1. Tom Craddick
How did Tom Craddick become the most powerful Speaker ever— and the most powerful Texan today? Let us count the ways.
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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, Craddick went to work at the age of twelve for a grocer named Acie Bailey. He did so well that by the time he was thirteen, he was opening the store for Bailey at seven in the morning and tending the cash. Soon he was put in charge of produce. He worked for Bailey through high school, saving enough money to pay his own way at Texas Tech. One reason he could do that was that he figured out a way to make considerably more than the 65 cents an hour Bailey was paying him. Instead of simply stacking melons in the produce area, he proposed selling them from a truck out front. “I said, ‘I think I could make more money if I sat outside on the trucks,’” Craddick related. “So I made a deal with him. I got a driver’s license and drove to Pecos and got the watermelons and cantaloupes and hauled them back to Midland. I sat on the truck rather than in the store, and we split the profits.” It was his first deal.
That his favorite story is about business, rather than politics, explains a lot about Craddick. People in Austin find him baffling because he is so unlike other politicians. They say they have never seen a Speaker like him. By this they mean less his political philosophy—which is standard-issue low-tax, low-spend, pro-business conservatism—than his style as it has evolved during his 36 years in the Texas House of Representatives. He is not a good old boy. He does not play golf. He has never lived the hail-fellow-well-met political life of Austin. At the close of business, he prefers to leave the city for either Midland or his house on Lake LBJ, which he has owned for 23 years. He doesn’t drink or smoke or even partake of coffee. He never hangs out at the Cloak Room or other political watering holes. He rarely does lunch. He does not go out much at night. As far as I can tell, his only vices are eating chocolate and driving fast. He has so few close friends in politics that at his son’s wedding in Austin last year, only one was in attendance, lobbyist Bill Messer. The colleagues he’s known best over the years have left the Legislature and returned to normal life, most of them long ago.
Most Texas Speakers win the job because they are well liked. He won not because he was nice but because he was partisan: Republicans were hungry for a champion who would deliver their pent-up agenda. A handful, known as the ABCs (for “Anybody but Craddick”), initially opposed him but, fearing for their careers, ended up voting for him for Speaker, and the Democrats didn’t have enough votes to matter. Other Speakers have had powerful lieutenants, table pounders and enforcers. Craddick has no such thing. Indeed, it strikes many people as odd that in a job that requires a good deal of give and take, a fair amount of delegation, and a lot of management, Craddick remains a solo operator. “Tom Craddick is the most self-sufficient lone wolf I have ever seen as Speaker,” said a prominent lobbyist, who, like many sources interviewed for this story, preferred to remain anonymous. “He really does keep his own counsel like no one I have seen.”
What people in Austin don’t realize is that Craddick is a businessman first and a politician second. He conducts his political business exactly as he has conducted his personal business over a forty-year career—largely alone. He made a fortune mostly by himself, without even the aid of a secretary. He keeps his own notes in obsessively tiny handwriting on scraps of paper and does most of his business by phone. Though he engages in various types of transactions, he is mainly an independent oilman. The term denotes a person who works for himself and cuts deals for a living, a very specific sort of character, recognizable to anyone in the oil patch, a character like Tom Craddick.
As Craddick talked about his business career, the intensity of his ambition punctuated every story. While an undergraduate at Texas Tech, he joined with his finance professor, George Berry, in an attempt to buy a savings and loan. Their bid wasn’t accepted, but the episode turned out to be the start of a profitable real estate partnership. Still a student, Craddick got together with Berry and Coley Cowden, a member of a prominent Midland family, and set up a chain of seven gas stations with car washes, all over West and Central Texas, called Scrub a Dub. Soon the threesome, now known as CBC Inc., branched out further, buying a Dr Pepper bottling plant—for which they paid $450,000—and a 7 UP bottler in Big Spring and acquiring a bunch of duplexes. They were doing it largely with bank loans from Midland. Craddick had little money of his own but a full one-third ownership in the business. By this time he was pursuing graduate business studies at Tech. In addition to his schoolwork, he was teaching classes, managing apartments, running a maid service, and selling life insurance. Not yet 25 years old, he was already so driven that he told a friend that he wanted to be able to leave his children a million dollars.
In 1968, at age 25, he ran and won his race for the Texas House, which gave him a new career but did not slow down his business life. Of his ambitions at the time, he said simply: “I wanted to make a bunch of money and I wanted to go into politics and I was doing both of them.” He began to invest heavily in real estate, acquiring properties both with CBC and on his own. He sold his interest in CBC in 1972, taking with him substantial commercial and residential properties in Midland, and from that point forward he conducted all of his business for his own account. It was around that time—his early thirties—that he became involved in the oil business, first selling drilling mud and later putting together lease deals in the oil fields of the Permian Basin.
For Craddick, the mud business was phenomenally lucrative, especially during the oil boom of the seventies and early eighties. In 1977 he had struck a sort of partnership with a man named Bob Duke and a company called Mustang Mud. Craddick, who insisted on a straight commission, neither wanted to work for anyone nor have anyone work for him. He just wanted to do the deal, make the money, and walk away. That is the quintessential Craddick. Mustang Mud did lots of business with major oil companies. It was so successful that at one point it owned two corporate aircraft. Craddick stuck to his percentage-only agreement. He made a bushel of money.
As an oilman, Craddick will often start by hustling to find properties on which major or large independent oil companies own the mineral leases but have decided not to drill wells. He will package a bundle of such leases—called farmouts—and then find an operating company that is interested in drilling on that land. For putting the two parties together, he takes a 1.5 to 3 percent overriding royalty on every dollar of oil the wells produce.
But the deal does not end there. Craddick, wearing his hat as mud salesman, often sells his product to the same company that he just made the lease arrangement with, into the very same drilling project he helped put together. And then, sometimes, he takes the money he made from selling the mud and invests it in those same oil wells, buying himself a direct working interest. Still, the deal does not end. Craddick often persuades the oil company to invest some of its money with him. “I needed investors,” he explained, “so I’d give them a piece of one of my real estate deals, and they would let me into their oil deals, and then I would sell them the mud on top of that.” Craddick does this all himself. He has no assistants, no one keeping track of his activities, no one screening calls.
His new job as Speaker has slowed down his deal making, but only a bit. He was recently the middleman in the rescue of Schlotzsky’s restaurants from bankruptcy, putting buyer and seller together. When I asked him in September how many oil and gas deals he was working on at the time, he hoisted a fat folder and estimated around 25. “The art of making the deal is the thing for me,” he said. “I love to make the deal and see it work.”
TOM CRADDICK HATES TO LOSE. At anything. Even fishing. “He is one of the most competitive people I know,” said his closest Capitol friend, Bill Messer. “He fishes competitively. If we go fishing someplace and we come in at lunch, he wants to know how many fish I caught and whether I won or he did. Go dove hunting, and he wants to know how many shells it took you to get your limit compared to how many shells it took him to get his.”
His career in politics has been all about winning too, though not in the way most politicians would define it. Back home, Craddick has never had to worry about keeping his seat, and in Austin he has rarely waded into floor debate, having little appetite for the limelight or the glory of passing and killing bills. What his career has really been all about is his patient, dogged, piece-by-piece destruction of the Democratic party in the Texas House. It began during his second session, in 1971, as Democratic Speaker Gus Mutscher became enmeshed in the burgeoning Sharpstown scandal, and it has never stopped. Craddick joined the Dirty Thirty group of outsiders—liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans—who criticized Mutscher for accepting favors from Houston wheeler-dealer Frank Sharp. Mutscher retaliated against Craddick by redrawing his Midland district so that Craddick no longer lived in it, and Craddick responded by suing the state. He won a landmark redistricting case.
For a while Craddick concentrated on his House career, becoming the first Republican committee chair in the modern era. His next major partisan step came in 1988, when he formed the first Republican caucus in the House, in deliberate defiance of his friend and patron Governor Bill Clements, who was afraid that the caucus would divide the House along party lines, isolating Republicans as a small and powerless minority. The governor personally told him in a private meeting not to proceed with his plans. Craddick was unmoved. “I said, ‘I’m gonna do it,’” said Craddick, “and I did.” The story illustrates a fundamental personality trait: He doesn’t much care if people like him or not. He does things not to win love or affection but to advance his agenda. His style calls to mind that of two other Texas politicians: Tom DeLay and Phil Gramm.
By the nineties, Craddick could see his ultimate goal of a Republican majority—which would elect him Speaker—in sight. While potential rivals were looking to their legislative concerns, Craddick began to work in earnest to get Republican candidates elected. He had always liked to campaign, always liked the grassroots side of politics, and now he began to operate as a sort of unpaid consultant to party hopefuls. “We recruited the candidates, helped them with their mailers, helped them with their media, and helped them lay out their campaigns,” he said. “We even monitored their efforts. We had a sheet I devised where they had to report how many phone calls they made, how many signs they put out, how many doors they knocked on every week.” He also began to raise large sums of money, setting up a series of political action committees whose main function was to gather money in urban centers and ship it out to rural areas, where most of the contested races were. He helped dozens of successful candidates this way. The effect was that Republican numbers in the House swelled, and each successive class of freshman Republicans owed allegiance primarily to one man. This explains a lot about him: why Democrats hate him so passionately, why he became the darling of the Republican establishment, and why he was able to build an unrivaled power base inside the party.
He paid dearly for this activity. In 1993 he had been appointed chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful positions in the House, by Democrat Pete Laney, whom Craddick had supported for Speaker. But pro-Laney Republicans and Democrats alike disapproved of Craddick’s relentless politicking—which, if successful, would result in Republicans unseating Democrats and imperil Laney’s speakership—and brought pressure on Laney to make him stop. Laney warned Craddick, but of course that had no effect; Craddick had no intention of stopping. Finally, in 1999, Laney “busted” Craddick, taking away his chairmanship, an apparently huge career setback. Craddick was unfazed. The ultimate effect of Laney’s action was to radicalize some of the Republicans who had bought into bipartisanship and build even more support for Craddick.
In 2002 Craddick’s years of work paid off. Republicans won a majority of seats in the House for the first time since Reconstruction. Two days later he stunned the Austin political scene—where the conventional wisdom was that the Democrats and the ABC Republicans would join forces to stop him—by announcing that he had already won the race for Speaker of the House, notwithstanding the presence of several other formidable candidates, including Laney and several Republicans.
Craddick had won by both outhustling and outflanking his rivals. In a Speaker’s race, votes are gathered secretly in the form of index cards, which members sign, pledging their support for a particular candidate. Craddick, who had declared his candidacy for Speaker more than a year before the general election, adopted a preemptive strategy: He began in October 2001 to solicit signature cards. His strategy was all the more striking since he aggressively pursued all primary candidates, Democrats and Republicans. In two races in Collin County, this meant meeting with eleven candidates and trying to persuade each one to sign a pledge card. This was a prodigious effort, often in the company of Nadine, and it was fully accomplished by the time of the 2002 primaries. “Everybody else thought they would wait until after the primaries were over and then come by and see members and say, ‘Now that you are the nominee, how about voting for me?’” said Craddick. “But most of the candidates said, ‘I already committed to Craddick.’ It was over.” Until his press conference on November 7 to announce his victory, no one knew what he had done.
YOU DO NOT NEED to spend much time around the Capitol to realize that there are two wildly divergent views of Tom Craddick. His Republican supporters see him as an honest broker, a fundamentally fair man who, as he tells it, has appointed more women, minorities, and members of the opposition to committee chairs than any Speaker in history and who does what Speakers are supposed to do, which is to let the voice of the majority dominate. His Democratic opponents see him as a ruthless, partisan hard-liner and iron-fisted autocrat who deliberately and systematically shut them out of all the major legislation last session. It is impossible to reconcile these two views. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that both are partly accurate.
To be fair to Craddick, he presided over what was, by historical standards, a legislative train wreck. The Republican majority collided with a $10 billion budget deficit, a bitterly partisan redistricting fight, and an attempt to do what many skilled politicians, including George W. Bush, had failed to do in the past: reform the way Texas finances public education. The Democrats crashed headlong into a wall of long-harbored Republican frustrations and grudges and a desire to push through bills that had long been locked up by the old Democratic majority. Toby Goodman, a Republican representative from Arlington who was not committed to Craddick until late in the process, reflected, “It was going to be a rough session no matter who sat in the chair. Democrats were sometimes aggressive and disruptive, and the Republicans responded by pushing hard their political agenda.”
Still, Democrats were furious at what had happened to them, and they held Craddick responsible. They were not used to losing, and Craddick, who had gotten regularly beaten up for 34 years without disrupting the process, was never—and is not now—even slightly sympathetic. After losing vote after vote on bills and amendments, Democrats often struck back the only way they could, contesting every major bill with procedural points of order and parliamentary inquiries that ran into the hundreds. The result was often harsh, unforgiving partisanship: Democrats were sometimes prevented from even asking questions during committee hearings. Craddick employed a parliamentary maneuver called “moving the previous question”—in effect shutting down all debate on a bill—an astonishing eight times. Pete Laney had used the tactic only twice in ten years. One of many memorable moments occurred in May 2004, during the special session on school finance, when Democrat Steve Wolens, of Dallas, went to the back microphone to protest Craddick’s decision to shut down debate on the education bill. Craddick had the microphone turned off while Wolens continued to yell in protest from the rear of the chamber.
Democrats are convinced of two things: that Craddick deliberately excluded them and that everything the House Republicans did—meaning most of the legislation—was done at Craddick’s orders. It got so bad, said Jim Dunnam, a Waco Democrat who is the leader of his party’s caucus in the House, that on one occasion he and some colleagues decided to test their theory of Craddick’s draconian control. The idea was to introduce an amendment so fundamentally conservative that Republicans would have to vote for it. “It was during the tort reform debate, and I said, ‘Let’s think of something they just can’t vote against,’” said Dunnam with a mischievous smile. “We proposed an amendment that said that the tort reform protections would not apply if the injury was caused by someone who is harboring or assisting a terrorist. Now how can a Republican vote against that? They all voted against it.”
Dunnam also points to another moment during the tort reform debate as evidence that Craddick was telling the Republicans what to do. A Democrat proposed an amendment and a Republican effort to kill it failed—a rare event. “Then,” Dunnam said, “Craddick just shut down the House for forty-five minutes. He called Republican members who had voted for the amendment up on the dais, in public. Forty-five minutes later we voted again and lost. I think the average Republican veteran is as concerned about what happened as I am. Suddenly you are in power, and you have less say than ever.” Republicans interviewed for this story said that they were not told what to do, but at the same time they acknowledged Craddick’s unusually powerful presence. “No one ever approached me to vote in lockstep,” said Goodman. “But there was certainly more central control in this session than in previous ones.”
Craddick, meanwhile, says such accusations are just not true. “I will make this statement,” he said. “I never asked a committee chairman, ever, to bring a bill out or not bring a bill out of committee, and I did not tell them how to run their committees.” Craddick insists that the illusion of dictatorial control stems from Republican unity. “On tort reform, for example, all but three or four Republicans were for it. We all had the same view of tort reform. Members were for redistricting and insurance reform.” He does acknowledge being a hands-on manager. “When you have got all new chairmen and new leadership and a total turnover and a new philosophy and new majority, I think you have got to work with them,” he said. “When it came down to conference committees, you bet we helped them negotiate. One night we had one group in every room in this office.”
Craddick also believes, as do most Republicans, that, as Beverly Woolley, of Houston, put it, “The Democrats cut themselves out of the process” by being obstructionist. There is no way to resolve this. It was a mean session, feelings were hurt, and there was a great deal of finger-pointing and assigning of blame. Of the Democrats, Craddick said: “I have never seen as much bitterness and as many people who just can’t accept that they are no longer in control.”
Craddick’s relations with fellow Republican leaders Rick Perry and David Dewhurst were often prickly as well. Near the end of a tense debate on education finance, Perry said he would veto a key part of a Craddick-backed bill, which surprised everyone and infuriated the Speaker. Craddick retaliated by allowing the House to vote on Perry’s own plan, which failed embarrassingly, 126—0. Craddick and Dewhurst crossed swords over a number of issues. One typical contretemps: Dewhurst and the Senate worked for the better part of a year on a solution to provide property-tax relief and fund education with new revenue. The Senate passed the bill and sent it to the House, and Dewhurst thought he had a promise from Craddick to hold hearings on the plan. Instead, Craddick snubbed Dewhurst and the Senate by sending the bill back without taking any action, and Dewhurst responded with a blistering press release that appeared in most Texas papers. Speaking now, Dewhurst says, tactfully, “I may have had a little easier time than Tom through the last two and a half years, because I hadn’t spent thirty-four-plus years in the Legislature like Tom and accumulated a list of perceived bruises and slights. While he and I both stand on principle, we sometimes butted heads because our negotiating styles are so different. He’s a very bright and talented friend, and I know in his heart he wants to do what is right.” Or not.
As always, Craddick shrugs off the controversy. He says that he believes he has good working relationships with both Perry and Dewhurst. He points to what he and his colleagues accomplished: balancing a budget that had a $10 billion shortfall without raising taxes (albeit with deep and controversial cuts in services), enacting historic tort reform, passing a massive toll road program, putting state universities on a sound financial footing, and redrawing congressional districts. When asked if he felt he needed to change his approach this session or reach out to Democrats, he shook his head. “No,” he said. “We are not going to do anything different.”
The Irresistible Force
WHAT GIVES A ROOKIE Speaker such enormous clout? More than anything else, it is Craddick’s taste for personal political combat, his willingness to stretch the boundaries of his own power, his determination to win. This manifests itself in two ways: first, in his aggressiveness in pushing bills he favors, and second, in his refusal to negotiate once he has taken a position. There is perhaps no better example of his virtuoso power politics than the bill he passed last session that will allow state universities to set their own tuition. It was known as tuition “dereg,” short for “deregulation.” Dereg meant that the Legislature would relinquish control over the cost of college education and that tuition would go up. Fast. It was a subject that almost no one in the House or Senate, other than Craddick himself, wanted to touch. Politically speaking, it was like voting for new taxes.
This political inertia was at work in the House Education Committee when the bill came up for a vote. By one-thirty in the morning, after a wearying day of testimony, the prospects were looking dim. “I could tell it was going to be very close,” recalled Republican committee chair Geanie Morrison, of Victoria, the author of the bill. “I was looking at postponing the vote.”
It was then that, to the amazement of committee members, Craddick walked in. The Speaker was wearing a T-shirt, old blue jeans, and moccasins. He had walked alone from his apartment on the second floor of the Capitol building through the early-morning darkness to the Reagan Building, where the hearing was taking place. He stepped up on the dais, then knelt down next to individual members—the recalcitrant ones—and, as he puts it, “visited with them and explained to them why I thought it was important and why we needed to do it if we were going to fund higher education.” A little while later, he shambled back to bed, the deal done. The committee voted in favor of the bill, as he knew they would. It passed by one vote. Later, he would win the vote on the House floor because of his dogged efforts to allay members’ fears, with the help of dozens of university officials he imported to sell the idea.
He also won that vote for a less apparent reason: House members were more afraid of Craddick’s wrath than the wrath of the voters back home. Not only does he determine whether lawmakers get the committee assignments and leadership posts they crave, thereby giving him veto power over their ambitions, but—and here is where he surpasses the power of other Speakers—he also, as the result of many years of work to build a Republican majority in the House, has close ties with GOP donors statewide, giving him de facto control over how most of the big Republican money is spent at election time. This latter threat doesn’t have to be explicit; a Republican who considers bucking Craddick over anything the Speaker deeply cares about knows that he may find himself with a well-funded primary opponent, especially since, in this case, two of the party’s biggest givers, University of Texas backers Peter O’Donnell and Louis Beecherl, are Craddick allies who strongly support tuition deregulation.
But Craddick still had to persuade the Senate. Actually, it was more like beating the Senate into submission. This he did by using what already had become his personal trademark: hard-nosed, uncompromising insistence on getting his way. In the larger budget bill, the Senate wanted an extra $500 million for state universities and a more liberal qualifying standard for Medicaid and children’s health insurance. It emphatically did not want tuition deregulation. Craddick simply refused to negotiate with Dewhurst, who presided over the Senate: Either the Senate accepted tuition dereg or he would throw the entire budget into a special session, which nobody wanted. Craddick got what he insisted upon, and the Senate got to keep the $500 million for higher education.
“The Senate was against it,” said Craddick, who is convinced that what he did was not just right but morally right. “I was really passionate. A lot of people were unhappy about it.” Republican senator Steve Ogden, of Bryan, a friend of Craddick’s who was on the committee that agreed to the final budget, said that he did not want to do it. “A lot of us ended up casting a vote we did not like casting,” he told the Houston Chronicle in 2003, adding that Craddick was “the toughest, hardest trader I have ever met.”
The Immovable Object
GREAT POWER TENDS to sow the seeds of its own destruction. As Craddick begins his second term as Speaker, he faces opposition on all fronts. For all of his successes, the stark fact is that he presided over, and was partially responsible for, one of the most acrimonious legislative sessions in Texas history, both within the House and between the House and the Senate. As far as anyone can tell, the 2005 session is starting with all of the anger from 2004 intact, which is noteworthy, since the main item on the agenda is the issue that caused the biggest trouble between the House and the Senate last time: school finance. At the end of the spring 2004 special session on school finance, Craddick had a partisan revolt on his hands, having convinced many Democrats that he was deliberately cutting them out of the lawmaking process. He had excluded their leading expert on school finance, Scott Hochberg, of Houston, from a large committee he had appointed to deal with the subject, and he had shut off floor debate rather than let them offer their amendments. His situation was no better on the other side of the Capitol. To get any of his agenda through, Craddick will have to contend with the Senate and the lieutenant governor, who, having been bested by him several times in the last session, are now both alert to his modus operandi and determined to force him to make hard trades for everything he gets.
At least Craddick has considerable control over what happens inside the Capitol. He has none over an even greater threat to his political career outside the Capitol: the investigation by Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle into the use of illegal corporate money to help Republican House candidates in the 2002 elections, which is now in its second year. Last September Earle brought 32 indictments against three individuals and eight corporations, all related to a Republican fund-raising entity called Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, or TRMPAC. Though Craddick has not been singled out as a target of the investigation and was not an officer of TRMPAC, he was closely involved with it. He helped it raise money and personally accepted a $100,000 check on its behalf, and his office distributed $152,000 in TRMPAC funds to Republican candidates. (Craddick says he was out of the state at the time.) None of that is illegal on its face, but Craddick’s TRMPAC activity has produced a steady stream of stories in the press linking Craddick and the PAC. He could be indicted if Earle can show that either 1) Craddick knew he was raising illegal corporate money or 2) he arranged to give campaign funds to candidates in exchange for their voting for him for Speaker. Unless somebody is in a position to know that something illegal occurred and is willing to talk about it, Earle will have a hard time making a case, but until the investigation is over, it will continue to cast a shadow over the session and Craddick’s future.
Craddick told me, as he has said all along, that he did nothing wrong and that he consulted an ethics attorney every step of the way to make sure that what he was doing was legal and ethical. “I was very careful,” he said, his voice rising for the first and only time in many hours of interviews. “I did not chair the PAC because I didn’t want to be involved. I thought I did everything exactly to the letter of the law. I know nothing about their administrative structure, where they spent their money, or what they spent it for.” For now, the investigation seems merely to have dented him: Democrats gained only one seat in the 2004 elections, and that victory is being challenged in the House by the losing candidate. If the Republican majority overturns the outcome, that will only infuriate Democrats more.
Given the circumstances, there is considerable speculation in the Capitol about whether Craddick might be more conciliatory this session. When he changed press secretaries just before the start of the session, the talk was that he might want to remake his image. But it has never been his nature to spend time healing wounds or reaching out to aggrieved parties. His great advantage is that other politicians aren’t used to someone who doesn’t compromise. They’ll give in a little, expecting Craddick to do the same, but his track record suggests that he won’t. He never does. He never backs down, never gives in. He is proud of his stubbornness, his willingness to take a hard position and stand by it, whatever the consequences. It would not have encouraged those who are optimistic about a kinder, gentler Craddick to have heard a story he related during one of our meetings in Midland, about a recent deal he’d made with a major oil company. He and the negotiators for the company had come to an agreement. But as they were preparing to sign on the dotted line, one of the negotiators tried to change it. “I’m not gonna do it,” Craddick said, and, as he tells the story, the other man’s jaw almost fell to the floor. The man made another proposal. Again Craddick said no. He got his way. Nadine, listening to the story, had the last word: “Tom is very persistent and very tenacious.”
Legislators, too, have learned that playing a game of chicken with Craddick doesn’t work. Take the case of a group of Democrats, so-called WD40’s (white Democrats of middle age), who tried to back Craddick down at the eleventh hour on the tort reform bill, which severely limited the damages plaintiffs could win in medical malpractice lawsuits. It was something that Republicans, particularly Craddick, wanted very badly. But because the issue involved a constitutional amendment, Craddick needed 100 (of 150) votes, instead of a simple majority. Since only 88 members were Republicans, he had to have at least 12 Democrats.
All of which gave the WD40’s bargaining power, or so they believed. At three-thirty in the morning on the night before the vote, a group of them walked up to the Speaker’s apartment and woke Craddick up. They had two demands, they said: one to change the date on which the public would vote to approve the amendment, the other to change the size of the majority needed in the future to modify the law on damages. They knew, and he knew, that the Speaker had to have their votes. Craddick told me about what happened next: “They said, ‘We want these changes or we are not going to vote for it,’ even though they had committed. I said, ‘I am not gonna do it. Y’all need to get out.’ And then, at six in the morning, I called them all and visited with them one on one, and they all voted for it except one who had never committed. If you give under pressure, it really weakens your ability to deal with people. We made an agreement. If I give in that early in the session, my term is over.”
Another well-known game of chicken occurred during the climax of the prolonged process of redrawing the boundaries of the state’s congressional districts. For more than a week, Craddick and Republicans in the Senate were deadlocked on how to draw the legislative map of West Texas. Craddick insisted that his hometown of Midland get its own congressman, at the expense of Abilene and Lubbock. Lubbock’s senator, Robert Duncan, objected. Dewhurst accused Craddick of “playing the Iranian cabdriver negotiations, where you get what you want and then you start adding two or three other requests.” Even DeLay could not get Craddick to budge; either Midland got its own congressman or the bill would die. The Senate blinked. Craddick won again. An influential lobbyist told me, “I was floored when Tom Craddick and Robert Duncan were willing to sink the entire redistricting bill for one little section. There will be hurt feelings forever on that one.”
For all the controversy that swirls around him—the DA looking over his shoulder, the Senate gunning for him, the House Democrats hoping for a chance to get even—Craddick’s power is undiminished. Like him or not, it is impossible to imagine anyone but Craddick running the House for the foreseeable future. In the two years that he has been Speaker, Texas politics has changed, and the Legislature has changed, but Tom Craddick remains the same.
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