In spite of ominous signs that the controversy over school financing and the plunging popularity of President George W, Bush had eroded the party's support in the Lone Star state, Texas Republicans entered the summer of 2006 with some hope for success. An improving national economy that conservatives credited to President George W. Bush and Gov. Rick Perry’s tax cuts provided the Texas Legislature welcome breathing room and at least temporarily resolved the logjam over school spending.
By spring 2006, the state recorded an $8.2 billion surplus. This ultimately illusory windfall allowed the Legislature to pass a 33 percent cut in local property taxes, to be replaced in part by increases in state business and property taxes. Teachers also received a $2,000 annual pay raise. The so-called "tax swap" proved to be a long-term budget disaster, creating a structural deficit that put Texas $27 billion in the hole by the spring of 2011 and leading the rigidly anti-tax Legislature to contemplate a catastrophic $4 billion cut in the public school budget.
Regardless of the temporarily sunny economic numbers, Texas Republicans in 2006 felt the sting of that year’s anti-incumbent backlash. In the November 2006 elections, the national GOP lost control of the U.S. House and Senate and in solidly conservative Texas the Republicans unexpectedly lost six seats in the state House. Even though Republicans maintained their majority for a third straight election cycle, some GOP caucus members blamed Craddick’s leadership style for the party’s reduced majority.
In spite of the ill feeling in the Capitol, Craddick and his wife Nadine continued with their $1 million renovation of the speaker’s apartment, funded by lobbyists and big corporate contributors to Republican campaigns. The money paid for new wood floors, removal of the loft and spiral staircase in the living room that had been installed by Gib Lewis after the Capitol fire, and two $1,000 commodes. Critics charged that donations to the redecoration effort amounted to influence peddling by lobbyists. This controversy, combined with resentments over GOP election losses led to an attempted palace coup.
The month after the November elections, conservative Republican State Rep. Brian McCall of Plano announced that he planned to challenge Craddick for the speakership. McCall dropped out, however, when Jim Pitts of Waxahachie announced that he would also seek the speakership. Pitts’ campaign fizzled when his supporters failed on a procedural vote.
Pitts’ supporters pushed for keeping House members’ votes in the speakers’ race secret until after the election was decided and whoever was elected speaker had already made committee assignments. Craddick backers said that having House members vote in the open provided transparency in government, but Pitts’ backers said that House members, worried that they would lose key committee assignments, feared openly rebelling against Craddick. The voting proposal by Pitts’ backers failed by an 80-68 vote, with 14 Republicans supporting Pitts in the losing effort. Pitts then announced he was dropping out of the race because “I don't want to put anyone else in jeopardy. It's time to heal." Members dutifully re-elected Craddick by 121-27.
In spite of Craddick’s re-election, however, it was clear that the speaker presided over a badly divided house, with Democrats still bedeviled by the racial divides left over from the days of segregation. Ironically, Craddick’s victory in the 2007 speaker’s race depended in part on support from a notable contingent of African American Democrats such as Dawnna Dukes of Austin and Sylvester Turner of Houston, and Mexican American Democrats such as Ismael "Kino" Flores of Mission and Armando "Mando" Martinez of Weslaco. Still marginalized in the political process, black and brown Democrats rewarded Craddick after he assigned them plum committee posts by standing firmly behind the leadership of a conservative white Republican.
To everyone’s surprise, however, Craddick’s unexpectedly hard struggle to keep the speakership had not ended.
The legislative session wound towards a dispirited conclusion May 25, 2007, with lawmakers still struggling to pass a $153 billion state budget. Critics charged that Craddick loaded the budget with pork earmarked for his business supporters. Craddick’s opponents introduced motions reconsidering his election as speaker. On May 27, Rep. Paul Moreno, an El Paso Democrat, asked Craddick if the House could reconsider any vote taken earlier in the session. When Craddick said yes, Moreno said, "I move that the vote by which Speaker Tom Craddick was elected on January 12th of this year be brought back to the floor for a recount."
Craddick slapped down the motion immediately. He later outlined a legal theory justifying his refusal to recognize any motion to unseat him. Craddick proclaimed he had “absolute discretion” to ignore any member making such a motion and that such decisions could not be appealed by House members.
House members finally passed the budget, but the last act of the drama had not played out. On the session’s final day, Rep. Pat Haggerty, an El Paso Republican, made a “personal privilege” speech and began calling out House members’ names, asking them to announce if they wanted Craddick to remain speaker. Speaker Pro Tem Sylvester Turner, one of the African American Democrats on Craddick’s team, tried cutting Haggerty off. Haggerty then called on all representatives who would have voted against Craddick to take their voting keys and walk out.
Almost 60 stood up and filed out of the chamber, leaving the House without a quorum and forced to adjourn. “I don’t think this is an obituary [for the attempt to remove Craddick],” said Rep. Fred Hill, a Richardson Republican who had already announced his intention to challenge the speaker the next session. "It's just the first act. You're going to have 18 months to play out the scenario."
Hill’s word proved prescient. President George Bush’s deepening unpopularity, the collapse of the American economy in the fall of 2008, the collapse of Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s White House run, and the vast and enthusiastic grassroots crusade behind Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s presidential campaign created a shift in the electorate across America, affecting even the Lone Star State.
Significantly, the Republican majority in the Texas House of Representatives shrank from a commanding majority to a razor-thin 76-74 margin. The election results created an immediate problem for Speaker Craddick. More than half of the members in the 2009 Texas Legislative Session had been elected after Craddick won his initial term as House speaker in 2003. Along with the loss in GOP members, the speaker’s critics on both sides of the aisle sensed an opening for a new presiding officer when the Legislature convened in January 2009.
A survey of active voters reported by the Houston-based Republican polling firm Hill Research Consultants revealed that Texas voters believed that the Republican Party was out of touch and was selling out to wealthy special interests. Voters rated Democrats as better representing “homeowners, small businesses and average taxpayers.” By double digits, Republicans were more likely to be described as “racist,” “arrogant,” and “corrupt” while Democrats were significantly more likely to be described as “smart,” “fair,” and as the “party of the future.”
The poll revealed that few voters cared about Republican social conservatives’ top issues like abortion or school prayer, and hard-line GOP stands on immigration alienated Mexican American voters as well as political moderates. Many Republican members and nearly all Democratic representatives sensed a shift in the political landscape. The politics of the Texas House speakership did not register on most voters’ minds in the 2008 general election. But the concern of GOP politicos about their future viability undoubtedly dramatically altered the speaker’s race in favor of Craddick’s opponents.
Craddick’s fall came faster than anyone could have anticipated. Craddick hosted a Nov. 19, 2008 fundraiser and political powwow with his supporters at the Lost Pines Golf Resort in Bastrop, near Austin, a gathering intended to scare off potential rivals. Instead of locking up another term, the event generated criticism in the press and additional Republican opponents in the speaker’s race. By December 29, 14 candidates had filed papers to enter the speaker’s race. The same day 64 “ABC” (“Anyone But Craddick”) Democrats signed a pledge promising they would oppose the speaker’s re-election “under any circumstances.”
The key moment in the anti-Craddick coup came during a January 3 meeting of 10 dissident Republicans at the Austin home of Byron Cook, the Republican chair of the House Civil Practices Committee who had become highly critical of the speaker during the 2007 Legislative Session. An eleventh dissident, Rep. Rob Eissler of The Woodlands, participated in the session via Webcam even as Capitol reporters camped out in Cook’s yard. Craddick had scheduled another caucus with 55 backers at Sullivan’s Steakhouse in downtown Austin the evening of Sunday, January 5 and hoped to sew up a narrow majority, but the 11 Republican dissidents hoped to head off the speaker at the pass.
After four rounds of voting, the dissidents selected as their standard bearer the little-known two-term San Antonio Rep. Joe Straus over Burt Solomons of Carrollton by a squeaky 6-5 vote. The darkest of dark horses, Joe Straus first had won a seat in the Texas House in a February 2005 special election. He represented the more affluent Bexar County communities of Alamo Heights and northeast San Antonio. His brief legislative experience revolved on issues related to business and energy. Straus quickly gained a reputation as a moderate member able to bridge differences between competing factions. Both the Texas Public Power Association and the Sierra Club, not normally on the same page regarding the environment, recognized his service. In 2008, Texas Monthly magazine picked Straus as one of the 35 Texans who would shape the future of the state.
A lifelong Republican, San Antonio native and political science graduate from Vanderbilt University, Straus managed U.S. Representative Lamar Smith's first campaign for Congress in 1986. He served in the administration of President George H. W. Bush from 1989 through 1991 as deputy director of business liaison at the U.S. Department of Commerce. A loyal establishment Republican who had displayed little interest in the favorite issues of social conservatives, the new speaker presented himself to local voters as a family man and a sportsman. He held a passionate interest in Thoroughbred breeding. This connection to parimutuel betting later raised the ire of some Christian conservatives.
Straus rapidly sewed up the backing of the ABC Democrats, and by Saturday morning Doug Miller, a freshman Republican from New Braunfels who had committed to no candidate, announced his support as well. By 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, January 5, hours before Craddick’s planned steakhouse gathering, Straus announced he would be the state’s next House speaker, revealing pledges from 85 House members.
At the evening meeting with his supporters at Sullivan’s Restaurant, Craddick and his allies assessed their chances and quickly reached the conclusion that the battle was over. In the latest, tumultuous chapter in the speaker’s office saga, Craddick dramatically announced that he had withdrawn from the race.
Angered at the dissidents’ disloyalty to Craddick, conservatives briefly rallied around the speakership campaign of Rep. John Smithee of Amarillo, even as the Christian Right attacked Straus’ conservative bona fides. GOP critics raised questions about his commitment to anti-abortion policies and his family’s investment in the Retama Park horseracing track. “Joe Straus is very much a Republican in name only," said Cathie Adams of the Texas Eagle Forum. "He will be beholden to Democrats." Straus also drew the ire of Joe Pojman of the Texas Alliance for Life. "He's never been a strong vote for us at all," Pojman said. Nevertheless, the list of Straus’ supporters grew to 100 by the afternoon of January 5. Smithee announced his withdrawal from the race.
The fourth Republican speaker in state history, Straus won the office primarily through the support of Democrats alienated thoroughly by Craddick’s heavy-handed methods. The past served as prologue. When House members rebelled against Democratic Speaker Gus Mutscher in the 1970s, his successors Rayford Price and Price Daniel pledged to reduce the power of the office. Straus made a similar pledge at the start of his term.
He initiated rules changes that would increase the power of committee chairs, implement a limited seniority system to fill the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and change procedures so a majority of House members could force debate on motions to remove speakers from office. Raw power politics did not disappear, however. Straus also moved to reduce the number of House committees, an effort that had the political benefit of eliminating committee chairs who happened to be Craddick’s key allies.
Regardless of the structural reorganization, a sense of elation emerged from the House with the change of leadership and the hope for a more open legislative process. The sudden end to the speaker’s race prevented a bloodletting at the Capitol. Observers hoped this political armistice freed House members to cope with the greatest fiscal crisis Texas and the United States faced since the Great Depression. At the same time, the future of the speaker’s office and whether it would continue its trajectory to ever-greater authority remained an open-ended question.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.