Point Austin: Craddick Unbound

The House speaker retains his chair, but at what cost?

Tom Craddick brought in former Reps. Terry Keel (r) of Austin and Ron Wilson (l) of Houston to be his parliamentarians, but they had the appearance of being more like bodyguards as the speaker's authority crumbled.
Tom Craddick brought in former Reps. Terry Keel (r) of Austin and Ron Wilson (l) of Houston to be his parliamentarians, but they had the appearance of being more like bodyguards as the speaker's authority crumbled. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

The most enduring image of the 80th Legislature will not be Speaker Pro Tem Sylvester Turner breaking down in tears over the prospect of losing Sunday's budget vote and thereby his hard-worked compromise with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to add 127,000 children to the Children's Health Insurance Program. Nor will it be the moment when Sen. John Whitmire, in a rage at Dewhurst over having his vote denied on the voter-ID bill, cursed aloud and slammed his fist on his desk. Nor will it even be the late Sunday night defiance by El Paso Republican Pat Haggerty, prevented from completing a personal roll call of the House on Tom Craddick's speakership, leading an impromptu, quorum-busting walkout.

No, the most enduring image of this strange and historic session will be that of Craddick at the podium, physically and morally dwarfed by former members Terry Keel and Ron Wilson beside him, whom Craddick had recruited to replace the official House parliamentarians – after those intrepid advisers had offered rulings he preferred to ignore. More specifically, Keel and Wilson's charge was to do whatever it took to prevent House action on Craddick's speakership, even if it meant twisting the House rules, not to mention the long-established traditions of all parliamentary procedure, to prevent any possible vote. The parliamentarians, in principle, serve the whole House, not just the speaker – but Keel and Wilson instead took on the role of burly bodyguards defending a very nervous overseer.

So there stood Craddick, looking like nothing so much as a ventriloquist's dummy, as he repeated verbatim whatever Wilson or (more often) Keel said – the latter not even bothering with the customary discretion of whispering off-mic. It was all too clear that K&W were functioning more as defense attorneys than parliamentary officers – and that they were ruthlessly and arrogantly defending the speaker from any possible motion to unseat him, by the very House members who had in January elected him to serve. They had invented, for the purpose, the transparent fiction that the speaker has "absolute authority" (alternatively, "absolute power") to deny recognition to any member, most especially those requesting a vote on the speaker.

It didn't seem to bother them that the extraparliamentary maneuver amounted also to a confession that Craddick no longer believed he had the support of the House and no confidence that he could win such an unprecedented vote.

Humpty Dumpty

Although there have already been a few desperate attempts to spin the speaker dispute as a Democratic or "liberal" plot against the beleaguered Craddick, no one who's been paying attention will be fooled. Although Waco Democrat Jim Dunnam was repeatedly outspoken in his role as minority leader, it was primarily Republicans of all ideological stripes who led the rebellion against Craddick's tyranny – by the end, there was no other word for it – and they seemed as much stunned into reluctant action by the speaker's audacity as eager for a fight. Haggerty, known for pugnacity, was the least of it; when mild-mannered Fred Hill, R-Richardson, and Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, stepped to the back mic to request a motion to vacate, it was clear Craddick had lost the support of the most respected veteran House members. "You mean to say we, who elected the speaker," asked Keffer, "have nothing to say about whether he remains?" "Not under the House rules," he was told – meaning the rules as radically redefined by Craddick, Keel, and Wilson.

It was not an ideological debate. Legislators believe deeply in "the process" as virtual gospel, and they were being told by the speaker and two (bipartisan) former members – neither of whom had been shy about using the rules to legislative advantage – that there is no process, under parliamentary, House, or even congressional rules, even to call for a vote on the speakership. (At one point, El Paso Dem Paul Moreno, Craddick's contemporary at nearly 40 years of service, momentarily tricked Craddick into recognizing a motion to reconsider last January's vote for speaker – no matter; Craddick arbitrarily withdrew the recognition.) Late Sunday, Speaker Pro Tem Sylvester Turner refused even to recognize a motion to adjourn – a privileged motion, to vote up or down, in any parliamentary body on Earth – and the general, bipartisan outrage was palpable. (Turner, heretofore widely and sincerely respected, may have burned too many bridges this session by serving as Craddick's Craddick.)

Citizen Krusee

In the end, Craddick held on to his throne, although right now it looks like an empty victory. Many of his most long-serving and distinguished chairs, as well as several Dems who had latched their wagons to his star, have deserted him, and his defense was left to feckless backbenchers like Bill Zedler and Leo Berman. Somewhat lost in the Sunday night Haggerty hoopla was the angry and eloquent preceding speech by Austin Republican Mike Krusee, who had been one of the speaker's most loyal and implacable lieutenants in the bloody 2003 re-redistricting wars.

When Keel and Wilson took over the dais, Krusee had seen enough. He found it unconscionable and, moreover, an "abuse of discretion" that Craddick was presuming the "absolute right to refuse recognition of any member and to refuse recognition of any motion, no matter how privileged." "Since the days of Jefferson, the father of parliamentary law in the United States," Krusee thundered, "questioning the leadership of the presiding officer has been the most fundamental right of the members who elected that leadership. Just as the power of government comes from its people's consent ... the power to govern our body comes from the body."

Krusee challenged Keel and Wilson that as members, they would never have endured such an abuse of power. And he made it abundantly clear that the issue at hand is much, much larger than just a procedural or partisan dispute. "The Republican Party is now engaged in trying to spin this, of all things, as a partisan issue. They are saying that the Republican position is to uphold the speaker's right to deny the right to speak, to vote.

"What a perversion, especially for a party in the minority in Washington.

"Absolute power to deny the right to question authority is not a principle of the Republican Party, or any party.

"Not in this country. Not in this country."

Long after Tom Craddick has vacated his lavishly refurbished Capitol residence and returned to well-deserved provincial obscurity, Texans will remember Mike Krusee's ringing defense of parliamentary democracy and of the right – and obligation – of citizens to question authority. end story

Download the complete copy of Rep. Mike Krusee's May 27 speech to the House, as apparently typed by Krusee himself, here (PDF).

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Texas Legislature, Sylvester Turner, Tom Craddick, David Dewhurst, Pat Haggerty, Terry Keel, Ron Wilson, Mike Krusee

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