IN THE BLOODY AFTERMATH OF the 2000 election contest, bruised from allegations of a stolen election, President-elect George W. Bush badly needed to reassure a fractured nation that he would lead with fairness and integrity. His solution? He asked his best Democratic friend in Texas, Speaker James E. “Pete” Laney, to vouch for him on national television. And so, on December 13, 2000, the camera-shy cotton farmer from Hale Center stepped to the podium in the House chamber of the state capitol and gave this unequivocal endorsement: “We didn’t always agree on issues but found that we could have policy differences without having gridlock. We could have debate without bitterness. And we could reach agreements and solve problems without sacrificing our principles,” Laney told millions of Americans in his signature West Texas twang. “Above all, we learned that Governor Bush is a leader you can trust and respect.”

Now, a little over a year later, Laney is in need of some reciprocal bipartisanship. He is seeking a record sixth term as Speaker in the 2003 Legislature, but to win a majority of the votes of his 149 colleagues, Laney must continue to receive the votes of Republican members of his bipartisan team of supporters. But it doesn’t look good for Laney. With Republicans on the cusp of gaining a majority in the House for the first time in 130 years, GOP legislators are feeling pressure from party bigwigs and constituents to elect a Republican Speaker—and seeing the opportunity to advance their own careers as well. The clear Republican front-runner is Tom Craddick, of Midland, once a Laney ally but in recent sessions his determined foe. Neither Laney’s highly regarded performance in office nor his kindness toward Bush counts for much at a time when party loyalty trumps personal loyalty.

The reason that control of the House is so important to Republicans is that the House and the speakership are the Democrats’ last beachhead in state government. Every statewide office and judgeship is held by Republicans (although the Democrats are mounting a serious challenge in several races this year), and the GOP also holds a majority in the state Senate. Last summer a Republican-dominated board drew new House districts to favor GOP candidates, all but guaranteeing that the Republicans will finally capture the House—something that previous Craddick-backed attempts to defeat pro-Laney Democrats in the 1996 and 1998 elections failed to accomplish.

The apparent inevitability of a Republican House majority set off an early scramble among Republicans who yearned to be Speaker—Craddick, Brian McCall, of Plano, Kim Brimer, of Fort Worth, Ed Kuempel, of Seguin, and Warren Chisum, of Pampa, among other hopefuls. Craddick, who is a sales representative for a company that supplies mud for oil-field drilling and runs his own real estate and oil and gas investment company, has emerged as the clear favorite of party stalwarts and financiers. Now 58, he first came to the Legislature in 1969. He has been an unannounced Speaker candidate for most of the Laney years, wooing freshmen every session and donating his spacious offices for redistricting strategy last spring. His open efforts to gain a Republican majority that would unseat Laney caused the Speaker to purge Craddick from his chairmanship of the influential Ways and Means Committee in 1999.

Though the voters in the election for House Speaker have not yet been formally identified—we won’t know the makeup of the 2003 House until after the November 2002 election—Craddick’s supporters say that he holds pledges from fifty returning House Republicans. His allies say he also has promises of support from Republican candidates seeking election for the first time and even from a few opportunistic Democrats. In January Craddick filed campaign reports showing he had raised $98,000 for his Speaker’s race, dwarfing the contributions of his Republican opponents.

But Craddick’s early strong showing has raised legitimate questions about the work of Republican activists on his behalf. State law makes it clear that no one is supposed to promise money or support to House candidates in an effort to influence their vote for Speaker. Most troubling are persistent rumors that GOP heavyweights are funding House candidates who support Craddick and undermining those who refuse to do so. “I’ve heard talk that campaign money will follow if they sign pledge cards [promising their support] for Tom,” says representative Toby Goodman, an Arlington Republican who is sometimes mentioned as a Speaker possibility. “I don’t believe that Tom has committed campaign funds in return for pledge cards.”

But are Craddick’s supporters spreading the message? Goodman says that a Republican candidate in the race to replace Brimer (who is now running for the state Senate and has endorsed Craddick) told him he endorsed Craddick at the urging of Brimer and his political consultant, Bryan Eppstein. “He’s following the advice of his political consultant and the incumbent, so I can’t fault the guy for doing that,” Goodman says. “Whether or not big Republican money will follow, we’ll see.”

Two of Craddick’s opponents, McCall and Kuempel, drew Republican primary opponents. A third potential Speaker candidate, Buddy West, of Odessa, was rumored to have an opponent; he endorsed Craddick before the filing deadline for the primary—and no opposition materialized. The Republican hierarchy has also targeted at least one Republican House member who has supported Laney in the past: Tommy Merritt, of Longview, a maverick who especially angered the GOP by offering his own alternative to a redistricting plan favored by leading House Republicans (including Craddick), saying his map was better for rural Texas. Now many Republican party leaders and legislators are actively campaigning on behalf of Curt Hinshaw, an attorney challenging Merritt in the GOP primary. State party chair Susan Weddington attended a fundraiser in Hinshaw’s behalf, and National Committeewoman Denise McNamara held a reception in her home for him, because, according to the invitation, “His race is important in Texas Republicans’ hopes of having our first Republican Speaker.” Last August fellow East Texas lawmaker Leo Berman, a Craddick supporter, contributed $500 to Hinshaw. “It has absolutely nothing to do with the Speaker’s race,” says Berman. “It has to do with Merritt’s conduct in the Texas Legislature and his total support of the Democrats in redistricting.”

Chisum, a former conservative Democrat and a longtime Laney loyalist, criticizes the involvement of the party in the Speaker’s race: “It’s the Republican party and some members of it who are making it a partisan race. If we allow that to happen, we are no better off than Washington, D.C.” Chisum says he believes the GOP deserves to hold the speakership if it wins a House majority, but he fears the influence of Craddick’s campaign contributors. “The outside influence destroys the process,” he says. “If they are allowed to elect him, he’ll run the House they way they tell him to.”

When McCall heard in December that Fred Moses, a local businessman, planned to challenge him for reelection, he was puzzled because Moses had supported McCall in the past and even contributed money to his campaign. Over lunch at Prestonwood Country Club, McCall says he asked Moses if he had cast votes or taken positions on issues that upset Moses. “He said there were none,” McCall says. Then, according to McCall, Moses “alluded to the fact that he would have plenty of money donated in this campaign.”

Moses, a longtime community volunteer and party activist, insists that the Speaker’s race has nothing to do with his decision to challenge McCall, though he says he has “looked at the numbers” and concluded that McCall can’t win the Speakership. Moses doesn’t recall making the comment about campaign contributions and says most of his campaign contributions will come from his family and close friends, rather than Republican financiers, whom he has not met. But, he adds, “I’m out calling for money every day.”

Kuempel, who has been in the Legislature since 1983, admits he has no hard evidence that his Republican primary opponent jumped in the race because Kuempel had decided to run for Speaker. Still, he says, “It sure was funny that Brian and I both got opponents in the primary. Does it pass the smell test?”

At one time, around half of the House Republicans coalesced into a group dubbed the ABCs (Anybody But Craddick). But by mid-January, only fourteen GOP incumbents remained uncommitted to the front-runner. This once-robust faction dwindled to its present size when Craddick became the choice of Republican insiders and rank-and-file House members got swept up in the herd instinct of wanting to follow the leader—an age-old pattern in a Speaker’s race. The remaining uncommitted Republicans have plotted the formation of a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who would elect a Republican Speaker with a more bipartisan record than Craddick’s. Goodman could evolve as a consensus candidate of that group. But it may be too late to stop Craddick.

When he announced for Speaker on October 2, Craddick noted that he has “worked with all members—regardless of political philosophy or party . . . That type of mutual cooperation and unity is more important in the two-party Texas of today than ever before in our state’s history.” Although Craddick would not be interviewed for this story, his campaign spokesman, Dave Walden, of Houston, acknowledges that Craddick’s campaign finance report shows “he has the support of a cross section of people who have been supportive of conservative and Republican politics for years. He’s proud of all of his supporters.” Are wealthy Republicans applying a Craddick litmus test before they make contributions to House candidates? “I know he doesn’t agree that there’s a requirement to support him for Speaker before money is given,” Walden says. “The fact that party stalwarts are supporting Tom Craddick for Speaker should not come as a surprise to anybody.”

Laney and his supporters are far from ceding the election. Depending on the outcome of the November elections, he could need only a handful of Republican supporters to survive. As McCall ruefully notes, “I would never underestimate Pete Laney.” Still, Laney’s chances of survival grew a little slimmer with the unsettling news that his longtime friends and colleagues David Swinford and John Smithee, both Amarillo Republicans whom Laney had named to chairmanships, had thrown their support to Craddick.

“It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do,” Swinford says of the phone call he placed to Laney confessing he was switching sides. “The folks I represent are basically rural. I’m deep into agriculture. You couldn’t find anybody better for rural people than Speaker Pete Laney.”

Over the holidays, Swinford says, he and his wife wrestled with the decision. “We bawled about it; we prayed about it for about two or three weeks. Pete has been the best Speaker. I love him and his wife more than anybody, anybody but my own people.” But he decided he could serve his constituents best as part of Craddick’s team. “That should come before my personal heartaches,” he says. “I decided I would have more impact with Craddick. I decided to do it early so I would have an impact.”

We were talking only a week after Swinford had announced for Craddick, and it seemed clear that the portent of the decision weighed heavily on his shoulders. Both of us realized that the end of the era in Texas when an elected member of one political party would stand up for a friend in the other party—on national television or in the House itself—was at hand. How does Swinford feel about that? “I hate it.”