IN THE BLOODY AFTERMATH OF the 2000 election contest, bruised from allegations of a stolen election, President-elect George W. Bush badly needed to reassure a fractured nation that he would lead with fairness and integrity. His solution? He asked his best Democratic friend in Texas, Speaker James E. "Pete" Laney, to vouch for him on national television. And so, on December 13, 2000, the camera-shy cotton farmer from Hale Center stepped to the podium in the House chamber of the state capitol and gave this unequivocal endorsement: "We didn't always agree on issues but found that we could have policy differences without having gridlock. We could have debate without bitterness. And we could reach agreements and solve problems without sacrificing our principles," Laney told millions of Americans in his signature West Texas twang. "Above all, we learned that Governor Bush is a leader you can trust and respect."
Now, a little over a year later, Laney is in need of some reciprocal bipartisanship. He is seeking a record sixth term as Speaker in the 2003 Legislature, but to win a majority of the votes of his 149 colleagues, Laney must continue to receive the votes of Republican members of his bipartisan team of supporters. But it doesn't look good for Laney. With Republicans on the cusp of gaining a majority in the House for the first time in 130 years, GOP legislators are feeling pressure from party bigwigs and constituents to elect a Republican Speaker—and seeing the opportunity to advance their own careers as well. The clear Republican front-runner is Tom Craddick, of Midland, once a Laney ally but in recent sessions his determined foe. Neither Laney's highly regarded performance in office nor his kindness toward Bush counts for much at a time when party loyalty trumps personal loyalty.
The reason that control of the House is so important to Republicans is that the House and the speakership are the Democrats' last beachhead in state government. Every statewide office and judgeship is held by Republicans (although the Democrats are mounting a serious challenge in several races this year), and the GOP also holds a majority in the state Senate. Last summer a Republican-dominated board drew new House districts to favor GOP candidates, all but guaranteeing that the Republicans will finally capture the House—something that previous Craddick-backed attempts to defeat pro-Laney Democrats in the 1996 and 1998 elections failed to accomplish.
The apparent inevitability of a Republican House majority set off an early scramble among Republicans who yearned to be Speaker—Craddick, Brian McCall, of Plano, Kim Brimer, of Fort Worth, Ed Kuempel, of Seguin, and Warren Chisum, of Pampa, among other hopefuls. Craddick, who is a sales representative for a company that supplies mud for oil-field drilling and runs his own real estate and oil and gas investment company, has emerged as the clear favorite of party stalwarts and financiers. Now 58, he first came to the Legislature in 1969. He has been an unannounced Speaker candidate for most of the Laney years, wooing freshmen every session and donating his spacious offices for redistricting strategy last spring. His open efforts to gain a Republican majority that would unseat Laney caused the Speaker to purge Craddick from his chairmanship of the influential Ways and Means Committee in 1999.
Though the voters in the election for House Speaker have not yet been formally identified—we won't know the makeup of the 2003 House until after the November 2002 election—Craddick's supporters say that he holds pledges from fifty returning House Republicans. His allies say he also has promises of support from Republican candidates seeking election for the first time and even from a few opportunistic Democrats. In January Craddick filed campaign reports showing he had raised $98,000 for his Speaker's race, dwarfing the contributions of his Republican opponents.
But Craddick's early strong showing has raised legitimate questions about the work of Republican activists on his behalf. State law makes it clear that no one is supposed to promise money or support to House candidates in an effort to influence their vote for Speaker. Most troubling are persistent rumors that GOP heavyweights are funding House candidates who support Craddick and undermining those who refuse to do so. "I've heard talk that campaign money will follow if they sign pledge cards [promising their support] for Tom," says representative Toby Goodman, an Arlington Republican who is sometimes mentioned as a Speaker possibility. "I don't believe that Tom has committed campaign funds in return for pledge cards."
But are Craddick's supporters spreading the message? Goodman says that a Republican candidate in the race to replace Brimer (who is now running for the state Senate and has endorsed Craddick) told him he endorsed Craddick at the urging of Brimer and his political consultant, Bryan Eppstein. "He's following the advice of his political consultant and the incumbent, so I can't fault the guy for doing that," Goodman says. "Whether or not big Republican money will follow, we'll see."
Two of Craddick's opponents, McCall and Kuempel, drew Republican primary opponents. A third potential Speaker candidate, Buddy West, of Odessa, was rumored to have an opponent; he endorsed Craddick before the filing deadline for the primary—and no opposition materialized. The Republican hierarchy has also targeted at least one Republican House member who has supported Laney in the past: Tommy Merritt, of Longview, a maverick who especially angered the GOP by offering his own alternative to a redistricting plan favored by leading House Republicans (including Craddick), saying his map was better for rural Texas. Now many Republican party leaders and legislators are actively campaigning on behalf of Curt Hinshaw, an attorney challenging Merritt in the GOP primary. State party chair Susan Weddington attended a fundraiser in Hinshaw's behalf, and National Committeewoman Denise McNamara held a reception in her home for him, because, according to the invitation, "His race is important in Texas Republicans' hopes of having our first Republican Speaker." Last August fellow East Texas lawmaker Leo Berman, a Craddick supporter, contributed $500 to