The Craddick Primary

To understand the raucous squabbling and vicious infighting that is building as we approach the March 4 primaries, you must take a brief trip back to May 28 last year, to the waning hours of the 2007 legislative session. As the session drew to a close, Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick had so offended enough members of his own party with his autocratic and bullying style that newly enraged Republicans were willing to join long-enraged Democrats in ousting the tyrant from Midland. Craddick beat back the insurrection with one of the most brazen power plays in recent memory-he refused to recognize any motion or request from the House floor that would precipitate a vote on his speakership. It was a pivotal, excruciating moment in Texas political history, delicious for its drama, astounding in its implications.

By session’s end, it was clear that the votes were likely there to oust Craddick had he allowed a vote. By clinging to power just long enough to gavel the session closed, Craddick-and the big-money forces that have kept his ship afloat-bought themselves almost 10 months to save his hide.

So for all the rhetoric about taxes, schools, and myriad other problems dominating this year’s primaries, one big question hangs over them all: Can Craddick engineer the defeat of enough of his foes to keep the speaker’s post come 2009? The answer will be determined largely in Republican primaries, since breakaway members of his own party are Craddick’s greatest threat.

Craddick is an old pro at this and should not be counted out. He won’t lack for money, as the special interests that sponsored and benefited from his rise don’t want to halt the gravy train. In “Saving Speaker Craddick,” page 21, Observer columnist Andrew Wheat reveals the campaign infrastructure in place to help Craddick’s allies and defeat his foes. The Craddick machine is likely to do again what it has done in the past: dump a ton of money, usually in the form of negative advertising, on opponents right before the vote. We probably won’t know the full extent of its activities until after the election, when the campaign reports are filed.

Nonetheless, Craddick faces a tough fight. Since he took power in 2003, the Democrats have picked up nine seats. A recent special election to replace Fort Worth Republican Ann Mowery resulted in a surprise win for the Democrat in a district seen as solid for the GOP. As the stories in this issue demonstrate, there are plenty of candidates, Republican and Democrat, who are frustrated with the status quo in Austin. Early polling suggests the sentiment is widely shared by the voters. And who is to blame them?

These virulent Bush-Craddick Republicans have shown that whatever strengths they have at campaigning, they are remarkably inept at governing. Attacking trial lawyers and scapegoating undocumented immigrants might win over the GOP base, but it’s not going to solve the serious problems facing Texas. The state is in the grips of a demographic wave unlike any other in its history. Dealing with its consequences will require a belief in the proactive power of government, some creative thinking, and yes, social investment. To date, the leadership in Austin has demonstrated no affinity for any of these things.

Even if Craddick does emerge from the 2008 cycle with enough votes to remain in power, it might well be a pyrrhic victory. He would likely retain the speakership only by a small margin, guaranteeing more conflict in the 2009 session. The problems will remain, as will the ideological straitjacket that prevents Craddick and his minions from solving them. Next cycle, when the situation is even worse, voters will finish the job.

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Published at 12:00 am CST