All Eyes on Speaker Fight

Craddick fighting for his political life

Even after rumors died down about a potential race for House speaker, the sitting Speaker Tom Craddick might have known that he'd be fighting for his political life just days before the new Legislature opens on Tuesday. He might not have known, however, that there would be more than one opponent vying for his seat – front-runner Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, and Plan B contender Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.

Craddick, a wealthy businessman who understands the language of money, took a bath on Election Day. In the last 30-day push before the election, the speaker's political investment arm – the once mighty Stars Over Texas – sunk more than $800,000 into 13 make-or-break legislative races, losing all but a fraction of those dollars in return. Seven of the 13 candidates – four of them incumbents – went down in headline-grabbing flames. Craddick's PAC invested $710,000 in the unlucky seven, including a late drop of $185,000 in Bill Welch's run against Valinda Bolton in Travis Co.'s House District 47 race.

Bolton is now backing McCall, as are Austin Democratic Reps. Elliott Naishtat and Eddie Rodriguez. Two other Travis Co. delegates – Mark Strama and Donna Howard – aren't advertising their choices, but conventional wisdom puts them in McCall's corner. "It's a matter of public record that I'm not supporting [Craddick]," Strama said. "I'm hopeful that there's going to be a new speaker." While Howard's name appeared on Craddick's post-election pledge list of 109, she went missing from the revised head count of 84.* (Craddick's office acknowledges that Pitts' defection puts the tally at 83.) Democratic Reps. Dawnna Dukes of Austin and Patrick Rose of Dripping Springs are still officially backing Craddick, one more strongly than the other. Dukes is a Craddick team player who stands to gain committee clout should Craddick stay put.

McCall has said he has the votes he needs to oust Craddick, but he's keeping a lid on the identity of his pledges in the interest of homeland security. Because many of McCall's supporters also show up on Craddick's list, they fear that if exposed, retribution would be ultra swift and severe in another Craddick term. Craddick's office doesn't buy that line. "We're confident that the 83 names we have are solid," spokeswoman Alexis DeLee said. Consultant Bill Miller, a Craddick backer, also sought to cast doubt on McCall's confidence level. "If you can touch it and feel it, it's a nose. But if you're describing a piece of cartilage with two holes in it, maybe it's not a nose."

With all the daily maneuvering and arm-twisting under way, you need a weatherman to know which way the wind (or nose) blows. Breezes out of the north have McCall sweeping Craddick aside, thanks to a last-minute assist from Pitts, who ascended to Appropriations chair under Craddick but landed in the speaker's doghouse shortly thereafter. So it makes sense that Pitts would want to try to leverage influence with McCall before sending over whatever votes he's assembled. Still another scenario has the even-tempered Eastland Rep. Jim Keffer (think Gerald Ford) becoming the "accidental speaker" to help heal a divided House. Meantime, watch for sudden wind shifts and severe freeze warnings. Busted kneecaps and related storm damage likely.

*Oops! The following correction ran in our January 19, 2007 issue: A Jan. 5 story on the House speaker's race ("All Eyes on Speakers Fight") erroneously reported that Austin Rep. Donna Howard's name had appeared on an early list of House members pledged to Speaker Tom Craddick. Howard's name has never appeared on a list of Craddick supporters. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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state legislature, Tom Craddick, Jim Keffer, Brian McCall, Gerald Ford, Jim Pitts, Mark Strama, Bill Miller, Donna Howard, Dawnna Dukes, Elliott Naishtat, Eddie Rodriquez, Patrick Rose

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