Republican Joe Straus was elected speaker of the Texas House of Representatives in late 2009, but ever since this November’s elections he has been working to fend off challenges to his leadership coming from Tea Partiers and conservatives in his own party.
Above the ground, the debate is over politics and conservative values (Straus’ opponents accuse him of not being strong enough on abortions,) but in recent weeks a strong undercurrent about Straus’s faith has been added to the mix.
Straus, who represents the suburbs of San Antonio, is Jewish.
Last month, the Dallas Morning News reported that Straus is being targeted by Christian conservatives because of his religion. Automatic phone calls and e-mail blasts from his rivals called Texas Republicans to choose a “true Christian speaker” and promised that “Straus is going down in Jesus’ name.” Another e-mail called Straus’s rival a “Christian Conservative who decided not to be pushed around by the Joe Straus thugs.”
Last week, the issue burst out into the open, when the Texas Observer obtained an e-mail exchange in which John Cook, a member of the Texas State Republican Executive Committee, discusses with a fellow member of the committee the need to oust Straus. “We elected a house with Christian, conservative values. We now want a true Christian, conservative running it,” Cook wrote.
To make things worse, Cook later tried to explain his position to the Observer’s reporter: “I want to make sure that a person I’m supporting is going to have my values. It’s not anything about Jews and whether I think their religion is right or Muslims and whether I think their religion is right. … I got into politics to put Christian conservatives into office. They’re the people that do the best jobs over all.”
Cook also used the “some of my best friends” line. He told the reporter about two of his friends who are Jewish and then added: “My favorite person that’s ever been on this earth is a Jew,” he said. “How can they possibly think that if Jesus Christ is a Jew, and he’s my favorite person that’s ever been on this earth?”
“It’s just astonishing,” said David Harris, president of the National Democratic Jewish Council. “It is somewhere between veiled anti-Semitism and Jew obsession.” Harris called on Republican leaders to denounce the remarks.