“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.

Today, as you can see from his photograph, Tom Craddick is a happy guy. He completed a 34-year journey from ultimate outsider to ultimate insider by winning election in January as Speaker of the House—a position he pursued relentlessly and, some would say, ruthlessly for at least eight years. His election marked the fall of the last Democratic-held office in state government, at the expense of longtime Speaker Pete Laney.

What can Texas expect from a Craddick speakership? After the Republican sweep on Election Day, he was pilloried in the press for choosing lobbyists to head his transition team, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a series of articles that questioned his ethics. He had had business dealings with Cap Rock Energy Corporation, which had received favorable treatment in the electricity deregulation bill and which employed Craddick’s daughter, Christi, as a lobbyist. Christi had also been one of a handful of beneficiaries of a change in the law concerning health insurance coverage for dependents of state employees, including legislators. (In neither case were Craddick’s fingerprints visible.) It seemed as if we might be headed back to the bad old days before Laney, whose singular achievement had been to raise the ethical standard of the House.

In Washington such revelations would have led to a media feeding frenzy. In Texas hardly anyone raised an eyebrow. Lawmakers work part-time for $600 a month; what they and their families do to get by, so long as it is not prohibited by law, is considered exempt in the culture of the Capitol. (The Craddick stories neglected to mention that Laney and Bill Ratliff, who served as lieutenant governor last session, each have a child who lobbies; neither offspring, however, has incurred public criticism.) Outside Austin no one knows quite what to make of a Speaker anyway: Is he a statewide figure or isn’t he?

Another way of putting this question appears on the cover of this issue: “Does Tom Craddick matter?” This may seem to be a strange thing to ask about the first Republican Speaker in 130 years. But the question is not about Craddick alone. It’s about the peculiar office he holds. Its occupant has statewide responsibilities but a core constituency of just 149 people who elect him—his colleagues. Every Speaker faces what might be called 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. A second obstacle is the Speakership Jinx. Almost four decades have passed since the House last elected a Speaker who concluded his political career free of scandal or defeat. Most recently, Laney failed in his bid for a sixth term as Speaker, though he remains a legislator. Finally, there is the nature of the House itself. It tends to elevate from its ranks people with whom the members are comfortable. Grand vision, overt brilliance, and legislative wizardry count for very little. Rather, it’s who best reflects the current mood of the House. In the eighties, when members liked to party, Gib Lewis let the good times roll. In the nineties, when the excesses became embarrassing, Laney was the man to restore propriety.

Today, in the first Republican House since Reconstruction, it is hard to imagine anyone as Speaker except Craddick, who led the fight for a GOP majority at the cost of his committee chairmanship and long friendship with Laney. Like most of his predecessors, he was not a highly visible legislator. He was known mainly for carrying bills that helped the oil and gas industry (and himself, since he owns extensive oil and gas interests), which is the main business in his district, and for giving strategic advice to dissident Republicans. He wasn’t one to give stirring but futile perorations against Democrats’ bills: 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.”

Once he set his sights on getting a Republican majority (the prerequisite for a Republican speaker), he never let up. He wooed each class of Republican freshmen, helping them in their campaigns to beat Democrats and then, when they became colleagues, indoctrinating them in the ways of the Legislature. He served as Republican caucus chair in the mid-nineties, and when term limits forced him to yield the position to a potential rival, Ken Marchant, Craddick repeatedly challenged Marchant’s strategy in the caucus. Marchant is a skilled and widely admired legislator, but he just wasn’t constituted to fight a relentless opponent, so he joined him, giving Craddick an early endorsement that made his eventual election as Speaker all but inevitable.

The rap against Craddick has never been what the newspapers focused on—his ethics or his ties to the lobby. Craddick has never been one to party away the nighttime hours or munch lunch with the lobby at the Austin Club, today’s successor to the long-defunct Citadel. The concern inside the Capitol has been that he is too partisan and too mean—and too parochial, coming from Midland, a city that is overwhelmingly Republican and wants little from government. I’ve heard it a lot, not only from Democrats but also from Republicans who remained Laney loyalists, a group that became known as the ABCs (Anybody But Craddick). When I raised the partisanship issue with Craddick, he said, “Tell me if you can think of one instance when I took the floor on a partisan issue.” I couldn’t. He never tried to blow up the House to make Laney look bad, although some of his followers did.

Craddick’s partisanship came at election time. So did his meanness. He broke the unwritten rule that legislators should not campaign against their colleagues; it was okay for Republicans to help GOP candidates in races that had no incumbent but not okay to help GOP candidates beat Democratic incumbents. But remember, he began his political career with Gus Mutscher taking out newspaper ads against him. Perhaps a better measure of Craddick’s temperament is that when Election Day was over and he had the votes to be elected Speaker, he offered the ABCs an olive branch: one last chance to sign on before he went public with the names of his supporters. Which they did, every one of them. His committee appointments were old-school: reward and punish. Democrats who left Laney to support Craddick were given some of the most coveted assignments in the House. The ABCs didn’t fare as well, but they weren’t excommunicated, as Craddick had been by Mutscher. The lone member to vote against Craddick for Speaker—a Fort Worth Democrat named Lon Burnam—will spend his session on a committee that a city boy is unlikely to find attractive: Agriculture and Livestock. And it meets at eight in the morning, when country boys are used to being up.

As for whether Craddick matters, we’ll soon find out. The state faces a $9.9 billion budget shortfall. Like Governor Rick Perry and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, Craddick has pledged not to raise taxes. Doom-and-gloom scenarios—massive cuts in basic services, Republicans dismantling the government—are the talk of the Capitol. Craddick shrugs them off. “The walls didn’t fall in when I was appointed the first Republican committee chairman in ninety-nine years in 1975,” he says. “They won’t fall in now.”