Texas lawmakers are getting ready to debate a controversial bill aimed at limiting access of transgender people to public restrooms.
At the center of the battle, which could mark a turning point in America’s discussion about transgender rights, stands Joe Straus, Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and perhaps the last moderate Republican in a position to stop the rightward lurch the party has taken both in Texas and across the nation.
Straus opposes the proposed bill, which enjoys the strong backing of Texas governor Greg Abbot and of Republican conservatives in a state in which the GOP has firm control of both houses.
Here’s what you need to know about Straus and his battle to maintain the moderate Republican brand in the deep-red Lone Star State:
- Straus is the first Jewish House Speaker in Texas history
Joe Straus, 57, is a lifelong member of Temple Beth-El, a Reform congregation in his hometown of San Antonio and his grandfather served as the synagogue’s president. Straus rarely speaks about his Jewish faith, noting in a 2009 interview that it is “a personal thing” for him and his family. “Yes, I’m Jewish, but my service has been more public service than it has been through the temple.”
- He encountered anti-Semitic attacks early in his career
In 2010, conservative activists sent out emails to Texas Republican leaders urging them to elect a “Christian conservative” for House Speaker instead of Straus. “We elected a House with Christian, conservative values. We now want a true Christian, conservative running,” the email stated. The anti-Semitic plea did not have an effect and Straus won the speakership handily. He is now in his fifth term as speaker.
- Straus was born into GOP politics
His mother, Jocelyn Levi Straus was a close friend of former president George H. W. Bush and his wife Barbara and has been a leading fundraiser in Texas for the Bush family. As a child, Straus joined family visits to Washington, had dinner with Bush. By the time he graduated from Vanderbilt, his path was clear: work on the staff of then-Vice President Bush, assisting Texas Republican political campaigns, meeting his wife on the campaign trail, and eventually stepping into politics himself.
- Conservatives want Straus out
The Bush-style Republicanism shaped Straus’s politics. He positions himself as a moderate pro-business politician — far from the social value-focused issues that now dominate much of the Republican party’s leadership. And these views are now putting Straus at odds with his own party members. His own county’s Republican party called for replacing Straus as speaker and other Republican members are hoping to use the Texas legislature special session to oust Straus from his leadership position.
- His true passion is horse racing
Straus’s family founded the Straus-Frank Saddlery Co. in San Antonio, which later transformed into a wholesale distribution business for guns and tires. The family also ventured into horse racing which allowed Straus, as a teenager, to take summer jobs on leading tracks. “Racing is in my blood,” Straus said in a 2009 interview with the Texas Monthly. Straus’s wife, however, doesn’t share his passion. She is allergic to horses.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.