Mr. Speaker

Tom Craddick has the job he's always coveted—but does anyone outside the Capitol care?

IT WAS KIND OF LIKE I didn’t exist,” Tom Craddick told me when I asked him what it was like to come to the House of Representatives as a 25-year-old Republican from Midland in 1969. He was isolated from his colleagues by age (“I bet the average age of the members today is fifteen years younger than it was then”), by how he spent his spare time (“They socialized at the Citadel Club; I built two car washes”), and most of all, by political party. Craddick was one of only 8 Republicans in the 150-member House. Gus Mutscher, the Democratic Speaker, appointed Craddick to the Committee on Enrolled and Engrossed Bills, a gulag for members who were out of favor. “I don’t think we ever had a meeting,” Craddick says. When Craddick ran for reelection, Mutscher took out a full-page ad in the Midland paper, citing him as the reason why the University of Texas’ new Permian Basin campus was ticketed for Odessa instead of Midland and urging voters to elect his Democratic opponent.

Today, as you can see from his photograph, Tom Craddick is a happy guy. He completed a 34-year journey from ultimate outsider to ultimate insider by winning election in January as Speaker of the House—a position he pursued relentlessly and, some would say, ruthlessly for at least eight years. His election marked the fall of the last Democratic-held office in state government, at the expense of longtime Speaker Pete Laney.

What can Texas expect from a Craddick speakership? After the Republican sweep on Election Day, he was pilloried in the press for choosing lobbyists to head his transition team, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a series of articles that questioned his ethics. He had had business dealings with Cap Rock Energy Corporation, which had received favorable treatment in the electricity deregulation bill and which employed Craddick’s daughter, Christi, as a lobbyist. Christi had also been one of a handful of beneficiaries of a change in the law concerning health insurance coverage for dependents of state employees, including legislators. (In neither case were Craddick’s fingerprints visible.) It seemed as if we might be headed back to the bad old days before Laney, whose singular achievement had been to raise the ethical standard of the House.

In Washington such revelations would have led to a media feeding frenzy. In Texas hardly anyone raised an eyebrow. Lawmakers work part-time for $600 a month; what they and their families do to get by, so long as it is not prohibited by law, is considered exempt in the culture of the Capitol. (The Craddick stories neglected to mention that Laney and Bill Ratliff, who served as lieutenant governor last session, each have a child who lobbies; neither offspring, however, has incurred public criticism.) Outside Austin no one knows quite what to make of a Speaker anyway: Is he a statewide figure or isn’t he?

Another way of putting this question appears on the cover of this issue: “Does Tom Craddick matter?” This may seem to be a strange thing to ask about the first Republican Speaker in 130 years. But the question is not about Craddick alone. It’s about the peculiar office he holds. Its occupant has statewide responsibilities but

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...