Tom Craddick’s house is a fine, trim little ranch-style on a fine, spotless little street in northwest Midland with swaying oaks and picket fences and flags—American and Texas—flying from flagpoles. It is made of light-brown brick, has a composition roof, and sits on a small lot in an early-sixties subdivision, close to its neighbors. It is a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland sort of house in a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland sort of neighborhood, clearly prosperous but in a solid, middle-class way. Nothing showy. Nothing to suggest that anyone remarkable lives here.
Inside, the house has the same reserved feel, as though it is trying not to show off. The place is tidy and well kept and comfortable and unexceptional. The only hints of extravagance are the oil paintings on the walls. Otherwise it seems perfectly, unassumingly middle class, as do Tom and Nadine Craddick themselves, who have lived here for 34 years. Indeed, as I sit on their sofa while they serve fudge brownies and soft drinks and talk about raising their two children here, it is possible to believe that I know exactly who this man is.
At 61, he is a recognizable American type: a small-city booster, small-time businessman, and civic-minded citizen. He is a devout Catholic, a former Boy Scout troop leader (and before that, an Eagle Scout) and YMCA basketball coach. He is the sort of local guy who knows everybody and belongs to everything. He is a former officer or director of the Boys Club, the Jaycees, the Midland Downtown Lions Club, the Midland Country Club, and St. Anne’s Church Parish Council. Nadine has been a member of even more civic and charitable organizations than he has. She was once simultaneously president of two high school PTAs. His vocation seems to match the rest of his life. He is a salesman on a strictly local scale: On his bio sheet he lists his occupation as a representative for a small company that sells drilling fluids, known as “mud,” to oil companies. He does a lot of business with his friends. As one of them has observed, there is something “old shoe” about Craddick, something comfortable and familiar.
At least that is how many Midlanders see the man who has represented them in the Texas House of Representatives since 1969. But in Austin, large numbers of people would be astonished to learn that anyone thinks Craddick even remotely resembles an old shoe. In the Capitol, where since 2003 he has been Speaker of the House—the first Republican to occupy the position in 130 years—he would remind folks of another type of footwear entirely: a jackboot. He is variously respected, feared, and loathed as one of the most powerful politicians in a generation—an ambitious, uncompromising, and intensely focused man who presided over one of the most contentious legislative sessions in Texas history and who rammed through a large quantity of very Republican legislation over the howls of the newly disenfranchised Democratic minority. With his friend Tom DeLay, the majority leader of the U.S. Congress, Craddick helped engineer a mid-Census redrawing of Texas congressional districts that altered the balance of power in both Texas and Washington. But close behind his success has come unwelcome scrutiny: a high-profile probe initiated by Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle, who is investigating whether DeLay, Craddick, and others violated campaign finance laws in working to elect the Republican majority that propelled Craddick to power.
If Craddick is both larger and more formidable than the small-city booster and businessman he seems to be, his occupation likewise involves far more than being a mud salesman, although he is content to have people think that that is all he does. As it turns out, Craddick is something of a business prodigy, a man of humble origins who got rich by turning a mind-boggling array of deals, mostly in oil and real estate. He has, to be sure, made a good amount of money selling mud. But he has made much more putting together oil properties, buying and selling businesses, and flipping real estate. His financial disclosure statement is a 21-page treatise, crammed with stocks, bonds, investment trusts, money market funds, real estate, and oil and gas holdings. He and Nadine live in that trim middle-class house by choice and because, as he puts it, he is “pretty tight.” With their wealth, they could have any house in Midland they wanted.
Thus the two Tom Craddicks: the good neighbor who belongs to the Jaycees and the domineering force in state politics. The Midland guy whose life seems drawn from a Frank Capra movie or a Sinclair Lewis novel and the Austin power player who seems to have stepped out of the pages of Machiavelli. The self-proclaimed mud salesman, who is really one of the more successful independent oilmen and real estate investors in Midland. The key to understanding Craddick can be found not in Austin but in this oil-centered town in the dusty Permian Basin, for the unassuming businessman and the driven politician, seemingly so different, are really the same, and that is something known to only a few of his closest friends.
The Lone Wolf
ON A WARM, PLEASANT WEST TEXAS day last fall, Craddick was seated in his Midland office, talking about his business career, which he loves to do. He is a slight man with graying hair, squarish glasses, a square jaw, and a soft tenor voice that seems to come out of the side of his mouth. You would describe his manner as relaxed and low-key. He would strike you as a nice, friendly, non-threatening person. He slurs his words a bit when he speaks, which makes him seem even more friendly, more humble, more engaging. To meet him for the first time, you would never guess who he is or what he does or that lots of people in Austin are scared to death of him.
He told his favorite story. Against the wishes of his father, who owned the local toy store,