Capitol Offense: The Fall of the House of Craddick

The Fall of the House of Craddick?

The word was that right after the November 7 election, Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick had planned to go fishing. His office won’t confirm that, but it was widely understood at the Capitol that the speaker would be elsewhere five days later, when the Republican House caucus gathered for dinner in Austin.

But between Election Day and the caucus gathering, Craddick found himself in a politically perilous position.

Democrats picked up five seats in the Texas House, shrinking the GOP advantage to its lowest ebb in Craddick’s tenure at 81 to 69. That means a seven-vote swing can change the majority. Rumors began zipping around the Capitol that the Democratic gains might end Craddick’s four-year speakership. If only seven Republicans joined with Democrats, that would be enough to elect a more moderate hand to guide the lower chamber.

Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a good idea for Craddick to allow dozens of House Republicans to fraternize without him. The fishing would have to wait. Instead of addressing the group by videotape as planned, Craddick showed up and gave his speech in person. It was a minor gesture, but for Craddick every little bit helps.

No Republican has yet stepped forward to risk challenging an incumbent speaker, and it seems likely that Craddick will hold his post. Immediately after the election, Craddick released a list of 109 House members, including 30 Democrats, who he said had signed pledge cards supporting his bid for a third term.

If he is sworn in, the political terrain he will survey from the rostrum come January 9 when the 80th Legislature convenes is decidedly different. Craddick’s most powerful days—the times when he could ramrod legislation through with a dependable bloc of GOP votes—might well be behind him.

In the two election cycles since Craddick gained power with the help of then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in 2003, Republicans have ceded seven House seats—a significant decline given that Democrats hadn’t gained a single seat in the previous 32 years. In addition, half a dozen Craddick loyalists have lost in Democratic and Republican primaries. Following the latest defeats on November 7, Craddick seems especially vulnerable. Now only a handful of Republicans would have to join with Democrats to form a 76-vote majority.

That prospect appeals to House members of both parties who say they have grown weary of Craddick’s inflexible style of governing. They believe he is a weakened speaker, and don’t necessarily consider that bad. To remain effective, the theory goes, he will have to moderate his ways and be more accommodating of moderate Republicans and Democrats. It’s too soon to know if Craddick is capable of such a transition.

It was only four years ago that Craddick became the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction, following the GOP landslide in 2002 that gave Republicans 88 seats in the 150-member Texas House. In the 2003 session, Craddick seemed unbeatable. He enforced GOP unity by threatening to withhold campaign funds or find primary opponents to run against wayward Republicans. His style was ruthless, but effective. With Republicans voting in bloc, Craddick never lost, funneling whatever legislation he wanted through the compliant House.

“It’s like a parent in control,” said Rep. Carter Casteel, a New Braunfels Republican. “They’ve got the pocketbook, and you’re going to have to ask them if you want to go to the movie on Saturday.” Casteel had been one of the most vocal and independent Republicans in the House, and she suffered the consequences. Her colleagues named her GOP freshman of the year in the 2003 session. Yet three years later, Casteel was ousted by her own party—defeated in last spring’s primary by a Republican opponent funded almost exclusively by Craddick allies. “Craddick is very determined,” she said. “That can be a good thing in a leader. It can also be a bad thing in a leader if you’re so determined to get to a certain end that you forget to protect your members and refuse to consider other alternatives.”

Though successful at first, Craddick’s style engendered growing resentment within his own party. “He’s governing through fear, and ultimately that doesn’t work,” said Rep. Jim Dunnam, a Waco Democrat who chairs the Democratic caucus and has been Craddick’s foil in many a floor fight. “One of a speaker’s jobs is to protect the membership and the people who elected him speaker. [A speaker is] not supposed to hang you out.” Dunnam said. “He has no regard for the membership. The membership is there to serve his will.” In the ritualized world of the Texas House, the speaker isn’t supposed to allow a floor vote on bills that are too divisive. He’s supposed to reach compromises to prevent lawmakers from having to choose between the wishes of the leadership and the wishes of those who elect them. Dunnam noted that on bills favored by his wealthy campaign contributors, Craddick has forced some Republican members to take tough votes—against the interests of their constituents—that come back to hurt Republicans at election time.

The electoral defeats began in the 2004 Democratic primary, when four of Craddick’s closest Democratic allies were defeated for working too closely with the GOP leadership. In the 2004 general election, Appropriations Committee Chair Talmadge Heflin, a Houston Republican, lost his re-election bid. “If you can beat him, a chairman of appropriations, maybe the second most powerful person in the House, then you can beat anyone,” Dunnam said. “Craddick is radioactive.”

During the 2005 session, Craddick’s margin of victory on important votes became increasingly slim. In May 2005, Craddick suffered his first major legislative defeat. A handful of moderate Republicans joined Democrats in narrowly voting down a pilot program that would have provided parents with publicly funded vouchers for their kids to attend private school. The voucher plan is the darling of Dr. James Leininger, a San Antonio millionaire and one of Craddick’s main financial backers. Casteel said the divisive voucher proposal never should have reached the floor. “People do not like arrogance from anybody,” Casteel said. “We [Republicans] began to exhibit that. I think that was the reason we saw a loss [of seats] here in Texas. There is a perception that the leadership is more interested in certain people’s interests than the public’s interest.” Casteel noted that in her three years in the House, she saw leadership force many Republicans—including her desk mate on the House floor, Rep. Martha Wong of Houston—to vote for bills they didn’t favor.

On November 7, Wong lost this election’s most expensive state representative race to Democrat Ellen Cohen. Wong was first elected to the House in 2002 on a moderate platform. In the House, though, Wong was a consistent supporter of Craddick’s leadership. Some of her controversial votes with Craddick, such as support for cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, proved especially damaging in her re-election bid against Cohen. Wong, however, said the speaker never bullied her into a vote. “When I couldn’t agree with the bill, I would go up to the speaker, and he would tell me to vote my district,” Wong told the Observer. She blamed Republican resentment toward Craddick on their failure to communicate. “I think those were people who didn’t visit with the speaker enough. If people would have done that, he would have been willing to listen.”

Some political observers believe the defeats of Wong and several other Craddick loyalists—among them Rep. Toby Goodman (R-Arlington) and Rep. Gene Seaman (R-Corpus Christi) on November 7, and former Education Committee Chair Kent Grusendorf in the GOP primary last March—offer a warning to House Republicans. “It showed that Craddick can’t protect you,” Dunnam said.

Craddick allies don’t buy that argument. “I would reject the idea that Tom made people take the votes and they lost,” said Bill Miller, an influential lobbyist, political consultant, and close Craddick friend. “This is the way it is with speakers. When you agree with them, they are strong and great. If you don’t agree with them, they are autocratic.” He also doesn’t believe the speaker is in much danger. “Every single state rep wants to be speaker. This speculation generally arises around the time a new session is forthcoming. Anytime you have tough issues, you lose some battery power. But batteries recharge, and everything goes back to normal. He may be a little diminished, but the battery recharges quickly.”

Still, the mounting GOP losses may result in a more independent GOP caucus next year. Some incumbent Republicans who narrowly won re-election in 2006 may be more inclined to buck the speaker. “[Lawmakers] are going to be more sensitive to the fact that they can be beaten,” Casteel said. With a smaller majority, Craddick will have little margin for error on most votes. As one Republican state rep who’s opposed Craddick in the past pointed out, “When you have 69 Democrats, it doesn’t take but seven Republicans to side with them to swing a close vote.”

In that environment, if Craddick attempts to muscle bills through the House, the speaker could risk a backlash. The Texas House has never removed a speaker in the middle of a session. Some political observers find it telling, however, that anger against Craddick is so great in some quarters that many lawmakers can recite from memory the procedure under House rules for a motion to “vacate the chair.”

Such drastic measures would be unthinkable if Craddick would legislate diplomatically. Casteel believes he has little choice. “I think the speaker, if it remains Mr. Craddick, will be more sensitive,” Casteel said. “He’s certainly going to have to take into account what happened in this last election cycle if he wants to remain speaker, certainly if he wants to remain speaker two years from now.”

Others wonder if Craddick is capable of giving up enough control to govern more openly. “He has said that he [will moderate] every time,” Dunnam said. “I voted for him the first time… I voted for him the second time after he promised moderation, said he would change his style. It’s clear he is not going to change his spots. Who he is, is who he is.”

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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