Speak, Mr. Craddick

The election makes many and strange bedfellows in the house

"If I thought I'd have this many friends, I'd have gotten a bigger room," joked Tom Craddick, the new speaker-in-all-but-name of the Texas House of Representatives. The formal vote won't come until January, but last Thursday, only two days after the GOP's Nov. 5 tidal wave, the Midland Republican had abruptly become the Most Popular Man at the Capitol. Not only had his own party's House ABC ("Anybody But Craddick") caucus come home to Jesus, so had 16 Democratic House members, freed late Wednesday by current Speaker Pete Laney from their earlier pledges of support.

Had the Republican surge been less decisive, Laney would have hoped to hang onto all the Dems, several of those rump elephants, and therefore the speaker's chair. But, when the confirmed GOP seats hit 87 (plus Sherman's Ron Clark, soon a federal judge), and a handful of Dems bolted, he acknowledged the obvious. What was not so predictable was the predominant complexion of the Democrats who decided forthwith to join Craddick's new "leadership team." Of the 16 Dems invited to the party, 14 are African-American or Hispanic -- joined by Anglos Allan Ritter of Nederland and Houston's Kevin Bailey (once the chair of the chamber's more-or-less progressive caucus). Craddick wasted no time in visually emphasizing the point, as black Fort Worth Democrat Glenn Lewis suddenly found himself among the featured speakers, somewhat apologetically: "I didn't find out until this morning that I was supposed to be here, but as a lawyer I'm sure I can think of something to say." (Garnet Coleman, a black Democrat who remained loyal to Laney, commented dryly, "It would appear that Rep. Craddick focused first on members of color to bring to his team.")

Keeping with the celebratory motif -- not all 101 of Craddick's New Best Friends were crammed into the Speaker's committee room, but those on hand were positively giddy with enthusiasm -- Lewis announced they were all here "to preserve our bipartisan traditions," and Tom Craddick had the experience and the knowledge to "make that transition into the future." Kenny Marchant called attention to this "very diverse nonpartisan group," among which he apparently included the grammatically challenged: Marchant was delighted, he said, to be sharing the podium "with so many of Tommy and I's Democratic colleagues."

The Big Tent of Many Colors

The 16 Dems on Craddick's list range from longtime solo-flyer Ron Wilson (present Thursday only in spirit), through steady moderates like Harold Dutton and Helen Giddings, to seemingly much less likely names like Corpus Christi's Vilma Luna, Houston's Sylvester Turner, and El Paso's Norma Chavez. These three, like a number of the other Democratic secessionists, have been almost invariably among the House's firmest defenders against the GOP's hard right. Yet here they were signing on, at least in name, to its official bandwagon.

Afterward Chavez was subdued in acknowledging the pragmatism underlying her decision. "It came down to simple arithmetic," she told me. "Craddick had the numbers, and the train was leaving the station. ... I have to have economic development for my district, and I can't expect to move it on the House floor if I'm isolated from the leadership." Turner, currently preparing another run for Houston mayor, will undoubtedly look much more attractive to its downtown powers that be (and their deep pockets) if he's legislating from a high-profile position rather than the back benches. According to The Brownsville Herald, Luna, the Valley's Kino Flores, and San Antonio's Robert Puente took some serious heat from the House Mexican-American caucus for jumping Laney's ship so quickly. Puente responded, "The math was there, and the whole state went Republican. I wanted to ensure that urban Texas and Mexican-Americans have a seat at the table at this crucial time."

We can look for Craddick's promised handful of Dem committee chairs to be allotted among this group. May they wear them well. It's harder to believe that either the newly minted speaker or Gov. Perry's budget will hold much in the way of hometown pork, real or ornamental, for Democratic districts. Fort Worth's Lon Burnam described the Democrats for Craddick as having struck a "Faustian bargain" with likely disappointing returns. "They will be begging for scraps," said Burnam, "that will be more meager than they anticipate."

Who Wins? Who Loses?

On the issues that matter most, it should in theory be difficult for Craddick to maintain this oxymoronic coalition. Having seized their opportunity to govern, the Republicans will have to do so. Are their still unarticulated solutions on the major Texas questions -- the budget, school finance, homeowners insurance, health care -- any more persuasive than they were before Nov. 5? And on the perennial hot-button "social issues" -- school vouchers, parental consent for abortions, and the absurdist "defense of [heterosexual] marriage" act -- can they expect even these Democratic hangers-on to vote in direct contradiction to the interests of their constituents?

Maybe so. In that case, El Paso's Paul Moreno will have been right when he told a reporter, "With this Republican leadership, it is like a steamroller coming down the hill. A few of my colleagues have helped take off the brakes, and the people that are going to get hit are the poor and defenseless." The last bill anybody can remember Tom Craddick taking an active interest in was a couple of sessions ago -- the 1999 "emergency" legislation to cut severance taxes on small oil and gas wells, for which Craddick saw no conflict of interest in the fact that he would be a direct financial beneficiary of the bill. He voted against the hate crimes law, against ending execution of the mentally retarded, and repeatedly in favor of tightening all restrictions on abortions.

Except by a few impertinent reporters, that record seemed all but forgotten last week, when Craddick suddenly acquired so many friends he didn't know where to put them all. Perhaps he should have assigned that job to Bill Miller, the local GOP PR maven who opened the ceremonies, distributed the pledge count, and brought the reporters' questions to an end. Miller said he had not been paid for his services, but the dailies duly noted that Miller is also a spokesman for Farmers Insurance, that beleaguered but unbowed corporation whose PAC heavily contributed to Craddick's GOP campaign committee, "Texans for a Republican Majority." The Democrats gathered as eye candy for Craddick's ascension may not know what their service will bring them, but they do know how to count.

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Tom Craddick, Texas House of Representatives, Pete Laney, Glenn Lewis, Garnet Coleman, Kenny Marchant, Vilma Luna, Norma Chavez, Robert Puente, Brownsville Herald, Lon Burnam, Paul Moreno, Bill Miller, Texans for a Republican Majority, Farmers Insurance

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