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The Penalty Box

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Tom Craddick’s committee appointments, which have been delayed until Friday, perhaps longer, will be closely examined for signs of retribution following the speakers race that started the session. This raises the question of what is “fair” retribution and what is “unfair” retribution? Craddick can hardly be expected to forgive and forget the challenge to his speakership by Brian McCall and Jim Pitts. Pitts won’t keep his old job as chairman of Appropriations, but he wasn’t going to be reappointed anyway, even if he hadn’t run for speaker. The relationship between Pitts and Craddick, and especially Craddick’s chief operative, Nancy Fisher, had deteriorated to the point that Pitts had told me last fall he didn’t expect to retain his chairmanship. McCall, a Craddick rival dating back to 2003, had a vice-chairmanship (Financial Institutions) and a seat on Calendars in 2005. Vice-chairmanships don’t matter; seats on Calendars do. It would be remarkably generous of Craddick to reappoint McCall to Calendars, and foolhardy as well; a lot of Craddick supporters covet a seat on Calendars, and they will not take kindly to seeing the speaker reward an enemy instead of a friend. This is a no-win situation for Craddick: If he doesn’t reappoint McCall, the media (that’s Them, not me) will say (correctly) that McCall was punished for opposing Craddick. If he does reappoint McCall, he will anger his own supporters. To me, it’s a no-brainer: Craddick has to bust him.

So McCall and Pitts, along with Robert Talton, a prominent conservative Republican defector to the challengers’ camp, will be on the outside looking in. Talton reportedly asked for one of several committee chairmanships anyway. I wouldn’t bet on his getting one. With the Capitol press corps certain to scrutinize the appointments closely, I expect both Pitts and McCall to get some kind of consolation prize that looks good but is totally meaningless, like a vice-chairmanship. The real question is how long both of the challengers have to spend in the penalty box. They are too talented to leave on the sidelines for more than a session.

Another member whose fate will be closely watched is Charlie Geren. In the 2006 Republican primary, Geren was one of several Republican members targeted for defeat by Craddick ally and school vouchers advocate James Leininger, who spent well into six figures in an unsuccessful effort to defeat Geren, a vocal opponent of vouchers. Meanwhile, Craddick was insisting that (a) he supported all incumbent Republicans, including Geren, but that (b) he had no control over Leininger. Nobody believed (a) or (b), least of all Geren. After Geren won the primary, he hosted a fundraiser for Craddick, only to end up in the McCall/Pitts camp. Craddick ought to regard this as a wash; he acted deceptively toward Geren, and Geren returned the favor.

The big news that is going to come out of the committee assignments is that the members who made the difference between Craddick’s winning and losing the speakers race are going to reap the benefits of their votes. And these members are not Republicans, but the Craddick Democrats. (Remember, the House is divided along party lines, but the parties are not Republicans and Democrats; they are pro-Craddicks and anti-Craddicks.) The Craddick Ds are going to get chairmanships, seats on Appropriations, and a bunch of seats on Calendars. This is going to drive the hardline anti-Craddick Ds crazy. They’re going to have to beg the likes of Norma Chavez to get their bills through Calendars. It’s going to drive some Republicans who don’t get treated so well crazy too.

Some other things to look for:

* Who will be chair of Appropriations? Sylvester Turner wants it badly but Craddick can’t give it to a Democrat. My money is on Warren Chisum, who is best known for anti-gay legislation but in fact is one of the shrewdest members of the House. Once an anti-Craddick, he has worked his way back into the speaker’s good graces by being the go-to guy in tight parliamentary battles and floor debates.

* Where will Mike Krusee end up? The Round Rock Republican has been chairman of Transportation and has carried all the controversial toll road legislation. Many members feel that Krusee didn’t come clean about what was in the humongous bill when the House passed it in 2003. Last November, he barely survived a close election against an unknown, unfunded Democrat. Assuming that he wants to run for reelection, might he want a chairmanship that isn’t quite so controversial in his district?

* Who will be chair of Public Education? Rob Eissler of The Woodlands and Dan Branch of Highland Park are the main contenders. Eissler has been considered to have the inside track, but Branch is too able to be left on the sidelines. If Eissler gets Public Ed, where does Branch end up, and will he like it?

* Who will be in the penalty box? Three Democrats who were publicly pledged to Craddick on his December 28 list withdrew their pledges: Chuck Hopson, Armando Martinez, and Richard Raymond. If there is a penalty box, they are candidates to be in it. Two other prominent Democrats who had worked with the Republican leadership in the past but did not support Craddick are Mike Villareal and Craig Eiland. Even if Eiland is in the penalty box, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. On the R side, three Republicans (in addition to Talton) defected to McCall–Jodie Laubenberg, Ken Paxton, and Debbie Riddle–and then went back to Craddick. Will their change of heart cancel out their initial perfidy? Two other Rs who are penalty box candidates are Buddy West and Joe Strauss, both of whom voted for the Geren amendment to delay releasing the votes for speaker until after committee assignments had been made. This was essentially the vote for speaker, and they were on the losing side. I can’t account for West’s vote–he is from Odessa, sister city to Craddick’s home town of Midland–but Strauss is smart, principled, and independent, and he needs to be involved in the fray, not stuck in the penalty box.

All of the above indicates why committee assignments are taking longer than usual. The stakes are very high. The vote on the Geren amendment to keep the ballots secret until after the winning speaker candidate had made his committee assignments–which was the real vote for speaker–was 80-68. Add in the two members who missed the vote, and Craddick’s working margin for his speakership is 82-68. That is a thin, thin, thin operating margin. He can’t afford to engage in wholesale retribution against his enemies, and he can’t afford to disappoint too many of his friends.

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