Speaker for Life!

Austin insiders believe Tom Craddick won’t be reelected to lead the House in January 2009. I wouldn’t bet against him.

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.”

This is how I began my March 2003 column (“ Mr. Speaker”) about the new Speaker of the House. The interview had taken place in January, early in the session, before the trouble started. Crad­dick was in a genial mood that day, mild-mannered and charming, which was the guy I had come to know. He was the hero of the Republicans, not just in Austin but across the state: the commander who had besieged and captured the speakership, the only stronghold in state government that remained in Democratic hands. “The walls of the Capitol didn’t fall down when I became the first Republican committee chairman,” I remember him saying. “They aren’t going to fall down when I’m Speaker.”

The last time I checked, the walls were still standing, but I don’t know whether they could pass a rigorous inspection. The damage is not to the physical structure but to the House as an institution. So deep is the enmity in that body that Craddick’s opponents—most of the 69 Democrats and about a fourth of the 81 Republicans, including some of his former allies—spent the final weeks of the legislative session trying to force a vote to remove him from the speakership, a very dangerous precedent, and he responded by interpreting the state constitution and House rules in a way that gave him absolute power to block any such attempt, an even worse precedent. The business of passing legislation became subordinate to the battle over Craddick’s speakership. Every parliamentary ruling he made was subject to challenge. As a way of taking care of the public’s business, it was dreadful. As political theater, it was riveting.

How did this state of affairs come to pass? The answer is that Craddick’s leadership style was all wrong. He did not seek consensus; rather, he polarized the House, ostracizing those who had opposed him, Republican or Democrat. He squandered the goodwill he had earned in leading the GOP to the majority by demanding that members vote as he wanted them to, even if the positions he insisted that they take—in favor of school vouchers, for one—were unpopular back home. Several Republicans summed up their frustration with Craddick to me in some variation of this idea: “He thinks that we’re here to serve him, not that he’s here to serve us.” It became apparent to many of his followers that his closest allies were outside the Capitol: powerful lobbyists, big Republican donors, important party activists. These contacts allowed him to rule by fear. Cross Craddick and he could shut off campaign contributions, get you a lavishly funded primary opponent, and turn the party machinery against you. Inside the Capitol, his most loyal adherents were the younger, more ideological members who had no memory of the bipartisan speakerships that had preceded his.

Still, Craddick’s position looked unassailable on Election Day of 2006. The Republican majority was a seemingly secure 86 to 64, just two seats below its high-water mark. But Democrats captured five Republican seats, including three occupied by incumbents, and lost none of their own. The GOP majority was down to 81—69, and Craddick knew he would face a Speaker’s race. He held on to his job mainly thanks to Democratic defectors who supported him in return for being able to pass legislation. But he had been weakened. In his acceptance speech, he promised to change, to help members represent their districts—in other words, no more arm-twisting. But the insurgent alliance of mainstream Democrats and disaffected Republicans was determined to get under his skin and make him reveal himself as someone who hadn’t changed at all. In fairness to Craddick, he did try to preside with more benevolence, but it was too late. You never knew when a rebellion against Craddick’s authority might erupt. The tipping point came in early May, when a bill by a Democrat loyal to Craddick was given favored placement on the calendar, allowing it to pass, while less-favored members’ bills were left to die. When he gaveled down a parliamentary objection, several senior Republicans led a successful fight to reverse the ruling. This was a crossing of the Rubicon. From that moment until the final gavel of the session, Craddick’s speakership hung by a thread. He avoided a vote on retaining his post only by switching parliamentarians, giving the job to a close political ally, former Austin legislator Terry Keel, who produced an interpretation of the rules that prevented the House from removing Craddick by a majority vote.

Craddick’s fight for survival has become the focal point of Texas politics. His hope is to raise millions of dollars to be used to defeat both vulnerable Democrats and apostate Republicans. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee for president, perhaps Republican challengers of Democratic incumbents can turn her candidacy to their advantage. One of the problems with this strategy is that Craddick himself, and his claim to be immune from removal by the House, will become a campaign issue. Voters don’t

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