AUSTIN - In the early years, Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick’s Republican underlings did exactly as they were told. After all, Craddick got most of them elected and he could darn well get them unelected. To oppose him would be tantamount to signing their own political death warrants.
Countless votes on Craddick’s pet issues - congressional redistricting and lawsuit restrictions, among them - routinely went his way. Rarely did a Republican dare to oppose the man who had become the godfather of the House GOP and, some say, the most powerful man in Texas politics.
But that was a few years ago.
In the past six months, the chamber he once ruled with an iron fist has become a hotbed of rebellion, and Craddick is facing what may be the battle of his political career - an attempt to overthrow him as speaker 18 months before his third term in the post is up.
Democrats and Republicans alike have grown tired of Craddick's rough tactics, complaining that he rules like a dictator and that his win-at-any-cost style often forces them to vote against the interests of their own districts.
The speaker’s power “is detrimental to this House and the state, and it must end, and it must end now,” said GOP Rep. Byron Cook.
In this final full week of the legislative session, the unrest in the Texas House has been palpable, with coup plotters working the floor like characters in a Shakespearean drama, whispering and wondering who among them can be trusted. In recent days, even some of Craddick's most trusted allies, including powerful committee chairmen, have turned against him.
Craddick, who hails from President Bush’s oil-rich hometown of Midland, has tried to counter the insurrection. The 63-year-old powerbroker has been all smiles as he shrewdly works to woo the suspected traitors and keep his supporters on board. As for the media, though, he has made it clear that the movement to oust him is off-limits as a topic.
Extra TV news cameras line the sides of the House floor, all pointed at the speaker’s dais in anticipation of the climax everyone’s been waiting for.
If it comes, it will be in the form of a parliamentary maneuver known as a move to vacate the chair. If a majority of the 150-member chamber votes aye, Craddick and all of his staff will have to clear out of the speaker’s quarters, which include a stately apartment behind the chamber where Craddick and his wife live while in Austin. It is the only such statehouse residence in the nation.
“The only reason we would be considering something that drastic at this stage is because if we don’t do this while we are in session, the speaker will be empowered for the next 18 months to do what he does,” Rep. Fred Hill, who until recently was a trusted Craddick lieutenant but is now one of four Republicans running for speaker.
As speaker, Craddick has the power to set the agenda and control which bills are taken up.
His great advantage is that he is the only statewide leader in Texas who does not have to bend to the electorate at large. His district has reliably sent him back to Austin every two years since 1968. That gives him an edge in negotiations with Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, fellow Republicans who must appease voters across Texas.
The longest-serving member of the Legislature, Craddick is an adept fund-raiser, and those skills helped the Republicans win a majority in the House in 2003 for the first time in more than 130 years. His grateful colleagues promptly chose Craddick, an oilfield mud salesman of Napoleonic stature, to be their leader _ and Texas’ first Republican speaker since 1871.
“One of the things he is very good at is raising money and campaigning against members that don’t agree with him,” Hill said. “His oxygen is new members. That's what has kept him in office.”
His bruising style was on display in 2003, when he helped push through a congressional redistricting plan that helped get more Republicans elected. During the debate, the Democrats in the House fled the state to block the bill. Craddick ordered their apprehension.
That didn’t happen, but months later, Craddick got the congressional map he wanted, including a new Midland-centered district. Craddick held out stubbornly for the new district, despite repeated pleas for compromise from then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a fellow Republican known as “The Hammer” for his own bare-knuckle tactics.
Some of Craddick’s critics complain that they are bullied into doing things his way with threats that he will bankroll candidates to run against them in primaries.
“I’ve been told as recently as Saturday that they’re actively recruiting an opponent to run against me in my district,” Cook said this week in a scathing address on the House floor. “I will not yield to tyranny, bullying and threats.”
If he is forced out, Craddick will occupy another page in the Texas history books: It will be the first time a speaker has been forced from his leadership post since 1871, when Civil War veteran Rep. Ira Hobart Evans, the last GOP speaker, was bounced.
With the 80th session of the Texas Legislature set to end on Monday, Craddick’s foes are weighing the risks of a failed coup.
“I would think that if we don’t do something while this body is in session that we are going to see 18 months of some very aggressive campaigning, and I’m just going to call it pure hell,” Hill said. “A lot of members are going to be attacked.”