Internet video targets House Speaker

by Gary Scharrer / December 3, 2010 

The woman behind an internet video campaign to oust House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, says she hopes to raise enough money to run TV ad spots before Texas lawmakers return in January to elect a leader for the upcoming legislative session.

Numerous conservative activist groups are injecting themselves in the House speaker’s election, motivated by a huge Republican majority gained in last month’s election and distrust of Straus’ willingness to push conservative causes.
But that effort is largely viewed as “a hail Mary” by Straus supporters.

Rebecca Forest, founder of a small group called “Women on the Wall,” says Straus must be replaced by a more conservative leader to make sure such issues as immigration reform and voter ID pass next year.

Forest is pushing a “stopJoe” campaign with an Internet video and request for contributions to take the video spot, or a similar version, to television.

Forest, however, would not say how much money the group has raised, how much it wants to spend on the anti-Straus campaign or identify major contributors.

She is among dozens of conservative leaders leaning on state Republican lawmakers to dump Straus.

“It’s important that we have a speaker that reflects our values,” Forest says, noting the Republican Party’s historic 22-Housse seat pickup in the election, which will give Republicans a huge, 99-51 seat, advantage.

“He failed miserably on every single issue,” she contends. “We want another option.”

Forest, of Austin, is a co-founding member of the Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas and is now executive director of the newly formed Texas Alliance for America Legal Defense & Education Fund. She formed Women on the Wall in 2008 as a way to highlight issues important to women and mothers, she says.

The group is “not a members organization,” she says. In other words, it might not be larger than the three directors named in the paperwork used to charter it as a non-profit organization with the Texas Secretary of State. There is no contact information on the group’s website. The group’s physical location provided in the incorporation document is a storage area near Lake Travis.

The proliferation of front organizations that can prosper without accountability and disclosure of funding sources will likely continue, says Denise Davis, chief of staff for Straus, after the United States Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United – a landmark case in which the court, by a 5-4 vote, removed restrictions on corporate funding of independent political advertising. The Internet also provides easy access for groups to spread a message, she noted.

“Some of that will have to be answered through disclosure,” Davis says.

Forest also signed a letter last month circulated by various conservative groups agitating for Straus’ ouster. More than 6,000 other Texans have signed the letter.

The role of “outside groups” trying to influence a House speakers’ race is unprecedented, Davis says. The Texas Constitution contemplates the House speaker to be selected by the 150 state representatives based on relationships among the members, she says: “I think there are some folks who are not as interested in the constitutional structure.”

Straus still has “solid” support from about 120 members, says Davis, who was parliamentarian and special council to former House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. It takes 76 votes to win the two-year term as speaker.

She characterized the campaign to defeat Straus as a “hail Mary strategy” by some individuals backed by third party groups.

Forest says she and other leaders in the anti-Straus movement believe “there’s a very, very good chance” they can convince House members to elect someone else as speaker.

It’s important for lawmakers to understand, she says, “this is our government. We elected them to do things that are important for us, and they don’t own it. If enough people are raising cane, (legislators) need to be paying attention or they won’t be here next time around.”

Forest says she and others also want House rules changed to ban incumbent speakers from contributing campaign money to other lawmakers. She called that a form of bribery because it obligates members to vote for the speaker.

 “That needs to end. That is unacceptable,” she says.

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