The first day of a legislative session always has the festive atmosphere of a high school reunion, but this one had something extra. It was also Bastille Day—the moment that the masses stormed the battlements and freed the prisoners. I have never seen so many members look so happy. Charlie Geren was beaming, ear to ear. So was Tommy Merritt. And Brian Eppstein in the gallery. Even the reserved Brian McCall allowed himself a grin. I ran into them in the west hallway. Pete Gallego and Nelda Laney were there too. The Straus speakership represents an attempted restoration of the old order—the Laney years—in which the House was run by the bipartisan moderate center and the fringes on the left and right were reduced to grumbling about the injustice of it all. This model is the opposite of the one employed by Tom Craddick, which was based on partisanship and ideology. Excluded from the governing coalition were most of the Democrats and the ABC Republicans. From the moment that Geren and Craig Eiland walked to the front microphone together to present the first resolution to the last line of Straus’s acceptance speech—”Let there be no walls in this House”—the symbolism of the occasion was designed to make the point that the bad old days are over. It seemed to me that just as the physical restoration of the chamber was achieved in the 1990s, the insurgents want to achieve a mental restoration of the old days as well. The question I want to pose is whether the Craddick model or the Pete Laney model is more likely to be the way of the future. I much prefer the Laney model, and I hated the Craddick model, because it was built on the raw exercise of political power, at the expense of the independence of the members, but I believe that there will be more Craddicks than Laneys in the House’s future. Partisanship is the easiest and most effective organizing principle. Craddick used it quite effectively for two and a half sessions. His speakership failed not because the model was flawed but because the speaker was flawed. If he had shared power with his committee chairs, if he had utilized floor leaders who had a stake in his success, if he had resisted the urge to claim absolute power for himself, if he had not tried to control everything members did, including their campaigns, Tom Craddick could have led the House for as long as he wanted to. The most damning thing I heard Republicans say about him, and they said it often, was: “He thinks we are here to serve him, not that he is here to serve us.” Still, it wasn’t just poor leadership that caused Craddick’s downfall. It was the general malaise of the Republican party that was beginning even as Craddick assumed power in 2003. It was the unpopularity of George W. Bush nationwide, the low regard for the Perry-Dewhurst- Craddick leadership team in Texas, and the collapse of the Republican party in 2006 to 2008. If the House is bipartisan today, it is fundamentally because the Democrats have 74 seats, and enough members realized that Craddick’s governing style could not possibly work in a 76-74 House. This leadership is bipartisan because the numbers are bipartisan. If the numbers change in the future to reflect a partisan advantage, the leadership style will change with it. This is inevitable in a two-party system. But for now the insurgency has become the restoration. We’ll see how long it can last.
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Weekly dispatches from the middle of the road of Texas politics.
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