Under Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, Gov, Rick Perry and other Republicans influenced by Grover Norquist (the Washington lobbyist who once famously said he wanted to shrink government to a small-enough size it could be drowned in a bathtub, the wheels came off the state legislative process.
To begin with, Craddick turned the position of House speaker into a virtual executive and House members came to resent what they saw as a usurpation of authority. His first term, beginning in 2003, would be marred by controversy. A nationwide recession created a $10 billion state budget deficit. In Rick Perry’s most successful assertion of authority, the governor framed the budget debate with his pledge to veto any appropriations bill that increased taxes on sales, property or business franchises. Income taxes, of course, were not even considered. This position aligned with Craddick’s, so the House and Senate faced few viable options except deep budget cuts, which Perry called “re-examining the core responsibilities of government and state spending.”
Norquist, who labored to convince Republican state and federal lawmakers to starve “the beast,” or government spending, by slashing revenues, deeply influenced Perry and the new Republican-led House. Perry frequently visited with Norquist, even inviting him along for a Bahamas retreat. Four state senators, Craddick and 34 other House members signed a national “no-new-taxes” pledge distributed by Norquist. With the state ranking 43rd in per capita hospital, health and welfare spending nationally in 2000 and 41st in state aid per pupil in grades K-12, these two biggest budget items faced devastating reductions.
Democrats and moderate Republicans scrambled for alternatives to draconian budget cuts. The House Ways and Means Committee debated removing almost all exemptions from the tax code, including sales tax exemptions for prescriptions and groceries and business exemptions on products used in manufacturing.
State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn —— formerly a Democrat as mayor of Austin, then a Republican as a statewide officeholder and then an independent candidate for governor in 2006 —— proposed hiking the state’s cigarette tax from 41 cents to $1.41 a pack in order to raise $1.5 billion in two years. Finally, lawmakers sought to close a franchise tax loophole that allowed major Texas corporations to tax dodge by reorganizing as partnerships or creating subsidiaries outside the state.
About 4,000 corporations, including such giants as Dell Computer Corporation, SBC Communications and Cox Texas Newspapers, avoided paying an estimated $200 million a year in taxes between 2000 and 2004 because of this loophole. Perry, Craddick and others shot down each of these proposals as tax increases and insisted on budget cuts.
With Craddick providing GOP muscle in the House, Perry won a seven percent across-the-board budget cut paid through actual reductions in appropriations or delayed payments until after the biennium. These cuts included: slashing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice budget by $300 million, partly paid for by the elimination of 1,000 full-time jobs; chopping about $55 million from three university research budgets and cutting faculty and staff at state-supported schools; reducing a health insurance stipend for school teachers, counselors, and librarians from $1,000 to $500; eliminating the $2.8 million Healthy Families child abuse prevention program; and whittling by $835.2 million state spending on Medicare and the state children’s health insurance program, aimed at providing financial aid for medical care to families of the working poor.
Most taxes were not raised, although the state hiked fees for various public services, cut other services and deregulated tuition at the University of Texas and other state-supported universities. The Republican leadership declined to call these moves tax hikes, however. Even when child abuse prevention programs were axed to avoid raising cigarette taxes, the Republican leadership received relatively little opposition to their budget priorities since most of the leading House Democrats were conservatives as well.
However, Craddick’s attempt to ensure continued Republican domination of the Legislature and, by extension, of the Texas congressional delegation proved far more controversial. In 2001, a federal court drew a new congressional district map when the Democratic-dominated House could not agree on a redistricting plan with the Republican-controlled Senate. Although Republicans garnered almost 55 percent of the state’s total congressional vote, they captured only 15 of the 32 seats in Texas’ congressional delegation in 2002.
Redistricting was little discussed when Craddick gaveled in his freshman session as speaker in January 2003. Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter John Moritz said that Republicans moved through their legislative agenda quickly that year, leaving time to revisit the issue of Texas’ congressional representation. Discussion of taking up redistricting for an unprecedented second consecutive session moved from theory to reality by April. Outnumbered in the House and Senate and not holding the office of governor or lieutenant governor, Democrats had few parliamentary weapons available to prevent re-redistricting of both congressional and legislative districts.
United States House Majority Leader Tom DeLay drove the process. During the 2002 campaign, DeLay’s long-term goal was a Republican state House majority that would elect his ally Craddick as speaker. Craddick, in turn, would seek to increase the number of Republicans elected to Congress from Texas by drawing new, more GOP-friendly congressional districts. In particular, DeLay sought to unseat two of his chief nemeses —— moderate-to-liberal U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin and Martin Frost of Dallas —— along with several conservative Democrats from Republican-dominated districts such as Charles Stenholm of Abilene and Nick Lampson of Beaumont.
DeLay’s goals were often incompatible with the interests of several large Texas constituencies. One member of Congress had long represented Austin. The DeLay/Craddick redistricting plan split the capital city was split into multiple districts to dilute the Democratic stronghold’s strength. Other communities like Abilene would lose the services of experienced representatives like Stenholm who had acquired seniority in the United State House. DeLay felt that what was good for the national GOP was good for Texas. “I’m the majority leader,” DeLay declared, “and we want more seats.”
On May 12, 2003, 55 House Democrats fled to a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma to prevent the House from reaching a quorum. The “Killer Ds” had to maintain their walkout only until May 15, the legislative deadline for House bills to be referred to the Senate. Not trusting the GOP majority, each absent Democrat instructed the House parliamentarian and clerk to lock the voting machines at their desks.
The walkout became a farcical national spectacle. Craddick ordered the Department of Public Safety and Texas Rangers to arrest any wayward legislators and bring them back to the House. Craddick and Tom DeLay went much further, requesting the federal Department of Homeland Security to track former Speaker Pete Laney’s plane on its way to Oklahoma while DeLay asked the Department of Justice to enforce Craddick’s arrest warrants in Ardmore. The Department of Justice declined to get involved, and the Legislature adjourned June 2 with no new congressional lines. Gov. Perry immediately called a special session to start June 30 to again consider redistricting.
The Senate, in anticipation of the session, held a series of public hearings across the state at the urging of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who showed little enthusiasm for the redistricting effort and wanted to establish an “independent record” on public sentiment regarding the issue. The hearings began June 30 and continued through July. These sessions drew boisterous crowds, with Democrats frequently booing GOP officials.
On July 28, 10 Democratic senators imitated their House colleagues and took flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico to break the quorum. Democratic resistance crumbled when Houston Democratic Senator John Whitmire knuckled under pressure and returned to Texas. Republicans reminded Whitmire that his Senate seat had been preserved in the 2001 redistricting effort “as a political favor” and that such favors could be withdrawn.
Perry called another special session to complete redistricting. Republican state Attorney General Greg Abbott certified that the new congressional maps passed the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Craddick, ironically, delayed approval of the final redistricting bill when he insisted that the legislation provide Midland its own congressional district.
Craddick played a central role in preserving the Republican majority in the United States House in 2004. No Texas House speaker had ever played such a visible role in national politics. The Texas speaker’s national reach, however, went far beyond redistricting. Partly as a result of the “New Federalism” initiated by the Reagan administration in the 1980s that devolved more power from Washington to individual states, lobbyists increasingly funneled money into state political coffers and influenced public policy through officials like Craddick.
Meanwhile, Craddick, with his access to big money donors like Leininger, has become a major financial player in the Republican Party, his impact reaching beyond the Lone Star State. Speakers Laney and Craddick can take much of the credit for spurring the growth of a multi million-dollar standardized testing industry that now commands much of the class time and the financial resources of American schools. Texas speakers obviously cast a shadow over not only Austin but increasingly Washington, D.C., as well.
The French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault once observed that “there are no relations of power without resistance.” Craddick reached a pinnacle of influence in the redistricting struggle but the techniques required to succeed, the calling in of old debts, the arm-twisting to get some members to vote even against the interest of their own district in the greater interest of the Republican Party, the implicit threat represented by a powerful office-holder well-connected to wealthy patrons, reaped a harvest of resentment. As Craddick became the state’s most powerful speaker ever, immediate blowback ensued.
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.