Tom and Nadine Craddick make their home most of the year in Midland, where Tom is a well-connected businessman with close ties to the oil industry. Tom, of course, also serves as speaker of the Texas House, and with the job comes a unique residence that offers the easiest commute around. When in Austin, the speaker resides in a free, 2,000-square-foot apartment inside the Capitol, just behind the House chamber. Every Texas Speaker—perhaps as far back as 1903—has lived there, and according to the Texas State Preservation Board, the state agency that maintains the place, it’s the only private residence within a state capitol in the nation.
The Craddicks recently decided that the apartment needs a major renovation. The Preservation Board has agreed to replace the 12-year-old carpet. But Tom and Nadine have a lot more in mind. Among the upgrades under way: replacing the floor, countertops, cabinets, and plumbing fixtures in the kitchen and two bathrooms; replacing appliances and lighting fixtures in the kitchen; removing the loft and its stair case; installing a cooking exhaust system in the kitchen; and putting an exhaust system in the master bathroom to eliminate steam. The renovation’s initial estimated cost was $441,000, according to state records. In 2005, the Legislature appropriated $1 million to the Preservation Board that the agency can use for upkeep and renovation of the speaker’s residence. But the Craddicks decided not to use public money. Instead, they turned to a much more selective source of private funding—campaign contributors.
In February, the Craddicks mailed out to select donors a fundraising brochure that featured a picture of the speaker and his wife, and a letter signed by both of them asking for contributions to the renovation. “Your support of the renovation of the Speaker’s Residence will be a lasting gift to all Texans,” the brochure read. (But since the speaker’s residence is one of the few places in the Capitol that’s off-limits to the public, the donations are more accurately a gift to two Texans in particular.)
So far 38 donors have sent in more than $1 million, according to state records. Some of them are simply allies and friends of Tom Craddick, including Austin consultant Bill Miller ($14,000), Texans for Lawsuit Reform cofounder Dick Trabulsi ($2,500), and Dallas investor Louis Beecherl ($10,000). But the largest contributions, which come from special interests with business before the state, give off the whiff of influence peddling. Private water speculator Boone Pickens wrote a $250,000 check. The horse track operator MAXXAM Inc.—owned by Charles Hurwitz, a major proponent of legalizing slot machines at tracks—gave $25,000. AT&T Inc., which seemingly has a pet bill in the Legislature every session, donated $250,000. That was the same total handed over by Dallas businessman Harold Simmons and three companies under his control. The Simmons-owned Waste Control Specialists LLC operates a nuclear waste dump in far West Texas. The company is trying to get an expanded permit from the state to store more waste for longer periods. Another Simmons outfit, NL Industries Inc. (formerly known as National Lead) faces billions in liability in Texas and around the country from potential lawsuits over lead poisoning.
That’s just to name a few of the donors. The money isn’t subject to campaign finance regulations. And because the donations are technically for preservation of state property, they’re tax deductible.
The method the Craddicks chose to fund their renovation is emblematic of how the Texas House functions under current leadership. Too often for the past three years, only a select group of well-connected special interests has had access to power, and too often for their own gain.