a future president, Speaker Rayford Price, Governor Preston Smith and much of the House and Senate rank-and-file. The scandal deeply wounded the long-dominant Democratic Party, widening the gulf between the party’s liberal and conservative wings, and increased participation of Republicans, African Americans, Mexican Americans and women in the state House.

During this chaos, Price Daniel, Jr. vaulted to the speakership in 1973 on a reform agenda. Committed to democracy, Daniel believed that lobbyist money had corrupted the speakership and sought to return the office to the earlier “Presiding Speakership” period. He announced at the beginning of his administration that he would serve one term only and that his two years as speaker would focus on rewriting the state Constitution, which he believed hindered the state’s economic development and left the public at the mercies of special interests. Unfortunately, Daniel’s openness and his explicit desire to not dictate constitutional reform proved a tactical error. Harder-edged legislators and lobbyists interpreted his open, more laissez-faire approach to the speakership as weakness rather than a sign of his desire for consensus. Daniel failed to win approval of a new state Constitution and the speakership returned to the status quo ante.

The Legislature soon returned to an earlier era of special interests basically dictating each session’s legislative priorities. During the era of “The Executive Speakership” from 1975 to 2009, conservatives like Billy Clayton and Gib Lewis who held on to the speakership for four or more terms, dominated the office. They reached power by developing relationships with lobbyists while balancing the demands of a membership that began to reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the state. The money provided by lobbyists allowed conservative Democrats to hold on the legislative leadership even though conservatives had become a minority within the Democratic Party.

Such conservative Democrats had to rely on alliances with an increasingly powerful Republican Party at the price of eroding the power of Democrats as a whole. Explicit racial demagoguery, a mainstay of conservative rhetoric in Texas until the early 1960s, faded and gave way to repeated pleas for limited government, regulatory relief for big businesses and a return to traditional family values. Embracing these positions, conservative Democrats increasingly migrated to the Republican Party, which became the dominating majority in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st Century.

By 2009, it seemed that the Executive Speakership had crashed in flames. Just as was the case under Gus Mutscher in the Sharpstown era, House members accused Republican Tom Craddick of being a dictator and the rank-and-file rebelled. As speaker, Craddick carried more clout than his predecessors not only as the chief presiding officer of the House, but also as the de facto head of the Republican Party. Craddick created a powerful political machine that played a role in electing virtually every Republican then under the Dome. No speaker has ever been more influential in his party’s success, more instrumental in the makeup of his caucus, more partisan or more powerful in advancing his policies and stymieing those of his opponents. That power proved illusive. Craddick’s fall came quickly and by 2009 dissident Republicans angered with what they saw as his imperial leadership style, aligned with the House Democratic caucus and overthrew the GOP leader. Like Price Daniel after Sharpstown, Craddick’s replacement, Joe Straus, came in as a reformer promising to curb the power of the office. As of this writing, the speakership faces an uncertain future.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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