Faustian Bargain?

Craddick democrats may regret propping up the unpopular speaker


Dave Mann

It was perhaps the biggest decision of their political careers. For a dozen or so Democratic state reps, the first day of the Texas Legislature’s 80th session on January 9 presented a defining choice: Would they abandon their party or betray their speaker? For the first time in decades, a contested speaker’s election would come down to a vote on the House floor. If Democratic supporters continued to stand with Tom Craddick-the Republican speaker so despised for his heavy-handedness and cronyism-they would incur the wrath of their own party. If they tried to depose Craddick by voting for his mild-mannered Republican opponent and fell short, they risked suffering his vengeance-from their legislation dying to campaign funds directed toward opponents.

When the vote came, 15 Democrats defied their caucus, and many of their constituents, to provide Craddick the votes he needed to win a close race. “The Democrats were the key,” Craddick loyalist Rep. Phil King, a Weatherford Republican, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after the vote. “If all the Democrats had voted in lockstep against Tom, we were done.”

That independence-or was it disloyalty?-had earned them the nickname, “Craddick Ds.” Their own party swiftly branded them as traitors and turncoats, sellouts and opportunists. In the San Antonio Express-News, Rep. Paul Moreno, the longtime El Paso legislator recognized as the conscience of the Democratic caucus, labeled them “Uncle-Tom Democrats.”

For their part, the Craddick Ds presented themselves as pragmatists. They conceded privately that they didn’t agree with Craddick on many issues, but argued that their support would enable them to squeeze a progressive agenda through a conservative Legislature. But since the deals were cut in private, it’s unclear exactly what incentives Craddick used to entice these Democrats.

The Craddick Democrats indicated some of what they hoped Craddick would let them accomplish in a January 30 press conference, when they distributed to reporters a list of progressive policy proposals. “When we leave here at the end of May, we want to have a pretty good scorecard,” said Sylvester Turner of Houston, speaker pro tem under Craddick and a leader of the group. “We are uniquely placed to get things done.”

Asked if the speaker had agreed to push their proposals, Turner smiled and said, “I’m real optimistic. I’m a lawyer, and I don’t argue a case unless I have some of the answers.”

For some Craddick Ds, their political careers hinged on the success of that agenda. Come 2008, they would have to convince voters in their districts that re-electing Craddick had been worth it. “We knew we would be held to this agenda and graded on this agenda,” said Rep. Helen Giddings, a Dallas Democrat, on the last day of the session. “The people of the state of Texas and especially the least fortunate … are far better off because of the work that has been done, and done, I might add, against the odds.”

Yet the odds were decidedly less daunting this session than previous ones. Keenly aware of his political vulnerability, Craddick was careful not to alienate the Democrats who kept him in office. He needed them, and everyone knew it. He kept the presumed promises to pass certain Democratic bills and sprinkled the budget with added state funding for their districts. In fact, several Republicans grumbled that the Craddick Ds were the only ones benefiting from the speaker’s power. In return, by the end of the session, some Craddick Ds were among the speaker’s most ardent loyalists. Asked about Craddick on the session’s final day, Rep. Ryan Guillen, a Rio Grande City Democrat and vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee, offered nothing but praise. Without irony, he dismissed Craddick’s opponents as rank opportunists. “The question is about one Republican versus another, and who’s close to whom,” he said. “The speaker has responded to criticism, yet the hostility has only increased.”

Other Craddick Ds weren’t so supportive, and their alliance with the speaker frayed as the session descended into turmoil. By re-electing Craddick, they had set the House on a divisive path. As ugly political brawling erupted on the House floor in the final week, four House Democrats withdrew their support for the speaker.

Was it all worth it? Judged by their agenda, the record is decidedly mixed. Even their harshest critics would have to concede that the Craddick Ds wrung a few significant victories out of the session-most notably passage of a bill that should add at least 100,000 kids to the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program. But neither were they as successful as they assert. Some of their highest-profile proposals went nowhere, and they claimed undue credit for achievements on which they had little input. Finally, it’s unknown whether a different speaker would have addressed more of the state’s pressing problems. Four months after the Craddick Ds re-elected a controversial speaker, the wisdom of their bargain remains an open question.

The signature issue for the Craddick Ds was restoring cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program. No one had more riding on CHIP than Turner. For four years, the loquacious, high-profile Houston attorney has found himself in an awkward position-agitating for a Democratic agenda, mostly unsuccessfully, while trying to remain supportive of a conservative Republican speaker.

Turner had obtained a promise from Craddick to pass House Bill 109-Turner’s legislation to expand CHIP. With Craddick’s backing, the bill sailed through the House with strong bipartisan support (64 Democrats and 62 Republicans voted for it).

In the Senate, however, the CHIP legislation nearly foundered. With three days left in the session, Senate leaders refused to compromise on a final version. Turner grew desperate. If the CHIP bill didn’t pass, by any standard the Craddick Democrats’ session would have been a failure. Turner ventured into the Senate chamber for one final attempt to win over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who was holding up the bill. They huddled on the dais. “I’m begging you,” Turner told Dewhurst. “I’m begging you on behalf of the kids.” Dewhurst relented. With help from Waco Republican Sen. Kip Averitt and Craddick, Turner brokered a deal that-if the governor signs the bill-would add about 100,000 kids to CHIP, according to the Legislative Budget Board (other estimates run as high as 127,000). This would restore about half the children cut from the program in 2003, during Craddick’s first term as speaker.

Though Turner said he would have preferred the addition of more kids, he said passage of HB 109 is a huge success that’s directly attributable to Democratic support for Craddick. “That would not have happened without being a part of the leadership team,” he said. “I haven’t compromised my principles.”

Other House Democrats weren’t so sure. They noted that in 2003, Turner was part of the very House leadership team that cut benefit programs like CHIP in the first place; though Turner fought many of those cuts, he ultimately voted for the budget in 2003.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, a fellow Houston Democrat, said it’s not clear that Turner’s bill will expand CHIP. While Coleman supported the legislation, he believes administrative policies implemented by the Health and Human Services Commission caused many kids to lose CHIP coverage. He said those bureaucratic barriers, if they remain in place, will blunt the impact of Turner’s bill.

Even if the bill does add 100,000 kids, he noted, that doesn’t undo the damage from the 2003 cuts. “Sometimes it’s an illusion that things are getting better,” Coleman said. “If you were in a 20-foot hole and now you’re in a 10-foot hole, and the real world is at ground level, you really haven’t gotten back to where you started.” While the budget has shrunk, he said, the state’s needs have grown. “The population of the state of Texas has grown,” he said. “Clearly, the needs of the state of Texas have grown with that population. … The dollars necessary to deal with those needs have not gotten back to ground level.”

Responds Rep. Aaron Peña, whose support for Craddick helped land the Edinburg Democrat the chairmanship of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in just his third session: “We’re not supermen.” Peña said the Craddick Ds accomplished a great deal in a GOP-dominated Legislature. “Some people may want a full loaf,” he said, “but when you deliver three-fourths of a loaf, that’s pretty good considering you weren’t getting anything.”

Turner said that even though CHIP wasn’t made whole, his bill still helps kids. “I’ve taken my share [of criticism],” he said. “I’ll certainly take my share if the other side of the equation is 120,000 kids get insurance.”

Turner can rightly claim credit for several other successes. He secured about $200 million for the System Benefit Fund, which helps poor families pay electricity bills. The fund-which the Legislature raided for other spending projects in 2003-has become a pet obsession for Turner over the past four years. Though the fund is still hundreds of millions short of its level before 2003, Turner said the $200 million is a major success since the program “didn’t receive a dime” the last two sessions.

Serving in the leadership team allowed the Craddick Ds to shape another signature issue-foster care. Craddick handed the chairmanship of the Human Services Committee to Patrick Rose, a third-term Craddick Democrat from Dripping Springs. The previous two sessions, conservative Republicans had chaired the committee, which handles most health and human services legislation in the House. Rose said his perch on Human Services allowed him to rewrite a major overhaul of the foster care system. The Senate’s version of the bill would have privatized a large chunk of the state’s care for foster kids. Rose not only removed the outsourcing from the House version, he negotiated a final compromise package that contains little privatization.

(Tellingly, though, Rose was one of the Craddick Ds to abandon the speaker in the session’s final week. He said he withdrew his support because the House needed “to move toward the center.”)

Then there was the pork. The Craddick Ds got plenty. Peña won $3 million for a drug treatment center in Edinburg. The center “is the reason I came here,” said Peña, who ran for office in 2002 after his teenage son died of an overdose. Guillen touted the $150 million he inserted into the budget for a mobile dental treatment program for poor areas. Peña and Guillen represent South Texas, long ignored by state budget writers. Said Peña, “I’ll be an old man, and I’ll still see those places-long after everyone’s forgotten the words that [other reps] put out there.”

In all, the Craddick Ds estimate they passed roughly 80 percent of their proposals. Other Democrats such as Coleman contest that math. An increase in Medicaid rates for providers and hospitals-which the Craddick Ds listed among their successes-came about when a decades-old lawsuit was settled. On higher education, numerous Democrats and rural Republicans worked to kill a bill that limited the Top 10 Percent university admissions rule. And it was a bipartisan coalition that increased funding for state parks, not just Craddick Ds.

Then there are the items that the Craddick Ds utterly failed to deliver. They had hoped to repeal the deregulation of university tuition that has led to such high prices at Texas colleges. That will never happen as long as Craddick, who maintains close ties to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, remains speaker.

Craddick has never appeared politically weaker than he did at the end of the session on May 28. His weakness may tempt the Craddick Ds, ever the opportunists, to search for a better deal with another speaker candidate as they try to retain some of their power.

Two days after the Legislature adjourned, Turner announced his own candidacy for speaker. Some Capitol watchers have speculated that Turner’s run may be an attempt to keep the Craddick Ds together as a voting bloc, or perhaps even front for Craddick-by trying to divide his opposition.

Turner won’t find it easy to drum up support from a number of his Democratic colleagues. After he filed for speaker, Rep. Jessica Farrar, a fellow Houston Democrat, released a blistering press statement that read, in part, “Perhaps Sylvester Turner believes his record of sticking with Tom Craddick as Tom Craddick has ‘stuck it’ to Texans qualifies him to carry on Craddick’s tradition of disservice to Texas as our next speaker.”

For Democrats who gave their support to the speaker, a day of reckoning has yet to come. Three of the Craddick Ds-Kevin Bailey of Houston, Robert Puente of San Antonio, and Peña-already have likely primary challengers. More may be on the way. Did the Craddick Ds make the right choice on the session’s first day? Ultimately, that question will be answered in the voting booth.