On March 4, Texans will cast their votes in party primaries for offices from, as the saying goes, the courthouse to the White House. For the first time in more than thirty years, Texas is situated to play a pivotal role in selecting the next president. The primaries are going to generate a level of excitement in politics that most Texans have never experienced. But another office, one that is not even officially on the ballot, will be in play that day: Speaker of the House. In a way, the speaker’s race works like a mini—electoral college. Voters don’t choose the leader of the Texas House of Representatives, but they do choose the people who choose the leader: the 150 House members. Normally, speaker’s races take place out of public view, but not this time. From the moment last May that Tom Craddick claimed the absolute power to refuse to recognize a motion to remove him from the chair, it was foreordained that the up or down vote on his reelection would take place at the ballot box.
Inside the bubble that surrounds the Texas political world, the speaker’s race looms larger than the presidential race. At stake is not just the speakership but also partisan control of the House and, for some veteran lawmakers, the fleeting possibility of a return to the days when a tradition of civil debate prevailed in the chamber instead of an atmosphere that crackles each day with hostility. After three tumultuous sessions, no one can doubt that the rancor will continue for as long as Craddick is speaker. He embodies the observation once made of the Bourbon kings of France: He has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
It would serve little purpose here to try to assign blame for the current situation. Yes, the Democratic leadership has resisted Craddick every step of the way—sometimes out of pique, sometimes out of principle. Still, the presiding officer has the power to set the tone, and the tone he has set is to fight every battle, large and small, to the finish, never yielding, never giving in. And it isn’t only the D’s who are Craddick’s problem; it’s also a handful of Republicans—enough of them that he can’t be sure of getting the 76 votes he needs to keep his job from his own party.
If the embattled speaker doesn’t have enough R’s with him and the D’s are against him, how has he managed to cling to power? The answer is that not all the D’s are against him. Craddick has been able to woo enough of them to provide a governing margin, thus proving for the umpteenth time that he is a relentless, redoubtable politician whose wiles and ambitions have been honed over a forty-year career and who should never be underestimated.
The Craddick D’s hold the balance of power in the House. In exchange for backing him as speaker, they are rewarded with chairmanships, plum committee assignments, and goodies for their districts. On the Sunday night before the Eightieth Legislature convened, in January 2007, Craddick hosted a gathering for his supporters at the Austin Club, a venerable downtown watering hole. Someone was videotaping the arrivals, and many of the Crad-dick D’s, tipped off, tried approaching through an alleyway and slipping in through a side door, to no avail: Their antics were preserved forever on YouTube anyway. When the crucial vote for speaker—on a procedural point—was taken on the first day of the session, 15 of 69 Democrats sided with Craddick.
This support for Craddick is not without peril. In the 2004 and 2006 election cycles, Democratic leaders targeted several Craddick D’s for defeat in Democratic primaries. Four lost in ’04 and a fifth went down in ’06. Now it is 2008, and the scorecard looks like this: One Craddick D, Robert Puente, of San Antonio has retired. His successor is not for Craddick. Four Craddick D’s—Norma Chávez, of El Paso; Joe Deshotel, of Beaumont; Eddie Lucio III, of Brownsville; and Patrick Rose, of Dripping Springs—have confessed their apostasy and returned to the fold. Four more face tough primary races: Kevin Bailey, of Houston; Dawnna Dukes, of Austin; Ismael “Kino” Flores, of Palmview; and Aaron Peña, of Edinburg. This represents a worst-case scenario of nine lost votes for the speaker.
The Craddick D’s defend themselves by saying that they would vote for a Democratic speaker if the D’s had a majority in the House, but since the R’s are in the majority, they can do more for their constituents by supporting Craddick than by opposing him. The flaw in this argument is not hard to detect. So long as Craddick is speaker, all but the most senior Democrats who oppose him are banished to insignificant committees where they can have little effect on major legislation. It is the Craddick D’s who keep him in power and the other D’s on the bench. If the Craddick D’s were to withdraw their support, Craddick would not have the votes to be elected speaker. In his stead, the House would turn to a Republican who was less partisan and less vindictive, and talented Democrats would once again be allowed to participate in the legislative process. And what would become of the Craddick D’s? Unless a deal was cut beforehand, they would be the ones ostracized in the new regime. They can’t go home again.
To get a sense of how the Craddick D’s were faring under the pressure of competitive races, I went to the Rio Grande Valley, where one of the most fiercely contested primaries is taking place in central and western Hidalgo County. This is the bailiwick of Kino Flores, who faces a challenge from Sandra Rodriguez, a former Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school board member and the wife of a well-known former district judge, Fernando Mancias. In late January, I spent several days in McAllen observing not only the race but also the changes that have transformed this part of Texas. Along U.S. 83, the farms that once were the backbone of the