Can Tom Craddick fend off his challengers?

Tom Craddick and his wife, Nadine

One evening a week after the Nov. 4 election, hundreds of Texas power brokers filed into their favorite haunt near the state Capitol, the venerable Austin Club, to welcome newly elected Democratic House members. The post-election event drew veteran lawmakers eager to meet their new colleagues, lobbyists equally eager to hand out “late train” campaign contributions-and one slight, unassuming man whose presence dominated the room despite his shy demeanor.

House Speaker Tom Craddick, whose Stars Over Texas political action committee dispensed $1.8 million to defeat the event’s honorees, made a point of seeking out the new Democrats, potential adversaries in an intensifying campaign to depose him.

“Hi. I don’t believe we’ve had the chance to meet,” the Midland Republican told El Paso Democrat Joe Moody, extending his hand. No irony, and certainly no mention of the $113,500 the Stars PAC dumped into the campaign coffers of Dee Margo, Moody’s Republican opponent.

The presence of Craddick, who is not particularly known as a bon vivant, underscored the narrow margin by which he clings to power in the face of a mounting insurrection.

Craddick, who has ruled the Texas House with wiliness and intimidation since 2003, survived two raucous overthrow attempts last legislative session. Ever since, the effort to unseat him has been a powerful undercurrent in Texas politics. And on Election Day, a whiff of vulnerability had settled upon him, and the tempo of the drama quickened.

Depending on the outcome of a recount in an Irving race, the Republicans’ advantage in the House has plummeted from 88-62 in 2003 to either 76-74 or an even 75-75 split under Craddick’s rule. This was the third election in a row in which GOP numbers have dwindled. Though Craddick helped bring Republicans to power in a Legislature that was solidly Democratic for more than 100 years, his divisive speakership has played a part in rapidly depleting their newfound power. Now Democrats are poised to win back control of the House at the close of the decade, just in time for the next round of legislative redistricting. It’s no wonder that dissident Republicans and Democrats smell blood. By the end of election week, eight House members publicly (Houston Democrats Scott Hochberg, Sylvester Turner and Senfronia Thompson; Democrats Pete Gallego of Alpine and Alan Ritter of Nederland; Republicans Delwin Jones of Lubbock, Jim Keffer of Eastland and Tommy Merritt of Longview)-and a handful more privately (Democrat Craig Eiland of Galveston, Republican Ed Kuempel of Seguin)-had already announced their intentions to replace Craddick. As this issue went to press, none had collected enough support to claim victory.

The official vote for a new speaker cannot be taken until the Legislature convenes Jan. 13, but Craddick is clearly fighting for his political life. With 64 Democrats and at least 10 Republicans-one shy of a majority-publicly committed to deposing Craddick, there’s hard evidence to support Democratic caucus Chair Jim Dunnam’s blunt appraisal that Craddick is “so done you can stick a fork in him.” While Craddick may continue to fight for survival until the House convenes, dissident Republican Charlie Geren says he is certain that there will soon be a public announcement “by a candidate with more support than it requires to become speaker.”

Burt Solomons

Further chinks in Craddick’s armor appeared when even supporters began publicly questioning his leadership. In particular, Republican Rep. Burt Solomons of Carrollton made statements to the San Antonio Express-News that could only be interpreted as withdrawing his support. Solomons, who has been a staunch Craddick ally, said he feared that Craddick would have to make deals with a few Craddick Ds to retain his speakership.

“This is just turning into a fiasco again,” Solomons said on Nov. 13. “The House is seemingly coming apart. I am terribly, terribly dismayed that … apparently we have a handful of Democrats making demands for control of power and clout and title. A number of us, even though we’re supporters of Tom Craddick, are just totally turned off.”

Those statements created a boomlet among House members for Solomons to offer himself as a candidate. Five days later, on Nov. 18, he did. Until January, this campaign will take place in a private realm that insiders describe as a real-life version of The Art of War, a mostly psychological battle in which perception equals reality.

A speaker’s campaign, guided by its own laws and its own social conventions, is by definition a closed-door political phenomenon. Party affiliation matters some, but not as much as personal relationships and the clout of coalitions: anti-Craddick Democrats; the “Craddick Ds” (Democrats who’ve backed Craddick); pro-Craddick Republicans; and the ABCs (anybody but Craddick).

For rank-and-file Texans, the stakes in this game are high; among other problems with his leadership, Craddick’s determined hold on power has contributed to a deep gridlock that prevents many popular bills from even coming up for a vote.

Craddick’s growing ranks of opponents believe that he is driven not by public-policy concerns but by helping lobbyist friends and the wealthy financiers of the Republican Party, some of whom have their own legislative agendas. Even ostensibly powerful chairmen under Craddick have openly complained to colleagues that their committees are not permitted to make decisions about particular bills-that they are micromanaged according to Craddick’s feuds and political alliances.

The case against Craddick is well known: His six years as speaker have been marked by controversy and complaints about arm-twisting and fear of retribution by his powerful allies, including deep-pocket Republican contributors like Houston homebuilder Bob Perry and San Antonio businessman Jim Leininger, who supports conservative causes like education vouchers. The Texas House has been strong-armed to support issues dear to the hearts of these wealthy backers, including lawsuit limits (Perry’s pet project) and vouchers (Leininger’s). The “deregulation” of college tuition, which has led to escalating higher-education costs unpopular with the public, was an important piece of the Republican Party’s no-new-taxes pledge.

During the debate over lawsuit limits in the 2003 session, Craddick was so closely aligned with the lobby group Texans for Lawsuit Reform that the House gallery seats frequented by its lobby team were derisively called “the owners’ box.” During the debate on education vouchers, the bill’s main proponent, Leininger, lobbied members from an office inside the Capitol. And who could forget the acrimony over redistricting, which led Democratic House members, during Craddick’s first session as speaker, to flee to Ardmore, Okla., in an attempt to block mid-Census redistricting in 2003?

Nothing matched the fireworks that erupted in May 2007, when insurgents attempted a vote to “vacate the chair”-parliamentary-speak for firing Craddick. Craddick refused to recognize any member to make the motion, after firing the House parliamentarian who ruled Craddick did not have that authority. He then hired two former House members, Terry Keel and Ron Wilson, who advised that the Speaker had absolute power and members could not appeal his decisions. A walk-out ensued, led by Republican Pat Haggerty of El Paso. Craddick punished this particular indiscretion by recruiting and funding Haggerty’s GOP primary opponent in 2008, Dee Margo-a strategy that backfired on Nov. 4 when Margo lost the general election to Joe Moody, the man Craddick was trying to schmooze at the Austin Club.

Money brought Craddick to power, and campaign contributions are an essential weapon in his bid to retain his position. He worked intimately with former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority, the group that spawned criminal investigations by the Travis County district attorney’s office into illegal corporate contributions. Although Craddick accepted and dispensed donations on the political action committee’s behalf, he was never charged with wrongdoing.

TRMPAC and Stars Over Texas have been close partners in Texas political giving: According to a new analysis by the nonpartisan Texans for Public Justice, Stars and Craddick’s personal campaign committee have received $1.9 million since 2003 from 65 donors who also gave to TRMPAC. Leading the givers were Leininger, who gave almost $400,000 to Craddick’s money operation, and Perry, who’s given $310,000 since 2003.

During this past election cycle, Craddick contributed $1.2 million to the Stars PAC. During the primary last spring, the nonpartisan group Texans for Public Justice filed an official complaint, still unresolved, against Craddick and another political action committee, the Texas Jobs PAC, which had been dormant for 18 months when it received a $250,000 contribution from the Craddick campaign in January. The very next day, the suddenly revived Jobs PAC cut three checks for $50,000 apiece to the campaigns of Democratic House incumbents Kevin Bailey, Kino Flores and Aaron Pena-all of whom had supported Craddick’s speakership. (Bailey ultimately lost in his primary, but the other two won re-election.)

“The transactions between Craddick, the Texas Jobs PAC and the three House candidates appear to be coordinated and illegal,” says Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald. “Texas law is clear: You can’t buy the speaker’s gavel by bankrolling the campaigns of House candidates. Nor can you make a political contribution under someone else’s name. It’s hard to argue that the Texas Jobs PAC didn’t launder Craddick’s money. By its own accounting it didn’t have another cent to its name.” Craddick’s ability and propensity to reward and punish members with campaign contributions-and to discipline them by blocking their legislation-has prompted dissidents to insist on a secret ballot for the election of the next House speaker. Last session, Craddick’s survival was ensured when Charlie Geren’s motion to conduct the balloting in secret failed.

Another squabble over secret balloting will likely kick off the next session as well. Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee recently asserted that the speaker’s election will again be conducted by open ballot. Dunnam, the Democratic caucus chair, dismissed her analysis as “spin” in a letter outlining the legal precedent for secret balloting, noting that a Secretary of State’s opinion concluded that each chamber could determine its operating rules. That opinion noted that a 2000 Texas Supreme Court decision permitted the Texas Senate to do just that in selecting a lieutenant governor when a vacancy occurred.

Solomons, one of Craddick’s several challengers, argues that “unless we have a secret ballot, we have this real problem of tremendous partisanship and true power-grabbing.”

So far, the essential element for a successful revolution has failed to materialize: a consensus replacement for the embattled speaker. Each possibility has been met with Goldilocks-like disapproval from one faction or another: Too partisan. Too close to the lobby. Too trial-lawyer. Too close to Craddick.

Democratic caucus Chair Jim Dunnam

This indecision works in Craddick’s favor. Despite his widespread unpopularity, a fundamental obstacle bolsters Craddick’s hopes of retaining the speakership. “You can’t vote for speaker a guy named ëAnybody But Craddick,'” a longtime lobbyist points out. So far, the announced candidates, the lobbyist added, resemble nothing more than “a circular firing squad.”

Assembling a coalition in the highly diverse Texas House is a fragile social experiment. Adding to the complexity is the narrow margin in Republican Linda Harper-Brown’s apparent victory over Democrat Bob Romano in Irving. Harper-Brown’s 20-vote lead guarantees a long recount; once that’s over, the House itself will have to resolve any subsequent challenge to the outcome. Adding to the uncertainty is a new criminal investigation into Rep. Kino Flores, one of the Craddick Ds who got $50,000 from the dubious Texas Jobs PAC. The uncertainty about Flores’ fate, and about who will represent Irving, means the House’s partisan balance could remain unclear until after the Legislature convenes.

At the Democratic caucus held the day after the election, 64 of the party’s 74 members signed an agreement to not only oppose Craddick, but to decline to negotiate a deal with him for the speakership. And caucus chair Jim Dunnam sent a message that the 10 other Democrats would be forgiven and welcomed back to the fold: “The day they come back, it’s over,” he said. “Water under the bridge.”

Conspicuous by his absence from the caucus was one crucial Craddick D: speaker candidate Sylvester Turner, who believes that his past relationship with Craddick will make him palatable to Republicans, and that his work on behalf of the Children’s Health Insurance Program has endeared him to his own party. Cynics, however, view Turner’s candidacy for speaker as a bid to cut a deal with Craddick for the coveted chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee.

On the Republican side, dissidents led by Geren hoped to assemble a coalition behind a Craddick opponent to allay fears of capitulation. But five Republicans are now challenging Craddick. Two of them, Delwin Jones and Ed Kuempel, have each promised they would serve only one term as speaker, allowing the House to choose a new speaker in 2011 without Craddick’s looming presence.

While Austin buzzes with the possibility of a new House speaker, no one-especially his opponents-expects Craddick to go gentle into that good night. Though state law prohibits him from offering favors for support, Craddick can legally appease his opponents with vows of a kinder, gentler administration-by, among other things, replacing his pet parliamentarians, Keel and Wilson, with a more evenhanded arbiter of House rules.

Craddick’s communications director, Alexis DeLee, predicts that her boss will keep his title as long as Republicans have a majority in the House. But she also suggests that the election results might influence Craddick’s management style. “The speaker has made changes every session to adapt to changes in the membership of the House,” she says. “This session will be particularly historic given the near-parity in the House. For any major bills to pass, there will have to be compromise, and the speaker is committed to seeking more bipartisan cooperation than ever before in the House.”

Her statement sounds remarkably like one Craddick gave The Dallas Morning News in January 2007 shortly after he had narrowly survived a challenge by Republican State Rep. Jim Pitts of Waxahachie for the speakership. “We’re going to do a better job of listening to what the members are trying to tell us and communicate both ways,” he said.

But Craddick has always prided himself on not making concessions to his opponents, either in the political or the business world. Until the official vote is taken in January, expect him to work feverishly to divide his opponents, with significant consequences and recriminations if he succeeds.

An anonymous poster on Texas Monthly‘s Burkablog recently pointed out that the kickoff of the post-election speaker campaign coincided with Guy Fawkes Day, named for the leader of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to blow up the British Parliament. When the insurrection failed, Guy Fawkes was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Patricia Kilday Hart wrote for the Capitol Bureau of the Dallas Times Herald and has contributed to Texas Monthly since 1989.

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Published at 12:00 am CST