BEFORE I PICK OVER THE DETAILS of the race for Speaker, let me remind you of a column I wrote four years ago about the guy who had just won the job, Tom Craddick. I had gotten to know Craddick pretty well over the years, had even gone out to Midland a couple of times to visit with him, and I thought that he was the right person to lead the first GOP majority in 130 years. The column began with his recollections of his first session in the House:
“‘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.”
Craddick’s bitter memories of Mutscher had not dissipated over the years. His reaction, I thought, was a good sign. Anyone who remembered that kind of mistreatment would surely be unlikely to inflict it on others. Wrong! Little did I suspect that, within a few weeks, Craddick would morph into Mutscher: riding roughshod over the opposition, imposing his will on members of his own party who exhibited an iota of independence, and polarizing the House, as Mutscher had done decades earlier, giving rise to the Dirty Thirty, who were against everything he was for. Craddick, too, would create his own opposition. His antipathy to the education community led to the formation of a group called Texas Parent PAC, which recruited education-friendly candidates, many of whom went on to defeat members and candidates Craddick supported—including his education chairman.
His problem was a characteristic I had noted in that 2003 column: “Craddick can’t bear to lose. Although he seems relaxed and soft-spoken, he is intensely competitive. A lobbyist, a former colleague who has been fishing with Craddick ‘from Mexico to Alaska,’ says, ‘When you go fishing with Tom, it’s not a back-to-nature experience. He’s out to catch more fish than you do. He keeps score.’” Indeed, that is how he ran the House. He would issue tortured parliamentary rulings to prevent Democrats from winning minor points. He would demand that apostate Republicans vote his way, even though he didn’t need their votes to win. And, of course, he became famous in that 2003 session, at least inside the Capitol, for refusing to compromise with Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and the Senate.
I did not foresee Craddick’s becoming so powerful because of what I described as the Chinese Emperor problem: “China has so much territory and so many people and so many unruly warlords that its leaders have always had to struggle just to manage their own realm and thus have never been able to concentrate on extending China’s influence. So it is with Speakers. The effort it takes to massage egos and defuse the personality conflicts is so time-consuming that Speakers seldom achieve much influence beyond their own chamber.” For about two and a half years, while Craddick reigned supreme in the realm of the Capitol, I was hoping that nobody remembered what I had written—most of all, Craddick.
But by 2005, a bipartisan coalition had formed a working majority on education issues. In special sessions on school finance that year, Craddick forced Republican members to vote against Democratic proposals that were popular back home. He was in control during the successful 2006 school finance session, aided greatly by the Texas Supreme Court’s threat to close the public schools if the state did not reduce its reliance on property taxes to fund education. But the confluence of public opinion turning against Republicans nationwide and the enmity of the education community in Texas caused GOP legislative candidates to suffer a bloodbath in the general election last November. All of a sudden the Chinese Emperor problem was very real. Craddick knew he would be challenged for Speaker in 2007, but he didn’t know who the challenger would be.
A race against a sitting Speaker is the rarest of political events in the Legislature. A sitting Speaker is an entrenched figure. He has a ready-made team of defenders: committee chairs, other prominent members, and lobbyists and donors whose pet projects received the Speaker’s blessing. That Craddick faced a challenge at all was a clear signal that he had not handled his business well. Just as he had created an opposition outside the House, so had he created one inside, by resorting to threats and intimidation to get his way.
Just before Christmas, Brian McCall, a respected Republican from Plano, announced that he would challenge Craddick. He was soon followed by Republican Jim Pitts, of Waxahachie, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Craddick now was fighting for his political life. No one will ever know the tactics—the threats, the promises—that were employed by supporters of the various candidates to get votes. At one point McCall had enough promises of support by members to unseat Craddick, but his weak point was that most of them were Democrats. Two of McCall’s Republican allies, Jody Laubenberg, of Plano, and Debbie Riddle, of Houston, withdrew their pledges after meeting with Craddick. McCall saw his candidacy flagging and quit the race in favor of Pitts, who believed he could attract Republican votes.
Pitts’s crucial moment came on the Thursday before the January 9 vote. A day earlier, he and McCall had scheduled a press conference, and, a supporter told me, “the votes would come pouring out.” But at the press conference they did not reveal the names of any supporters, nor did they answer questions. Pitts’s explanation was that he wanted to prevent Craddick from retaliating against Republicans, but there comes a time in a Speaker’s race when you have to put up or shut up, and this was it. Craddick had made public his list of supporters, and it looked pretty solid to me. I was certain after the press conference that Craddick would win.
On the day of the vote, the House chamber was packed. Families of members joined legislators at their desks. Visitors with tickets packed the aisles outside the brass rail that separates lawmakers from an area reserved for pages and staff. In the galleries people were standing, which is not normally allowed. The “rig count” of TV cameras on tripods was 21, the largest I can recall. This was history.
The fight between Craddick and Pitts came down to how the vote would be conducted. After an ill-conceived try to jimmy the vote in their favor, the Craddick forces proposed that members cast individual paper ballots and that the votes be made public as soon as they were counted. Pitts’ supporters, led by Republican Charlie Geren, of Fort Worth, argued that the individual ballots should not be made public until after the winner had made committee assignments, to remove the threat of retribution. The debate was great political theater, involving arcane parliamentary arguments about obscure provisions of the Texas Constitution and House rules. The crucial vote was on whether to kill the Geren proposal, which thus became a proxy vote for Speaker. Craddick won, 80 to 68 (a total that reflects the real support for him and opposition to him). Once Craddick won the test vote, Pitts knew his candidacy was doomed and withdrew from the race. The fight was over, and the members voted electronically, as they usually do. The vote for Craddick was 121 yeas, 27 nays.
During the debate on the method of voting, to my total surprise and consternation, a Craddick supporter cited my observation in my political blog, burkablog.com, that the Craddick proposal was fair. All of a sudden heads were swiveling around to look at me—I was sitting in the gallery—and I felt as if I were having one of those dreams in which you’re running down the street naked. But I was right: There is no reason why members should not have to stand behind their votes. The Pitts proposal to keep the vote secret would have changed the nature of the speakership. Part of the inherent power of the office is the Speaker’s ability to appoint committee chairs who are loyal to him. Take away that power and you weaken the office. The office is more important than Tom Craddick. To put it another way, reward and punishment are part of politics—too much a part, in the case of Craddick, but necessary nevertheless.
In a short victory speech, Craddick was gracious. He addressed, obliquely, several of the criticisms of him: that he didn’t listen, that he sometimes didn’t allow his members the leeway to vote in a way that reflected their constituents’ wishes, that he wanted legislation to reflect his views rather than the will of the House. “I had numerous conversations with members during this election period,” he said, “and I can assure you I listened carefully … The lesson I have learned over the long haul has been that this body works well because members care about their issues and care about their constituents …”
If he’s serious about changing, he should propose a reform to limit Speakers to three consecutive terms. Until the late Billy Clayton became Speaker in 1975, no Speaker had ever served for more than two terms. Since Clayton’s election, Texas has had only four Speakers, including Craddick. Clayton served four terms, Gib Lewis five, and Pete Laney five. Craddick is in his third term, and after this challenge fizzled, I doubt that he will be seriously opposed for a fourth. The longer that Speakers serve, the more they bottle up the opportunities for younger members, the more enemies they accumulate, and the more they need to resort to punishment. This cycle is inevitable; Craddick merely accelerated it so that it had begun by his second month in the job in 2003. Term limits allow members to get out of the penalty box with the election of a new Speaker.
When I wrote that first column about Tom Craddick, I thought he would be a good Speaker. It’s not too late.