New speaker an LGBT ally?

by John Wright .
Saturday Jan 10, 2009

AUSTIN - The man who's expected to be the next speaker of the Texas House is a member of a gay-affirming synagogue where clergy officiate same-sex weddings and where the senior rabbi is an outspoken supporter of marriage equality.

Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who emerged last weekend as the presumptive successor to three-term Speaker Tom Craddick, also sided with the LGBT community in voting against a proposed ban on gay foster parents in 2005.

But Straus sided against both the LGBT community and his rabbi when he voted in favor of placing a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the ballot in 2005.

Straus also voted against the community on two other occasions - on measures related to safe schools for LGBT youth, according to Equality Texas.

Nevertheless, LGBT advocates and allies this week said they expect Straus, a moderate Republican, to be a significant improvement over Craddick, a social conservative who used the speaker's vast power to promote anti-gay legislation and block pro-equality bills.

But they also cautioned against putting too much faith in Straus, given his mixed voting record and the fact that relatively little is known about his views on gay rights.

Straus, 49, has been in the House for less than four years, and he was absent from the floor for two votes on LGBT-related items in 2007, Equality Texas said.

A member of Straus' legislative staff said he was unavailable for an interview with Dallas Voice this week.

"I think we see definitely some opportunity to have some positive conversations going forward that were not available to us," said Paul Scott, executive director of Equality Texas, who added that the statewide LGBT equality group has nearly 500 members in Straus' urban San

Antonio district. "I think what you're looking at is a matter of the ability to at least have conversations and hearings and move issues forward in the discussion process, whereas before they wouldn't see the light of day. ... I think that's where the hope lies, as opposed to having a champion."

A fellow member of San Antonio's House delegation, Democratic Rep. Mike Villarreal, agreed that Straus is unlikely to use the speaker's chair to try to advance LGBT equality.

"The prior speaker actually got involved in pushing a policy agenda, his own policy agenda, and I think the new speaker is going to allow members to vote their own district, their own conscience, and let the chips fall where they may," said Villarreal, an LGBT ally who added that he again plans to introduce a bill in 2009 that would ban anti-gay job bias in Texas. "I think it's really important that members of the progressive community don't get their expectations higher than they should be. I think that we should demand a fair process, and our job is to bring the best ideas to the House floor and hope that we can persuade enough members to vote our way."

Another LGBT ally, Democratic Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, called Straus one of his best friends in the House.

"Let's be clear, Joe is a conservative, but he is more of a classic conservative, and I wouldn't call him a hard-core social conservative, and I think built into classic conservatism is a Libertarian streak that says 'live and let live,' so I think in setting the tone for the House, I think it will be his preference to put aside divisive and caustic issues," Anchia said.

Anchia said Straus' leadership may make it easier to defend against anti-LGBT legislation, but he added he believes it's unlikely any significant pro-equality legislation will pass this year.

"I think we're a long way off from going on offense on some of these issues," Anchia said. "I don't sense an appetite in the House for a lot of progress on this. ... That involves a lot of education in the body that I don't think has been done to date."

Since emerging as the presumptive new speaker last weekend, Straus has been criticized by social conservatives for his stances on issues like reproductive rights and gambling.

While Straus says he's against abortion, he opposed a ban on third-trimester abortions because it lacked exceptions for rape, incest and when the mother's life is in danger. He was also one of only 23 lawmakers who opposed a bill to block state officials from following Gov. Rick Perry's order requiring vaccinations to prevent cervical cancer for sixth-grade schoolgirls. The bill, whose supporters argued that the vaccine against HPV - a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer - would promote premarital sex, passed and Perry backed down from the order.

Meanwhile, Straus' family partially owns a horse track near San Antonio, and he voted for a measure that would have allowed two Indian tribes to resume casino gambling.

But little has been said in the mainstream media about Straus' positions on gay rights, even by conservative activists who oppose his all-but-certain election when the Legislature convenes for its biannual session on Jan. 13.

"I think that we're going to have to do a lot of wait and see," Cathie Adams, executive director of the Texas Eagle Forum, told Dallas Voice. "There are just a whole lot of unknowns."

Adams said while she's bothered by the fact that Straus opposed the ban on gay foster parents, she's more concerned by his votes on reproductive rights and gambling. Straus' opposition to the ban on gay foster parents wasn't unique among Republicans who said the measure would displace children and prove costly for the state. The proposed ban was ultimately stripped from legislation by a House-Senate conference committee after passing the House.

Adams also said she fears Straus will be beholden to the Democratic legislators who got him elected. With the Republican majority in the House trimmed to 76-74 in the November election, Craddick and other candidates dropped out of the speaker's race after Straus announced he had the pledged support of nearly all Democrats and about a dozen GOP representatives.

Scott, of Equality Texas, said Democratic representatives who supported Straus, including several staunch LGBT allies, could land key committee appointments that would enable hearings on pro-equality legislation and pave the way for it to reach the House floor. The speaker sets the agenda in the House and is on par with the governor in terms of political influence.

Scott said Equality Texas has established a goal this year of getting one piece of pro-equality legislation through either the House or Senate. No pro-equality legislation has passed the full Legislature since the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act of 2001, which included "sexual preference" but not gender identity. And Texas continues to rank near the bottom when it comes to LGBT equality, with only 13 states receiving lower scores in one national ranking compiled by

This year, in addition to Villarreal's proposed ban on employment discrimination, Equality Texas plans to push measures promoting safe schools for LGBT youth and a bill that would grant hospital visitation and medical decision-making authority to same-sex partners, Scott said.

But he added that Equality Texas must also remain vigilant against attacks, and others hinted at a possible backlash from religious conservatives who didn't support Straus and may try to force votes on anti-LGBT legislation for political purposes.

"I'm hoping we have a positive session, period, because I'm just so tired of all this negative stuff," said Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, a longtime LGBT ally who dropped out of the speaker's race to endorse Straus. "It's going to hinge upon where the conservatives go, the ones who are not on board now. That [anti-LGBT legislation] may be an area they explore."

Unlike with Craddick, though, attacks against the LGBT community are unlikely to receive the support of the new speaker, according to his longtime rabbi.

Barry H.D. Block, senior rabbi of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, a reform Jewish congregation where Straus is a member, said people shouldn't read too much into the fact that the new speaker attends a gay-affirming synagogue.

Block said Temple Beth-El is the only reform Jewish congregation in San Antonio, and Straus has strong family ties to the synagogue because his ancestors helped found it.

"I would suspect that more than a few congregants do not agree with the resolutions and teachings of reform Judaism on [same-sex marriage], for example, but people do not choose their synagogue, generally, on the basis of their views on public policy issues, even when the rabbi's views are rooted in the rabbi's interpretations of the faith tradition," Block said.

But Block also said he believes Straus' Jewish heritage has given him an understanding of what it's like to be part of an oppressed minority.

"What I should make very clear is that, among Republicans, nobody who favors equal rights for gays and lesbians could hope for a more favorable choice than Joe Straus, but not because he agrees with you or me on those issues, but because he's not on a crusade about those issues and it isn't his goal to wage a culture war," Block said.

Block, who delivered a sermon in 2005 opposing Texas' constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, said the congregation's board of trustees also took a formal position against the measure. Block said he personally tried to convince Straus to vote against the amendment but was unsuccessful.

"We've disagreed and stayed friends on numerous occasions over a very long time, and that is one of the tremendous benefits to having Joe Straus as the speaker of the House, because what we have not had in Austin is the ability to disagree and stay friends and continue talking and working together, and Joe Straus knows exactly how to do that," Block said. "I think there's very good reason for optimism that foolishness will decrease and that extremism will decline. I don't think there's much reason for optimism about negative things in existence [such as the marriage amendment] being reversed quickly."

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