AUSTIN - With talk of a House coup escalating, two more Republican lawmakers have joined the race to unseat three-term House Speaker Tom Craddick and a former Craddick ally publicly asked the embattled leader to step down to avoid a venomous battle.
Rep. Jim Pitts, of Waxahachie, filed his candidacy Monday with the state Ethics Commission for a term to begin if Craddick is unseated, according to his declaration for speaker candidacy.
“It’s just time for a change,” Pitts, 60, said. “I frankly wish that we could do this without hurting anybody. But I don’t think we can get that done.”
Later in the day, Rep. Byron Cook, a Republican from Corsicana, railed against Craddick in a scathing speech from the front of the House as Craddick watched, quietly seated a few feet behind.
“I’m a Republican and I voted for Speaker Craddick three times, but I will not and cannot support his re-election and I beg him to step down,” Cook said.
Craddick spokesman Alexis DeLee said he would not abdicate the post.
Cook, one of the few members Craddick has trusted enough to make a committee chairman, said the office of speaker had become corrupted by “money, power and influence.”
After the speech, Craddick proceeded with the scheduled legislation without acknowledging Cook’s comments.
The House has been abuzz recently with speculation that the chamber will vote to force Craddick to step aside before the current legislative session ends May 28.
“I’m not going to say it’s a huge majority … but it is a majority” of the House that feels determined to unseat Craddick before the session ends, Pitts said.
With a week left in the session, lawmakers still must come to an agreement on the $150 billion state budget, the only thing they’re legally required to do before adjourning.
Cook blamed Craddick for delaying the state budget and suggested Craddick is using it to keep his post.
Sen. Steve Ogden, the chief budget writer in the Senate, said the two-year state spending plan is hung up on some higher education issues.
“It appears the budget is being stalled, delayed and exploited for political gain. I say this is wrong,” Cook said.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst last week said Craddick had “taken a real interest in … the higher education budget and some special items … for different members’ districts.”
Dozens of other bills also are pending, but the House leadership seems unhurried - an attitude that critics say exacerbates the brewing anti-Craddick sentiment.
“We’re not passing bills, I mean we’re breaking for lunch and dinner and not working weekends,” said Rep. Brian McCall, a Plano Republican that Quorum Report said this morning has also filed paperwork to run for speaker. “We came to work and bills are dying.”
The abbreviated schedules are no coincidence, McCall surmises.
“If we’re not here, we can’t challenge him,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Craddick said “speakers politics do not play a role” in the scheduling.
Until this session started in January, Pitts was chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, where he led the writing of the multibillion-dollar two-year state budget.
He was replaced after unsuccessfully challenging Craddick, a fellow Republican, in a race to be speaker before the 140-day legislative session convened in January. Pitts withdrew his name on the opening day, when it became clear Craddick had enough support to win re-election.
Rep. Jim Keffer, an Eastland Republican, announced his candidacy for the top House post last week. Unlike Keffer’s bid, which would be for a term to begin in January 2009, Pitts’ candidacy would be for a term to begin when and if a bid to unseat Craddick is successful.
Craddick has said he intends to seek another term, when his two-year term ends in 2009.
Craddick, who has been called the most powerful man in state government, is the only state leader who does not have to win a statewide election. Voters in his Midland district have dependably returned Craddick to Austin since he was first elected in 1968.
If Craddick foes decide they want to make a move before the session ends Monday - which seems increasingly likely - a 76-vote majority of the 150-member chamber can vote to vacate the chair and replace Craddick, opponents say.
If Craddick is still at the helm when the Legislature adjourns, he will remain speaker at least as long as there is no formal gathering in Austin. The next regular session convenes January 2009.
Every two years, on the first day of the legislative session, members of the House select a speaker to preside over the chamber.
In 2003 Craddick became the first Republican Texas speaker since Reconstruction. But nasty battles over redistricting and budget cuts have taken their toll.
When the Legislature convened in January, he survived a narrow re-election battle, but hard feelings remain.
Earlier this month, Craddick suffered a rare rebuke when a bipartisan group of lawmakers voted to overrule a parliamentary ruling by Craddick. Republicans and Democrats who once supported Craddick said obeying the rules was more important than loyalty at all costs.
Craddick seemed visibly shaken as his allies rose to announce they simply could not go along with the man they have returned to power three times.
Craddick became speaker in 2003 when Republicans won a majority in the Legislature for the first time in more than a century.
In his three terms as the presiding officer of the House, Craddick has alienated some of his supporters with what critics call a despotic leadership style.
His backers say Craddick has been extremely effective in passing a conservative agenda, including a Republican-friendly redistricting map, property tax relief and tort reform. But critics say he has been too unyielding in his win-at-all-costs approach to governing the chamber.