Two Republicans in Tarrant County's revamped legislative delegation say they plan to support House Speaker Joe Straus' Tea Party-backed challenger when lawmakers choose a speaker on the opening day of the 83rd Legislature next week.
Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, and incoming freshman Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, say they plan to vote for Rep. David Simpson of Longview against Straus, a San Antonio Republican who is seeking his third term as speaker.
The selection of a speaker will be one of the first orders of business in the 150-member House on Tuesday when lawmakers open their 140-day biennial session to deal with state spending and host of other issues.
Although Straus is favored to easily retain his post in the GOP-controlled House, Simpson's challenge perpetuates an element of conservative dissent that has periodically dogged the speaker through his two terms in the leadership post. A threatened conservative uprising in 2011 evaporated when Straus' two challengers withdrew.
"The speaker's got plenty of support," said Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, a key member of Straus' leadership team. "He'll be re-elected."
Tarrant County's GOP-dominated delegation has expanded from 10 to 11 members and includes seven new members -- five Republicans and two Democrats -- as a result of the 2012 elections. Only four incumbents, three Republicans and a Democrat, are returning.
The incoming Republican freshmen won election with support from Tea Party organizations and conservative groups, some of which have been critical of the House leadership under Straus. Geren said he told the new House members that "I supported the House speaker and I hoped they would all support Joe.
"I don't know which ones will and which ones won't at this time," said Geren. "If they don't support him, they'll be in a minority."
Zedler, who is beginning his fifth term as a lawmaker, was one of 15 House members who voted against Straus' re-election in 2011. He has frequently been critical of what he calls "a concentration of power" under Straus' leadership. Straus supporters have countered the criticism, saying the speaker has sought to be fair and inclusive during his four years as leader.
"I have been working with David Simpson and I think he'll do a good job," said Zedler. Despite the perception that Straus is on his way to another term, Zedler said a number of members are displeased with Straus' leadership style and are seeking "ways to remedy it."
Krause, who is executive director of the Torch of Freedom Foundation, a non-profit organization designed to train future leaders, said he has known Simpson for three years and is "very impressed" with the conservative lawmaker.
"I said from the very beginning I would support the most conservative candidate in the race," said Krause. Simpson, he said, brings "a little more conservative bent to the position and I would be supporting him."
He described Simpson as "a man of great integrity" but added that he has "nothing bad to say" about Straus. "All the interactions I've had with Speaker Joe Straus have been very pleasant," he said. "My vote is more pro-David Simpson -- not anti-Joe Straus."
A check with Tarrant County lawmakers about their preferences in the speaker's race found that most are either uncommitted or don't want to divulge their decision in advance of Tuesday's vote.
One incoming Republican freshman -- Rep.-elect Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth -- strongly suggested that she may vote against Straus but said she plans to wait and see if other candidates enter the race before revealing her decision.
"My constituents have not been very supportive of Speaker Straus." said Klick, former chairwoman of the Tarrant County Republican Party. "They feel that things could be run in a more transparent way."
Of Simpson, she said, "I think he's an honorable man and I think that he has some ideas about making the process fairer and more transparent."
Rep.-elect Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, a Democrat who will represent the new district in east Tarrant County, says he plans to cast his vote for the incumbent speaker and is calling for a more bipartisan approach in the Republican-controlled House to deal with issues such as health care, education and transportation.
"I think Straus is clearly going to be elected speaker again'" he said.
Neither Straus nor Simpson has released a tally of support. Straus spokesman Jason Embry said that "a strong bipartisan majority of members and members-elect have expressed support for Speaker Straus' leadership, and that coalition continues to grow."
Zedler and Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who withdrew as a speaker's candidate to endorse Simpson, are the only two incumbent House members who have publicly come out in support of Straus' challenger. But Simpson spokesman Ryan Mauldin said the lawmaker has received assurances of support from other members who "have chosen not to make public statements to the press."
"I think we're more competitive than the speaker realizes," said Mauldin, adding that Simpson is "getting a lot of very positive feedback" as the session draws closer. "The list continues to grow," he said.
Straus became speaker in 2009 after a bipartisan coalition ousted his predecessor, Tom Craddick of Midland.
Conservative groups waged a highly visible campaign to block his re-election in 2011 but his two challengers -- Republican Reps. Ken Paxton of McKinney and Warren Chisum of Pampa -- withdrew. Straus was re-elected by a vote of 132-15.
Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, often described as one of the most liberal members of the House, said he doesn't plan to vote for either candidate, explaining that he hasn't voted for a Republican since 1972. Tarrant County members and members-elect who had not issued a public commitment by mid-afternoon Thursday included Reps. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, and Reps.-elect Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, and Jonathan Stickland, R-Hurst. Rep.-elect Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, could not be reached for comment.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.
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