Craddick Under Siege

How not to run a speaker's race

Tom Craddick
Tom Craddick (Photo by John Anderson)

The Speaker Statute – the section of Texas law governing campaign expenditures by and for the House Speaker – is suddenly under the spotlight, after two legal challenges were filed in the past two weeks. One claims Speaker Tom Craddick violated the statute by spending money to help him remain speaker; the other claims the law restricts free speech by limiting campaigning (and funding) for or against a speaker candidate.

On Feb. 13, right-wing groups the Free Mar­ket Foundation (and President Kelly Shackel­ford), the Texas Eagle Forum PAC, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and its vice president, David Broiles – a grouping so unlikely that their own press release calls them "strange bedfellows" – brought a federal complaint against the Texas Ethics Com­mis­sion. The pleading seeks a temporary and then permanent injunction preventing the commission from enforcing two sections of the statute that restrict private citizens and groups from putting money into the speaker race.

The suit alleges that certain clauses of the 1973 law are unconstitutional bans on free speech. One section places a $100 limit on individuals from campaigning for or against any speaker candidate, and another bans any groups from any action or expenditure in a speaker race. All the plaintiffs (except the ACLU, which does not endorse or donate to candidates) say they are prepared to start campaigning immediately to aid or defeat specific speaker candidates. The FMF hopes for at least a temporary injunction before the end of February, meaning it could start campaigning before the primaries. Foundation director of litigation Hiram Sasser called these sections the most draconian political speech restriction in the country. "If this doesn't get struck down, it would be an amazement," he said, adding that the foundation currently has no plans to lobby for changes in the law next session if they lose in court.

The Ethics Commission declined to comment, but House Democratic Caucus Chair Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said the purpose of the law was to keep outside cash and intimidation out of the speaker race, and it has been successful up to this point. He questions the motivation of the foundation and the forum. "Why now? Where were they two years ago, or four or six or a decade ago?" he asked. "They only filed the suit because Tom Crad­dick doesn't have the votes to be speaker, and some people think that this is the way for him to keep it."

The Free Market, et al. challenge followed by a few days a request from Texans for Public Justice that Travis Co. D.A. Ronnie Earle investigate campaign donations made to three Democratic state reps by a PAC that TPJ claims is working as a front for Craddick. TPJ charges that, on Jan. 10, the Craddick campaign donated $250,000 to Texas Jobs & Opportunity Build a Secure Future Inc. (Texas Jobs PAC) – the first donations the PAC had received since June 2006, when it was called the Texas Free Enterprise Fund. The following day, the PAC cut three checks of $50,000, one each for the campaigns of Reps. Aaron Peña, Kevin Bailey, and Kino Flores. All three have been accused of being "Craddick D's" – Democratic supporters of the speaker – and TPJ's letter asks Earle to investigate whether the donations violated the Government and Election codes, including sections of the Speaker Statute restricting the ways the speaker may contribute to other campaigns.

The speaker's office declined to comment, saying it felt the issue was best settled in court, but Craddick's attorney Roy Minton called the allegation "dead wrong." As committee chairs, he argued, the three reps were already a part of the House leadership, and the idea of a quid pro quo for speaker votes or appointments was ridiculous. "It's like saying I'm sending something to a member of my family, but they're already part of my family," he said.

TPJ says the connection between the PAC donation and Craddick was known by the campaign of at least one legislator: Rep. Dawnna Dukes, who did not accept any Texas Jobs PAC money. It quotes Dukes spokesman Colin Strother as telling the Austin American-Statesman that "The check that's not in the mail is the $50,000 from Craddick" – but Strother rejects talk of a conspiracy. He says this was a joke, taken out of context, in response to a question about Dukes' fundraising after the media coverage of the PAC donations had begun. "We didn't take the money, and we didn't give any money," he said.

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