This article has been updated. Last update: January 29, 2007
The No. 1 political bout pending in Texas is over who exercises “absolute” control over the House, as current Speaker Tom Craddick quaintly put it at the dramatic finale of this year’s session. Yet the speaker’s race is as convoluted as it is crucial. Since House members are the only ones who can elect the speaker, Texas voters are relegated to helping choose one of the House’s 150 speaker electors. The game is made more circuitous by a 35-year-old law designed to prevent representatives from bribing their way onto the speaker’s dais. This law prohibits wannabe speakers from giving anything of value to House candidates seeking powers that include electing the next speaker. Consequently, it falls to mercenaries, conscripts, and surrogates to prosecute this high-stakes battle.
Few people know this better than Craddick. Although he was never charged with wrongdoing, the Midland Republican figured prominently in Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s criminal probe of how Tom DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority PAC shaped the 2002 election that made Craddick speaker. (Austin election-law expert Ed Shack billed the Craddick campaign $23,520 during the last legislative session.) After a bitter legislative session, it now looks as if 2008 will unleash another bloody speaker battle. Speaker surrogates will spend much of this year stretching-if not breaking-Texas elections laws to either knock down or prop up House candidates who back Craddick. These surrogates are legally advised to avoid any outward appearance of coordinating their efforts with a speaker candidate. It is a game of winks and nods played for the biggest pot Austin currently has to offer.
Though DeLay may be out of the picture, many TRMPAC veterans are still working the Capitol. There are also fresh faces popping up behind the scenes-including several from Midland who look like probable Craddick surrogates. Craddick does not particularly need the Midlanders for their oil wealth. Big money likely will flow from the usual gushers: Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, San Antonio hospital-bed magnate James Leininger, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, and the Austin lobby. With DeLay gone, however, Craddick may be looking to Midland for loyal operatives who can be trusted to quietly do what it takes to get Craddick’s people elected-without dragging his name into the fray.
Low-profile Midland oil executive Tim M. Dunn seems to fit this job description. In recent years, he has become the most influential political player that most Texans never heard of. Dunn is the linchpin who interlocks the boards of a dizzying constellation of conservative political organizations. His pivotal position on the boards of five influential conservative groups has all the trappings of what Hillary Clinton might call a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Dunn is unlikely to live up to such neurotic hype, but his far-flung operations offer insight into this year’s blockbuster: Saving Speaker Craddick.
Dunn denies that his political work is focused on Craddick. “I have a significant amount of political activities, none of them are on behalf of Speaker Craddick directly.”
In 2006, Dunn used the Midland address of his energy companies-EnerQuest Oil & Gas Ltd., CrownQuest Operating LLC and Texas Land & Royalty Co.-to incorporate two Austin-based political entities that he chairs. One is Empower Texans (also known as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility). The other is the Patriot Group political consulting firm (see TO, “Patriots for Hire,” June 1, 2007). Both fledgling Dunn concerns have a knack for either promoting House candidates loyal to Craddick or attacking candidates who might consider a change in Housekeepers.
In addition, Dunn vice-chairs the boards of three more-established conservative groups. One is James Leininger’s influential Texas Public Policy Foundation, the think-tank from which Dunn recruited Michael Sullivan, a foundation vice president, to run Empower Texans. Another is the Plano-based Free Market Foundation, an affiliate of the national Christian-right group Focus on the Family. Finally, Dunn vice-chairs the Austin-based Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, which Craddick founded in 1995 with fellow GOP Reps. Jim Horn and Warren Chisum. John Colyandro, who is under indictment for his role as TRMPAC’s executive director, is the executive director of both the Texas Conservative Coalition and its research arm.
To appreciate the roles that the groups within Dunn’s web might play in the coming speaker’s brawl, consider the dress rehearsal. When Fort Worth Republican Rep. Anna Mowery resigned at the end of last year’s session, she provided Texans with a sneak preview of the melee likely to erupt around any House seat in serious play this election year. Mowery’s resignation attracted six Republican hopefuls and lone Democrat Dan Barrett. Barrett beat Republican front-runner Mark Shelton in a runoff last month, ending a brutal race for the Craddick camp. Craig Goldman, the most successful candidate to publicly kiss Craddick’s ring, placed fourth in the November special election. Goldman-a one-time aide to former Republican U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm-got whupped despite amassing an unrivalled war chest exceeding $250,000. (Homebuilder Perry was his No. 1 donor).
Craddick golden boy Goldman did not lose for want of help from team Dunn. Goldman’s political consulting firm was none other than the Patriot Group. Patriot Kevin Brannon is a former Gramm aide whom TRMPAC hired to vet GOP House candidates in 2003. Among other things, Brannon asked candidates seeking the PAC’s money if they would back Craddick as speaker. Patriot Denis Calebrese was the chief strategist for Texans for Lawsuit Reform in 2002, when the group backed the same House candidates as TRMPAC. Current Patriot and ex-Gramm aide Matt Welch ran TLR’s massive PAC at the time. The Patriot Group also recruited Perry spokesman Anthony Holm, who brought his megaclient’s business to the firm.
Dunn’s Empower Texans also tried to rescue Goldman. Just five days before his defeat in November, Goldman’s campaign reported that Empower Texans PAC distributed almost $3,000 worth of mail on his behalf. Voters had no way to know who bankrolled this blitz. Empower PAC, which Sullivan formed last July, did not file its first financial disclosure until January 2008. That report revealed that Dunn gave the PAC $58,471, supplying 72 percent of the money that Empower PAC raised.
Nor was this the first time that Empower has boosted Craddick’s cause. “When we consider the lack of progress on important fiscal reforms,” Sullivan blogged on the group’s Web site last fall, “the blame lies almost exclusively with a small group of legislators who campaign as if they are budget conservatives, but legislate like liberals.” Sullivan singled out a short list of moderate Republicans “just to name seven of the more offensive.” The alleged fiscal reprobates were Reps. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, Tony Goolsby of Dallas, Pat Haggerty of El Paso, Susan King of Abilene, Delwin Jones of Lubbock, Tommy Merritt of Longview, and Todd Smith of Euless. Empower’s CEO slammed these “more offensive” members-at least five of whom were off Craddick’s reservation-for such fiscal offenses as voting to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program and backing tuition discounts at public universities for those who graduate in the top 10 percent of their classes.
When Sullivan took his Empower road show into Merritt’s East Texas district last summer, the Houston Chronicle asked about his propensity for attacking House members who are agnostic-or antagonistic-with respect to the speaker. “I personally like Mr. Craddick a lot. I think he is a good, decent guy,” Sullivan said. “But my organization isn’t interested in internal House politics.”
As noted, Dunn recruited Sullivan from Leininger’s Texas Public Policy Foundation, where Dunn is vice chair of the board. Other key members of the board include chair Wendy Gramm, wife of Phil Gramm, and treasurer Ernest Angelo Jr. A longtime hunting buddy of Karl Rove, this Midland oilman’s resume includes stints as mayor of Midland and as a member of the Republican National Committee. Angelo now chairs the Texas Department of Public Safety, which is defying orders from a state district judge and the attorney general to grant this magazine’s request for Capitol security video. (The Observer requested the video to check out rumors that Leininger hovered outside the House chamber on the day in 2005 when Craddick put this big donor’s pet school-voucher bill to a failed vote.)
In late 2007, the Quorum Report was the first to report that Angelo had christened a new political committee called the Bipartisan Leadership PAC. This PAC name would not be noteworthy but for the many years that its treasurer has spent rallying the Grand Old Party. It will be interesting to see if this PAC’s bipartisanship extends beyond the likes of the so-called Craddick D’s. Last summer, Ryan Gravatt of Dunn’s Patriot Group founded the Big Red Tent Texas PAC, which also may be worth watching if it activates this year.
Leninger himself is best known in recent years for singlehandedly bankrolling a massive 2006 primary attack against moderate Republican incumbents in the House. The main vehicle for this assault was the Texas Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, whose treasurer is Midland accountant David J. Porter. TRLCC burned through $2.3 million of Leininger money in the first half of 2006, paying $1.8 million of it to Austin-based Anthem Media-a consulting firm founded by former Midland County Judge Jeff Norwood. Norwood poured much of this money into ads attacking five moderate House Republicans who opposed Leininger’s voucher legislation.
The most expensive of these gambits targeted Rep. Merritt of Longview, who continues to take shrapnel from Empower Texans. With Norwood’s expertise and $519,030 of Leininger’s money, primary challenger Mark Williams waged a harsh, but failed, attack that prompted Merritt to file a now-settled defamation lawsuit. Trying to cover his huge legal bills, Williams sued Norwood last summer. That lawsuit alleges that Norwood helped Porter create TRLCC and recruited Williams to run a prepaid campaign against Merritt. While Leininger lived up to this part of the alleged bargain, Williams claims that Norwood falsely promised that the Leininger machine would pay Williams’ legal bills. Those bills have surpassed $667,903, Williams told the Houston Chronicle.
A year from now, 150 newly elected House members will vote to replace or retain Speaker Craddick. The outcome of that internal election could hinge on who wins a relatively small number of closely contested House races this year. Craddick urgently wants to shape the outcome of those matches, but is legally barred from doing so. A peek behind the scenes suggests that a significant chunk of this dicey political work could fall to some of Craddick’s fellow Midlanders. Those tracking Texas’ biggest pending political bout would be wise to keep an eye on the political activities surrounding the likes of Tim Dunn, Ernest Angelo, David Porter, and Jeff Norwood. Midlanders understand better than most of us that what lies beneath the surface can make or break fortunes-political and otherwise.
Andrew Wheat is research director for Texans for Public Justice.