"Christmas in January"
Sat January 6, 2007 6:25 pm

That was Jim Pitts' description to me, in a brief phone conversation this afternoon, of the recent moves by the Craddick camp: the new double-barrelled pledge card, to be signed Sunday night, that reads (according to the Quorum Report), "I am committed to voting for Speaker Tom Craddick for Speaker, and I am also committed to supporting public, recorded vote for the Speaker-Elections"; and the proposed method of voting for speaker in HR30, by Craddick ally Will Hartnett, which calls for a random roll call vote (which, of course, would allow Craddick lieutenants to pressure anyone who strays from the Craddick fold). One thing the roll call vote eliminates is the dreaded "machine malfunction," which allows members to change their votes after the results have been tallied. Pitts told me he had been deluged with calls from unhappy members all day, and Craddick must have been, too, and Harnett, because by late afternoon, Hartnett was (to borrow a phrase I once heard in House debate) "backpedaling like an octopus on a unicycle." He issued a one-paragraph letter that began, "I have received quite a few questions and comments today about the proposed resolution ... and want to assure everyone the proposed resolution is not written in stone."

The fairest method of voting for speaker, which cannot be gamed, is to issue a paper ballot to all members, each one bearing the name of the voting member, with the candidates' names listed. Each member then marks his or her ballot to indicate the preferred candidate, then signs and deposits it in a ballot box. The Secretary of State strictly enforces the rules during the voting, so that members must vote from their desks and not roam the room twisting arms. The Secretary of State's office counts the ballot with ballot watchers in attendance representing each candidate. Then the result of the vote is made public and published in the journal.

This has been a horrible day for Craddick, perhaps decisively so. The demand for yet one more pledge alienated his own supporters. The roll call vote resolution cost him at least two votes, Democrats Chuck Hopson and Armando Martinez. The Quorum Report published a letter sent to an unidentified Republican member by Vance Miller, CEO of Henry S. Miller real estate, which began, "I strongly urge you to support the reelection of Speaker Tom Craddick" -- an action which, if it involved the use of corporate funds or employees, appears to violate the law prohibiting the use of corporate money in speakers' races. And Democratic state representative Lon Burnam of Fort Worth is charging that a real estate entity in which Craddick has an interest leases space to Carter & Burgess, an engineering firm that did $23 million in business with the state in 2005. He has asked Travis County DA Ronnie Earle to investigate.

The biggest thing for the only people who matter in this race--the members of the House--is that, with the election two and a half days away, Craddick seems to be acting out of weakness, not out of strength. If you can't trust your people to the point that you are asking for yet another round of pledges, if you have to have a method of voting that is designed to provide time for arm-twisting, if you're asking Austin Democrats to switch to you, you're throwing Hail Mary passes at the end of the game. This signal cannot be missed by House members. It not only dwarfs Pitts' refusal to release his voters, my own criticism of which I now ask unanimous consent to be allowed to withdraw; it also justifies everything McCall and Pitts have said about Craddick's strong-arm methods all along, and it negates whatever promises he has made to be a kinder, gentler speaker. (Sure.)

What happened to Craddick, I suspect, is that he finally realized he has been fighting the last war. He won his speakers' races with pledge cards, the way speakers' races have been won for the last 42 years. But when he beat Pete Laney in 2002, even though Laney had more pledges cards than Craddick did, he effectively killed the pledge card system. It was clear that political circumstances--in this case, the election of a Republican majority--could create circumstances in which members could switch their pledges without retribution or condemnation. And, if members could do that, they could also give pledges that were never intended to be genuine. Jim Pitts and Brian McCall were on Tom Craddick's pledge list. Now, two and a half days before the Speakers' race, Craddick doesn't know whether some of his pledges are real or not. That's why he wants members to re-pledge on Sunday night. And you know what? People who have made up their minds to tell Craddick what he wants to hear will sign those pledge cards too. They don't mean a thing. I think, and Pitts agrees with me, that the pledge card system is on its last legs.

Pitts has always insisted that he had the votes to win. But he ended our conversation with a new twist: "Now he [Craddick] is losing by his own count."

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