Tuesday, May 31, 2011

“The Current is Much Stronger”: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Black Art and Literature During the 1920s and 1930s

The following essay, posted in two parts, will appear soon in the upcoming Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., "The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience," due to come out later this year.

Dominated by bankers and realtors with limited exposure to the urban culture of metropolises like New York and Paris, for much of the twentieth century white Dallas held a philistine reputation regarding art. “I’ll support the damned opera if I don’t have to listen to it,” Dallas Mayor R.L. Thornton once famously said in the 1950s. The ruling business clique saw paintings and sculptures as mere adornments to the city, like costume jewelry, not enterprises worthy in and of themselves. Dallas’ white artists fled the city to find appreciation and an audience. Meanwhile, white art patrons in Dallas expected the music and paintings they subsidized to be non-controversial and apolitical. In 1955, right-wing pressure from groups like the Public Affairs Luncheon Club forced The Dallas Museum of Fine Arts to remove works by supposedly leftist painters like Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso.

In contrast, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, African American art in Dallas became a passionate cause and was, by design, political and provocative. Unlike New York’s Harlem neighborhood, Dallas served as a transit point for black authors, sculptors and kindred spirits. The important figures of Dallas’ black art scene passed through the city but generally put down roots elsewhere. Many, particularly blues performers, lived perpetually on the road. This gave many of the big players in Dallas’ artistic community a working-class lifestyle, bringing them closer to the down-and-out drifters, fighters and rebels they wrote and sang about. Dallas – and more broadly North Texas -- is important to this time period because of its status as a destination for rural African Americans seeking higher-paying city jobs in the 1920s and 1930s; for the blues music created there in this time period; and for the impact on American literature of writers like John Mason Brewer and Melvin Tolson after their sojourns in the region.

During the Harlem Renaissance period, African Americans in Dallas and across North and Central Texas searched for their cultural roots in Africa and celebrated what they considered authentic black culture among field hands, the urban poor, janitors, maids, and petty criminals seeking a niche in which they could survive. African American women’s clubs such as the Phyllis Wheatley Art Club, Royal Arts Club, the Cecelian Choral Club and the Eady Mary Art and Culture Club proliferated in the 1920s and 1930s and stimulated discussion of poetry, novels and paintings. The community heatedly debated issues in art, with an African American weekly newspaper, The Dallas Express, serving as the forum for these passionate exchanges.

On March 15, 1919 the Express ran a column “Devoted To Colored Race Literature And Dedicated To Those Who Are Providing It,” by Philadelphia writer M.G. Duggars. The column reveals the range of issues the black arts community engaged in during this period. In rapid fashion, Duggars praises black newspapers like The Philadelphia Tribune that used “great discretion” in accepting advertisements from companies selling hair straighteners and skin-bleaching treatments aimed at giving African Americans a “whiter” appearance. (Ironically, the Dallas Express would be filled with such ads for decades.) Insisting that whites show African Americans respect, Duggars advised his readers to avoid any newspaper that “prints ‘Negro” without using a capital ‘N.’ Why not take a race paper and escape the indignity[?]” Through columns like Duggar’s, the Dallas Express made its audience not only aware of Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes but also raised the readership’s awareness of the political implications for their works and the responsibility all prominent African Americans and black institutions had towards “racial uplift.”

The Express gave news space to generally unpublished poets, some of whom urged readers to preserve a respect for the black cultural past. An intense exchange in North and Central Texas developed between traditionalists and modernizers. One contributor to the Express, Sarah Collin Fernadis, attacked attempts to fuse black gospel songs from the slave era with modern jazz rhythms. The gospel “freedom songs” mixed faith in God’s justice with demands for political freedom in the here-and-now, but in a poem published by the Express on January 20, 1923, Fernadis feared that reframing such powerful lyrics in a jazz setting would compromise the dignity of the older material.

So, they’ve sought a new sensation
[in] this modern jazz craze
In the ruthless syncopation of
Those sweet old plaintive lays
That the souls of their forefathers
‘neath affliction’s heavy rod
coined from bitterness of sorrow
as they reach for touch with God . . .

Referencing gospel classics like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Steal Away to Jesus,” Fernadis ends her plea on a plaintive note: “O ye unthinking inheritors of this rare and sacred tract --/Of a race’s soul’s outpouring --/jazz in pleasure if you must/ But . . . leave, o leave untouched, unsullied, those dear songs your fathers gave.”

Amateurs like Fernadis were not alone in looking towards the past to find cultural authenticity. Prolific author, folklorist, historian and poet John Mason Brewer didn’t care for his contemporaries in the Harlem Renaissance, complaining in 1932 to his mentor J. Frank Dobie about “how unrepresentative the loudly-heralded literature out of Harlem” was and “how false both in psychology and language.” Brewer, perhaps, misjudged his New York contemporaries as elitists. Brewer himself embraced the dialect of the downcast in a series of books, journals and privately published works produced from the 1930s until the 1960s. He never openly discussed the political implications of his tales, but his effort to get the intonation just right in his stories reveals a defiant attitude toward white America. He believed that the stories told by black slaves and their sharecropper descendants could stand any comparison to supposedly more sophisticated art of white museums and symphony halls.

Brewer served as the Dallas Renaissance artist par excellence. Brewer’s mother Minnie taught school for 50 years. She viewed her son, born March 24, 1896, in the Central Texas town of Goliad, as one of her most important pupils. She guided John to “Negro history books and the poems and stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar as soon as he could read,” according to Brewer biography James Byrd. Brewer’s father took on a legion of humble jobs, including mail carrier, grocer, wagoner, and barber, as he struggled to support six children. The elder Brewer stoked young John’s imagination with tales of his career driving cattle to Kansas at the height of the cowboy era.

After graduating from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, Brewer won appointment as professor at Samuel Huston (now Huston-Tillotson) College in Austin after World War I. In perhaps the most critical moment of his life, in 1931 he formed a friendship with Dobie, Texas’ chief folklore collector and interpreter, and one of the state’s most widely regarded authors. Dobie liked his young colleague personally and admired his scholarship. As a white man with extensive connections in the academic and publishing worlds, Dobie played a key role in getting Brewer’s future books published.

Brewer spent much of the 1930s in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and taught Spanish at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in Big D even as his first books were being published. During this time and throughout his career, he did field work across Texas, collecting stories dating back to slavery times. Brewer’s advanced education and his success as a writer never altered his working-class identity. Throughout his subsequent works, he portrayed the powerful as ruthless con artists. In one of his earliest works, Negrito: Negro Dialect Poems of the Southwest (published in 1933), the rich lose their souls as they grasp for power. In a series of quatrains, Brewer rebuked a series of archetypes, taking one swipe at African American politicians who appealed to black pride while catering to the demands of the white power structure:

POLITICIAN

He struts befo’ de brethren
And makes the sistren think
Dat he am one big race man
Den sells ’em for uh drink.


When circulating in the white world, Brewer warned his readers, black people needed to put the larger black community ahead of even their own career ambitions and to remember that intelligence, talent, humor, and hard work would more than likely be met with indifference, fear or disrespect by the city’s ruling class. With material benefits small or non-existent, achievement had to be its own reward, Brewer argued though his tale, “The Hays County Courthouse Janitor.” In this story, "Unkah Sug Miller," a janitor at the Hays County Courthouse in the Central Texas town of San Marcos, is confronted by a county judge who hates him. The judge warns the janitor that even though he has never missed a day of work in 25 years, he will be fired unless he learns to read and write. The judge sees to it that Sug gets sacked, and four years elapse before the two confront each other on a San Marcos street.

The judge, to his great surprise, learns that Miller has become a wealthy farmer. He praises Sug who has "come up in de worl' fas’ — 'taint no tellin' what you'd of been sho 'nuff, if'n you'd of knowed how to read an' write.'" Sug is unimpressed with the judge's reaction. "Ah knows zackly what Ah'd of been," Sug says. "Ah'd of still been de janitor at the Hays County Coa'thouse."

The tale reminds one of Malcolm X’s bitter joke: “What would you call an educated Negro with a B.A., an M.A., a B.S. or a Ph.D.? You call him a nigger.” Sug knew that white society set a low upper limit on black prestige. The mythic American land of opportunity had no place for African Americans. A literate janitor would still be nothing more than a floor sweeper to the white world.

Brewer sought to empower his black readers, even if he tempered his encouragement with heavy doses of realism. Some readers might interpret the conclusion of the “Janitor” story as surrender to fatalism. Such an interpretation would ignore that fact that once Miller exits the white world, his genius realizes its potential and he becomes a prosperous farmer. Brewer walked a tightrope. He did not defend segregation but informed his black audience that African American poverty directly resulted from white oppression.

Brewer’s works reflect an incipient black nationalism. The title of his poetry collection Negrito referred to the Negritude movement, a black-affirming approach to art, inspiring African-descended intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic. Like other Negritude writers, Brewer sought to blow away white racism and discrimination not by imitating Anglo society but by establishing a new blackness. With an unblinking lack of sentimentality, he sought cultural and political equality on black terms.

The complex meaning of black identity remained central to Brewer’s art. If Jim Crow laws implied that the “white” and “black” races were clearly separate and easily defined, centuries of white sexual assault committed against black women during and after slavery, created a more complex, multi-racial world. A universe of color existed within Texas’ African American community. In North Central Texas, ethnic tension sometimes existed between darker-skinned individuals and those with lighter, so-called “high yeller” complexion, and the skin bleach ads in the Dallas Express suggested higher esteem for “whiter” skin. In the eyes of artists like Brewer, however, this spectrum of pigment instead stood as mute testament to white oppression and a shared alienation from mainstream culture. Brewer expressed this unity in "Apostolic," a 1936 poem in which he describes an African American church congregation displaying all the hues produced by white sexual subordination:

[A] seething mass of black, brown and yellow beings
Shouting tunes, mysterious mixtures of Jazz, Religious and Jungle melodies

Ironically, Brewer shares this concern with one of the other great writers from North Texas during the Harlem Renaissance period, poet and Wily College professor Melvin Beaunorus Tolson. In many ways, Tolson – who filled his verse with erudite references to ancient classics and displayed a deep knowledge of world literature – represented the “unrepresentative” elite black artist Brewer so disliked. However, Brewer and Tolson, whose championship debate teams at Wiley in Marshall, Texas, were depicted in the 2007 film The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington, shared much in common. The meaning of black identity also concerned Tolson, whose epic poem “Harlem Gallery” explored themes similar to those in Brewer’s “Apostolic.” Unlike Brewer, however, Tolson explicitly rejected race as a meaningful biological concept. A Marxist for much of his adult life, Tolson saw race as a social construction, a fabricated identity used to internally divide the working class along color lines. If Brewer never seriously questioned what made an individual “black,” that issue serves as a central concern in the “Psi” section of “Harlem Gallery”:

Who is a Negro?
(I am a White in deah ole Norfolk)
Who is a White?
(I am a Negro in little old New York)
Since my mongrelization in invisible
And my Negroness a state of mind conjured up
By Steretypus, I am a chameleon,
On that side of the Mason-Dixon
That a white man’s conscience
is not on.

In this passage, Tolson suggests that both “whiteness” and “blackness” lack validity as categories. The white voice uses stereotypical black dialect “(in deah ole Norfolk”) while the black voice uses elite grammar. The narrator describes himself as a chameleon, able to assume any identity, which Brewer suggests is a mindset opposite of the that of the white South which seeks to chain individuals to racial categories for the purpose of dividing and conquering the working masses.

Born in Missouri, Tolson graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, in 1924 winning appointment to teach English and speech at Wiley College, 152 miles east of Dallas. He stayed there until 1947. Tolson became one of the most acclaimed Texas authors of his age, black or white. “Tolson’s poetic lines and images sing, affirm, reject, predict, and judge experience in America, and his poetry is direct and humanistic,” proclaimed esteemed Harlem Renaissance novelist Richard Wright. “All history, from Genesis to Munich, is his domain. The strong men keep coming and Tolson is one of them.”

Although able to defuse conflicts with his charm, Tolson did not shy from bluntly confronting what he saw as evil. At one point, Tolson organized a boycott of Marshall merchants to force them to provide better and more courteous treatment of black customers, a movement that inspired talk of lynching. He ran the risk of lynching again in 1938 when, as an invited speaker at a high school commencement in Rustin, Louisiana, he strongly condemned a lynching that had taken place near the small town the day before. “Where were you good folks when these men were lynched?” he asked the audience, which included the white sheriff, police chief and president of the school board. Warned by locals that they faced violent reprisals, Tolson and an armed Wiley student who escorted him to the event made a quick exit, driving along back roads in the dead of night back to Texas.

While Brewer only implied rape as the cause of black color diversity, Tolson is bolder and more explicit. Referring to the naked women who stood before white bidders during slave sales across antebellum America as “”The dark hymens on the auction block,” Tolson mournfully asked in the same poem:

[W]hat midnight-to-dawn lecheries,
in cabin and big house,
produced these brown hybrids and yellow motleys
White Boy,
Buchenwald is a melismatic song . . .

Tolson’s concerns are more universal that Brewer’s. Brewer grounds much of his writing firmly in the Texas setting, and even if he complicates black identity, the white world appears relatively homogenous in his poems and folktales. Tolson, however, sees poor African Americans as part of globally oppressed working class, divided from their white and brown brethren only through the conscious manipulations of elites. In the above passage’s reference to the Buchenwald concentration camp, Tolson links Southern racism to eliminationist Nazism. In a melismatic song, one sings a single syllable of lyrics to a series of notes. Tolson suggests that Louisiana lynchers are simply another face of the same fascist monstrosity stalking Europe in the early and mid-1940s.

Racism, Tolson argued in his poetry and his newspaper columns, was the common enemy of all underpaid and overworked humanity. As he observes in “The Underdogs,” the poem that closes “Harlem Gallery,” Jews, Slavs, Italians and even “poor white trash” in America, have been deceived by plutocrats who play these marginalized groups against each other in order to disenfranchise and keep wages low.

Kike and bohunk and wops,
Dagos and niggers and crackers . . .
Starved and lousy, Blind and stinking –
We fought each other,
Killed each other
Because the great white masters
Played us against each other

Brewer was implicitly political, and Tolson was explicitly so. Brewer dealt with the hardships and tragedies of black life in America with humor, while Tolson responded with blunt rage and calls for revolution. Lillian B. Jones Horace, an African American novelist in Fort Worth active in that city’s black theater circle, fantasized about a more just and fair life for African Americans “returning” to Africa. A teacher born in Jefferson, Texas, about 168 miles northeast of Dallas near the Louisiana border, Horace moved with her family to Fort Worth early in her childhood. She attended Prairie View Normal School near Houston and Bishop College in Marshall before beginning her teaching career in Tarrant County in 1905. An English teacher and dean of girls at I.M. Terrell High School in Fort Worth, she established the campus’ drama department and the school’s first drama club. Horace, then 20, starred as the Old Testament title character in an African American production of the musical Queen Esther produced by the namesake of the Terrell School at Fort Worth City Hall, Professor Terrell. The local African American press praised the production, describing it as an “excellent entertainment” that “would have done credit to amateur singers anywhere.” Horace also guided the I.M. Terrell Dramatic Club’s original operetta The Stolen Princess, staged during the troupe’s inaugural season in 1922. Horace’s ideas seem to have been deeply influenced by Marcus Garvey, the Jamaica-born founder of the United Negro Improvement Association, which claimed 30 branches across the country by 1919. Garvey, who heavily influenced the Nation of Islam sect, taught that “black is beautiful.” Opposing the Euro-American view that Africa represented a civilization wasteland where inhabitants lived in the Stone Age until the arrival of Europeans, Garvey told his followers that Africans had built a noble civilization and that white culture was diseased. Racism was so deeply entrenched in white society, he preached, that it was useless to appeal to their sense of justice.

Garvey felt that blacks would be free only if segregated from whites while in the United States, and once even met with Klan leaders to discuss common strategy to achieve racial separation. Ultimately, the only hope for African Americans, he said, was for blacks in the United States to return to Africa and build a new nation of their own, a program he called "Negro Zionism." Garvey called this theoretical nation the “Empire of Africa” and crowned himself provisional president of that state in 1921.

Garveyites were active in Dallas, and the thoughts and deeds of Garvey received heavy coverage in The Dallas Express. In this atmosphere, a time when Texas ranked third among the states in the nation in numbers of lynchings per year, Horace wrote the utopian novel Five Generations Hence. The title reflects Horace’s hope that African Americans would be resettled in the home continent in five generations. In the novel, the heroine, Miss Noble, shared a recent vision with a friend:

It seemed a week of horrors to our people throughout the land, of which I read in the daily papers: there had been a lynching not far away and it seemed that the end of my endurance was reached when members of my race, men and women and even children, were attacked upon the streets of one of our leading cities, brutally assaulted, and forced to flee like hunted beasts . . . I saw the Negro for more than fourteen generations of oppression attended by theft from their native shores and crack of the whip about their heads.

{Then} I saw a people, a black people, tilling the soil with a song of real joy upon their lips. I saw a civilization like to the white man’s about us today, but in his place stood another of a different hue. I beheld beautifully paved streets, handsome homes beautified and adorned, and before the doors sported dusky boys and girls . . . I was as if thunder struck when a still small voice, yet seeming to penetrate my inmost soul, cried in thunderous accents, “Five Generations Hence.” I was stunned as the truth began to dawn: the land was Africa, the people were my own returned to possess the heritage of their ancestors.


Marxists like Tolson ridiculed such Garveyism. Unlike Horace, Tolson and Brewer saw America as a land that belonged as much to blacks as to whites. Furthermore, like W.E.B. Du Bois, Tolson would argue that hoping for a mass migration of African Americans across the Atlantic was a futile pipedream. White supremacy threatened people of color globally. Even as Horace wrote her novel, brutal British, French and Belgian colonial regimes had raped Africa, stolen its resources, and exploited its people.


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.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Anti-Tax Extremism: The State of the Texas Legislature and the House Speakership in 2011

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe the deeper ideological divides plaguing the Texas House in the 2011 legislative session.

The tremendous power Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick exercised in his brief reign was more than 160 years in the making. The speakership began in the early 19th century as a rotating honorary position chiefly concerned with the duties of presiding over debates. Speakers overwhelmingly shared the elitist values of the wealthy slaveowner class. A dominant ideology that promoted a rural economy, white supremacy, governmental favors to the wealthy and limited participation of the citizenry in daily government prevailed for much of the 19th century, limiting the policy options of individual speakers and rendering them interchangeable.

Republican Reconstruction briefly disturbed this governmental slumber. The state began to take responsibility for Texans without wealth, opening public schools and hospitals, providing mental health care, and promoting the growth of roads, railroads and shipyards. This activist period proved ephemeral, and unreconstructed Confederates recaptured the state government with a vengeance, gutting the state’s first-ever genuine public education system and relying on terror and violence to reduce Afro-Texans to near servitude.

This stultifying political climate changed with the rise of agrarian discontent in the 1870s through the 1890s, culminating in the Populist challenge at century’s end. After conservatives used violence and voter fraud again, this time to crush the Populists, dissenters within elite ranks, the Progressives, insisted that the modern economy developing in Texas required the aid of government. Agencies proliferated, with industries like the railroads, banking, medicine, and dentistry for the first time facing regulations aimed at ensuring fair business practices and safe consumer products.

As the state government’s responsibilities and obligations increased, policy disputes increased in number and intensity, and for the first time, the individual priorities of speakers mattered. The speaker’s areas of responsibilities and powers were explicitly outlined for the first time and institutional reforms made the speakership a more prominent office. Still, speakers often saw the position as a steppingstone to a statewide office or to Congress.

One of the most conservative men to ever serve as speaker, Coke Stevenson, increased the prominence of the office in the 1930s. Stevenson dominated state politics in the period. He broke precedent not only by serving two consecutive terms but also by virtue of the public attention he received while holding the speakership. Speakers openly became legislative players who had to be dealt with by governors, lieutenant governors, lobbyists and activists seeking to shape public policy.

The discovery of oil in the early 20th century and federal spending during the Depression and World War II transformed the state into an industrial, urban colossus. The increasing complexity of the economy, the growing racial, religious and linguistic diversity, and the increasing international competition engendered by the push for free trade turned the job of state legislator, and speaker, into a year-long duty.

Speakers in the post-World War II era dramatically expanded their staffs even as the Legislature increased the number of state agencies. With that expansion, speakers increased their power of appointment. Speakers gained control over the Capitol grounds and became more sophisticated in their guidance of the legislative process. This happened even as the House divided as never before into liberal and conservative, urban and rural, male and female, and white, black and brown factions.

Critics charged that the speaker’s powers had devolved into a virtual dictatorship by the time of Gus Mutscher in the early 1970s, but after a brief post-Sharpstown bribery scandal backlash, the office continued its evolution as the state’s most powerful political office. This process reached its apotheosis under Craddick. A powerful speaker, Mutscher could still only claim a share of power over the Democratic Party with Ben Barnes and Preston Smith. Craddick, however, stood alone at the top of the Republican Party as the most influential policy maker in state government.

The growth in power and influence enjoyed by the Texas House speaker in this era at times paralleled changes in the office of United States House speaker. During the 20th century, the speakers in the Congress inspired reactions ranging from reverence to loathing. The House speakers operated in a congressional system governed by seniority and divided along party lines. Whether they were Democratic or Republican speakers, all were forced to deal with entrenched interests. They had to maintain order in the House, consider the interests of their party, coordinate legislation with the Senate, and work with the executive branch on programs.

The speakers of the Texas House of Representatives, like their counterparts in the rest of the South, faced somewhat different circumstances. One-party politics, fewer demands for public services, smaller budgets and the part-time nature of the body placed fewer demands on Southern House speakers. But the economic boom of the post-war years coupled with the growing demand for state services raised expectations for House speakers in Dixie. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement, more participation by women and minorities, and the increase in the number of special interest groups demanded that the modern House speakers pay more attention to the economic and social changes under way.

In Texas, speakers’ policymaking roles increased and, like their counterparts in Washington, the speakers who respected the office and the members found greater success than those who abused the institution and the process. By expanding the responsibilities of the speaker’s office and its bureaucratic structure, the speaker acquired the influence and stature that equaled, or exceeded, the power of the governor and the lieutenant governor. The office no longer served merely as a steppingstone to other elected positions.

After 1975, the multi-term speaker who presided as any other statewide elected official became the norm. Three of the most recent speakers, Gib Lewis, Pete Laney and Tom Craddick, held the position for multiple terms. Of even greater importance, each of these speakers saw the office as the pinnacle of elective leadership in Texas.

The power of modern speakers cannot be separated from the increasing influence of lobbyists who form what is often described as a fourth branch of Texas government. Campaign reforms instated after Sharpstown did not banish the lobby, but only required more stealthy and complex maneuvers on the part of would-be influence peddlers. Lobbyists became even more important as the media available to candidates multiplied.

House candidates, for instance, once relied primarily on stump speeches, the occasional radio appearance, and printed pamphlets and buttons. To these old media has been added the expense of “tightly targeted direct (bulk) mail,” pricey television advertising, creating and maintaining a presence on the Internet, and hiring staff to conduct polls both to measure voter sentiment and to conduct phony “push polls” through which loaded questions raise doubts in the listener’s mind concerning the candidate’s opponents.

As reporters Sam Kinch, Jr., and Ann Marie Kilday point out, campaign costs have skyrocketed. The modern era of campaign spending in Texas began with the election of Bill Clements as governor in 1978. Clements drew on his own deep pockets, but also carried strong Washington and Texas business connections. Clements convinced the Texas business community, which had previously given extensively only in presidential and senatorial races, that local races were important in terms of shaping policy.

These local races became even more important to business lobbyists as they increasingly appreciated the role of congressional redistricting in promoting the national Republican Party and a succession of conservative presidents. Clements initiated a fundraising arms race between the parties in Texas in which the Republicans had all the advantages with their anti-union, anti-regulation, and anti-tax policies. In the 1980s, a two-year election cycle that included races for governor and most other executive department offices cost candidates less than $20 million. By contrast, the 1997-1998 campaign cycle cost $121 million. All Republican candidates in 1998 raised $83 million, compared to $38 million for all Democrats.

In 1998 incumbents, who enjoyed a tremendous advantage in fundraising because of their ability to deliver favorable legislation to contributors, received $2.50 in campaign contributions for every $1 received by a challenger. Most of that money went to those seen as effective, entrenched incumbents who had well served special interests.

About $55 million of the $121 million contributed to all candidates in 1997-1998, or about 46 percent of the total, came from political action committees, almost all formed by big business and professional organizations seeking friendly legislation from Austin. Almost half of the money raised in that period came from only 629 individuals and PACs, who piped in an average of $95,000 each to favored candidates. “No person who has any sense about what’s right and wrong in this world will believe that kind of money . . . doesn’t influence a vote,” said former Democratic State Rep. Mike Martin of Galveston.

The advantages enjoyed by incumbents are enhanced during redistricting when influential members of the House and Senate are able to, in effect, select their constituents. Designing districts has become a devastating tool of continued power for ruling parties with most electoral districts in the state, and the nation, drawn to be “can’t lose” zones for Republicans and Democrats. All these trends combined —— the increased spending on state campaigns, the greater involvement of business PACs in fundraising, the immense financial advantages enjoyed by incumbents, the use of redistricting to guarantee election results, and the widening funding gap between the Republican and Democratic parties —— came together under Tom Craddick and only magnified his influence over state politics.

Of course, the Texas Legislative Council computer program that provides suggested legislative district lines can predict voter behavior, but not guarantee it. Nor can it ensure for a speaker how elected members of his party will behave once they are in office. Furthermore, state and national issues impact voter decisions that often disrupt traditional voting patterns.

Perhaps Texas politics will eventually mature to the point where both parties are competitive and encompass diverse ideologies requiring the art of compromise. Though in many ways a conventional Republican fiscal conservative, Straus showed little appetite in his early days as speakers for the divisive social issues like school vouchers, abortion and immigration restriction that helped poison relations between Democrats and Republicans under Craddick. His caucus, however, grew even more right wing after another decision political pendulum swing in the fall of 2010.

Continued high unemployment, discontent over recent national health care legislation, and the subsequent rise of the so-called "Tea Party Movement" on the right, led to a Republican retaking of the United States House and a massive GOP majority in the Texas House, where they outnumbered Democrats by 101-49. In the state Senate, Republicans held a 19-12 edge. An attempt to overthrow Straus because of his support from Democrats and his alleged softness on social issues like abortion fizzled, but the speaker moved in a more conservative direction in response.

The rollback on school property taxes engineered by Perry and Craddick, amid the continuance of what economists called "The Great Recession," put the state at least $27 billion in the hole by the 2011 session. Straus stood with Perry as the governor demanded the shortfall be addressed through a catastrophic $15 billion budget cut to hospitals, libraries, public schools, colleges and universities. A cut of $4 billion to public schools guaranteed thousands of teacher layoffs and mass furloughs of thousands more educators the coming year.

Meanwhile, Perry pushed through laws to appease the religious right, such as a measure to require all women seeking an abortion to get a sonogram and wait 24 more hours before terminating a pregnancy. The procedure, which requires the insertion of a wand in a woman's vagina, would be required even of rape victims, though these women would not have to listen to a description of the fetus as other patients would. Other controversial measures, such as one allowing college students to carry concealed handguns on college campuses or banning Texas cities from offering sanctuary to undocumented workers, failed to work their way even through this extremely conservative legislature, mostly because of procedural snafus.

Polling suggests the anti-tax rigidity of the Republican Legislative caucus clashed with the priorities of most Texans. A majority of the state's residents, it appeared, wanted greater, not less, funding for education at the public school and university level; more money to provide health coverage for uninsured children; and supported embryonic stem cell research and other scientific projects. In turn Another political trend, however, makes it less likely that these wishes will be heard. The constant fiddling with congressional and Legislative redistricting, which started yet again in 2011 in the wake of the latest U.S. Census, will probably leave the state House even more captive to the far right fringe.

Journalist John Moritz argues that recent rounds of re-districting have created heavily Republican or Democratic districts for most Legislators who must win the votes of the ideologues within their own party who dominate the primary electorate. This, he says, has increased the tendency of Democrats to lean further left and Republicans further right. This makes pragmatic problem solving involving members of both parties increasingly difficult. In many regards, this trend reflects the direction of national politics. How that future portends for a Texas population state district Judge John Dietz predicted would be “larger, poorer, less educated, and more needy than today” remains cloudy.


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.

Palin by Comparison

Earlier this week someone on Twitter asked contributors to suggest a title for a two-hour documentary being made to glorify Sarah Palin. I suggested "Half-Baked Alaska."


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.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Gutting Schools, Right-Wing Ideology and The Fall of Tom Craddick

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe Republican Speaker Tom Craddick's rapid fall from political grace and the financial hole the Texas GOP created for public schools in the last decade.

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.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Ticking Time Bomb: Low Tax Republicans and School Funding in Texas Under Tom Craddick

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe how a rigid ideological insistence on no new taxes made school funding a nightmare under Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick and Gov. Rick Perry in the early 21st century.

The partisan bitterness engendered by Congressional redistricting in Texas during the 2003 legislative session came to a head over the issue of school funding. The state’s “Robin Hood” redistribution plan remained in place by 2003 even as it faced legal challenges by wealthier districts. By that year, any district with more than $305,000 in taxable property per student paid into the state system, while districts below that mark received money. Districts experienced a crisis when they no longer qualified as poor districts and hit the Legislature’s imposed limit of $1.50 per $100 property valuation (a limit set to force reduced state spending).

As enrollments expanded and costs increased, more districts found it necessary to balance their books by cutting budgets, reducing staff, and delaying needed repairs and purchases. Some districts tried to circumvent the tax caps by regularly raising property valuations, but anti-tax Republican legislators responded by calling for limits on district’s abilities to raise valuations to 5 percent, down from the current 10 percent, or rolling back the property tax caps by 33 percent to $1 per $100 of valuation.

Local school budget cuts angered residents of wealthier districts, but constantly climbing property tax rates upset voters across the state. Gov. Rick Perry, House Speaker Tom Craddick, and other Republicans leaders tried to tap into this sentiment and made a series of what turned out to be a series of mutually exclusive commitments. “You cannot eliminate Robin Hood, keep equity, reduce property taxes substantially and adequately fund schools back to the level they need to be, and say there will be zero —— neutral taxes in the end,” Michael Boone, a Dallas lawyer and adviser to state Republican leaders on school finance for 10 years, told the Dallas Morning News.

Unable to meet these contradictory demands and unwilling to prioritize them, the state’s top three leaders and the state Legislature ran into a brick wall five times between 2003 and 2005. The Legislature debated and failed to agree on school finance reform during the 2003 regular session, a fourth special session that year (following the three special sessions that wrestled with redistricting), the 2005 regular session, and three subsequent special sessions that year. (Special sessions cost the taxpayers $60,000 a day or nearly $2 million for a full 30-day special session.)

Perry demanded a property tax rollback and called for hikes in so-called “sin taxes” on alcohol and sexually-oriented businesses. Perry refused to agree to a plan called for by Democrats and moderate Republicans to close loopholes in the business franchise tax. Craddick wanted even more tax burden shifted from businesses by raising the sales tax, even though Texans already had one of the highest sales tax rates in the country and the state’s own budget estimates indicated that this move would raise the tax burden for 90 percent of residents.

Less than one week into the second consecutive special session on school finance, House leaders started the session by introducing a motion that would have cut off all debate and amendments to their school finance plan, a high-handed move rejected in a bipartisan vote. The Republican leaders introduced their plan, but members slapped it down in an overwhelming 124-8 vote. Before the vote, 14 rebellious Republicans joined the 62 Democrats to amend the plan to provide more property tax relief, larger pay raises for teachers and twice as much new funding for school districts.

The amendments, which shifted taxes to businesses, lost the support of the bill’s original sponsors, who then allowed members to tack on dozens of additional amendments without debate. The entire bill became a poison pill that no one in the Legislature swallowed. Having rejected the school finance bill. Since revenue bills must originate in the House and since that body was prohibited from introducing new measures that substantially resembled previously rejected bills, the second special session failed before the first week had been completed.

Perry’s call for a third special session in the summer of 2005 clearly irritated the House speaker. When the leadership’s school financing plan went down in flames in July, Craddick declared that members were “worn out . . . They’re kind of fatigued voting multiple times on the same issue.” Craddick expressed a clear preference for waiting until a court ruled on the constitutionality of the state’s current system, believing that a finding in favor of the state’s system would make moves by the Legislature unnecessary and that a court ruling against the current system would supply the needed pressure to force the Legislature to approve a new plan.

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst moved ahead with a plan that increased some business taxes but did not include a cap on property tax dollars that rich districts must pay into the state system, a provision Craddick insisted upon. The speaker took the unprecedented step of using spare campaign funds to buy radio spots across the state criticizing the Senate plan. Craddick’s ads further strained an already tense relationship with Dewhurst. “Speaker Craddick’s time and energy would be better spent on solving the state’s problems than on . . . misleading advertisements,” Dewhurst spokesperson Mark Miner said. The third session failed, however, like its predecessors, after Craddick refused to bring to the floor a tax swap bill that would exchange cuts in property taxes for increases in sales and some business taxes.

The Legislature opened 2006 knowing it faced a looming deadline on the troublesome issue. On September 15, 2005, state District Judge John Dietz ruled the Texas system of paying for schools unconstitutional, declaring that the average 38 percent of local school budgets paid for by the state failed to meet the Constitution’s requirement that the Legislature provide “an adequate suitable education.” Furthermore, he ruled that because budget shortfalls forced an increasing number of districts to tax at the Legislature’s imposed $1.50 cap, local districts had lost “all meaningful discretion” and the state had, in effect, instituted an unconstitutional state property tax. “Texas in 2040 will have a population that is larger, poorer, less educated, and more needy than today,” Dietz warned. “Education costs money, but ignorance costs more money.”

The collision between ideological purity and depressing fiscal reality ended in Legislative failure and fierce criticism of Perry, Craddick and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst from the usually complacent state press and fellow politicians. Critics charged that the Republican insistence on tax cuts in all political circumstances painted the party leadership into a corner. “They’re up against a painful reality here, and that is you can’t have a decent —— let alone quality ——education system without paying for it,” said University of Texas political science professor Bruce Buchanan.

A looming scandal clouded the speaker’s efforts during the redistricting and school financing battles. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle indicted U.S. House Majority Leader Tom Delay and three of his associates for the fundraising activities of Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, a group largely responsible for funneling $190,000 in legally questionable campaign funds to Republican candidates in key state House races in the decisive 2003 general election campaign. Texas law prohibits direct corporate contributions to political candidates. Earle charged that DeLay laundered the funds by transferring the cash to the Republican National Committee, which then distributed the money to Republican legislative candidates.

In September 2004, Earle convinced a Travis County grand jury to return 32 felony indictments against several corporations, including Sears and Roebuck, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Bacardi USA, and three individuals with close ties to Tom DeLay: John Colyandro, former executive director of TRMPAC; Warren DeBold, a top DeLay fundraiser; and Jim Ellis, a key DeLay political aide. DeLay himself was indicted on conspiracy and money laundering charges in connection with TRMPAC’s activities in September 2005. The indictment forced DeLay to temporarily step down as U.S. House majority leader, a move made permanent in early 2006 after revelations of DeLay’s close relationship with Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to bribe members of Congress, mail fraud and tax evasion.

The DeLay scandal, frustration with the Iraq War begun in 2003, a sexual scandal involving Congressional pages in Washington, D.C., and anger over mismanagement of relief and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 created a bad electoral climate for the GOP in the 2006 elections. In Texas, partisan resentments stirred by the redistricting and frustration concerning the epic battles over school finances further complicated Republican political ambitions.

The first sign of trouble came on February 14, 2006, when liberal Democrat Donna Howard easily beat Republican Ben Bentzin 58 percent to 42 percent in a runoff to fill the unexpired term of retiring GOP lawmaker Todd Baxter. Howard’s win, some observers noted, was particularly significant since it came in one of the “Tommy-mandered” districts drawn by the House in 2003 to guarantee a Republican win. During the March 7, 2006 Republican primaries, a key Craddick ally, Public Education Committee Chair Kent Grusendorf of Arlington, lost to challenger Diane Patrick, a former Arlington school board member and one-time member of the state education board whom the 19-year incumbent derided as an “educrat.” Voters, however, blamed Grusendorf for the ongoing school financing fiasco.


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.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The "Killer Ds": The 2003 Texas Redistricting Farce

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe how Tom Craddick, the first Republican Texas House Speaker since Reconstruction, undermined his considerable personal influence with a divisive Congressional redistricting battle instigated by his political ally and later convicted felon, Congressman Tom Delay.

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.