Tuesday, December 26, 2006

"If you strike the king, you must kill him"

The Speaker of the Texas House gets a challenger. Muse and many others led with the news that broke on Christmas Eve.

Rick Casey has these insights:

There is a consensus that if the vote for House speaker were secret, no plotting would be necessary. Craddick would be a former speaker soon after the session opens Jan. 9. But it is a record vote. And nobody wants to take a chance on publicly opposing Craddick unless it's clear he will lose.

The speaker not only can deny opponents any meaningful committee assignments, he can also make sure none of their pet legislation sees the light of day. So, as the saying goes, if you're going to plot against the king, you'd better bloody well kill him.

Tom Craddick became the first Republican speaker in Texas history, replacing Pete Laney when the GOP became the majority in 2003. Since that time his tenure has been pocked with controversy: record state budget deficits, corrosive political machinations regarding congressional redistricting, an inability to find a solution to public school financing -- the list goes on. But what really has him in trouble is his iron-fisted rule. Casey again, also with the whip count:

"Craddick is very good at breaking arms," said one House member. "That's why if it's going to pop, it has to be at the last minute, when spouses are present and many of the members have their children sitting in their laps. The only time you can neutralize the speaker is when it's done in front of a thousand people."


Needed are enough Republicans — 10 or more moderates and conservatives — to join the overwhelming majority of the House's 69 Democrats to deny Craddick the 76 votes he needs for re-election.

Why would Republicans do that? What has Craddick done? Here are some of the things that are cited:

• He failed at what is considered the first job of a speaker: to protect his members. When the state Republican Party ran polls to see how vulnerable some moderate Republicans were, Craddick did nothing to stop it. Then San Antonio billionaire James Leininger spent more than $2.5 million to target five moderate Republicans in the primary because they had voted against school vouchers. Leininger-backed candidates won two of the five races.

Craddick gave lip service to supporting the incumbents, but it is widely believed he could have sent signals that such a bald attack on incumbents was not considered civilized behavior and would make it harder for Leininger to get a hearing next session.

• He pressured members to vote "against their districts" on key issues. One technique: his lieutenants would gather around members who voted wrong and suggest that their button had malfunctioned. Not-so-subtle threats of, among other things, well-funded opposition in the next primary were sometimes conveyed.

Among Republicans who lost to Democrats or more moderate Republicans were Kent Gruesendorf, who chaired the education committee, Houston's Martha Wong, who lost partly because of her votes on children's health insurance, Todd Baxter and Toby Goodman.

"Tom has been one of the best Democratic organizers we've had in a long time," said one Democratic member. He noted that the Republican margin in the House has shrunk by half in the four years since Craddick was elected speaker.

• Craddick's relentless drive in 2003 to champion Tom DeLay's mid-decade congressional redistricting destroyed a long-standing bipartisan culture in the Legislature. Members on both sides of the aisle have talked about a decidedly unpleasant loss of collegiality. "It's not fun anymore," said one member. "It's mean."

The speaker's most recent legal dilemma comes by way of a judge's order that he produce an appointments calendar from his campaign office to determine whether it contains references to state business -- a no-no in Texas.

Neither Governor MoFo nor Lite Gov. Dewface are pals with Craddick. In fact, the only friends he seems to have are corporate lobbyists. Indeed, there are few Speakers that have avoided corruption scandals just in my lifetime (Laney is exceptionally noted, serving at a time when the Texas was going from blue to red and he was forced to work with rabidly partisan conservatives). Gus Mutscher, Bill Clayton, Gib Lewis -- again, the list is lengthy. They seem to get fouled by one-party rule and lengthy terms, though Craddick has gone bad in record time.

I'll be in the gallery in the Capitol on January 9, watching to see if the Republicans can kill the king.

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