Friday, December 29, 2006

Support for TTC enabler Craddick "on the verge of collapsing."

Craddick's committee leaders defect


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN -- Two members of Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick's Republican leadership team defected Thursday, with one declaring his candidacy to run the 150-member chamber and another casting his lot with another Craddick challenger.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican appointed by Craddick two years ago to run the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said he jumped into the race after concluding that Craddick is too wounded to win a third term as speaker. Pitts also said that Craddick's first Republican challenger, Rep. Brian McCall of Plano, is unlikely to succeed because he is considered too closely aligned with Democrats in the GOP-dominated chamber.

"It looks like one candidate is being supported pretty exclusively by Republicans and another candidate is being supported exclusively by Democrats," Pitts said at a Capitol news conference. "We just need to put [the two camps] together and elect a speaker."

Pitts' entry into the speaker's race capped a whirlwind day in Austin that began with McCall trumpeting the support of Rep. Robert Talton, a conservative Republican from Pasadena whom Craddick had named chairman of the House Urban Affairs Committee. Talton said in a statement that McCall would prove less authoritarian than Craddick and would "allow members to vote in a manner that best represents their districts."

Soon after Talton made his announcement, Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston dropped her bid to become speaker and threw her support to McCall, sending ripples through the Capitol that support for Craddick was on the verge of collapsing.

Craddick then weighed in, releasing a list of 84 members who had "reconfirmed their unequivocal support" for his re-election Jan. 9, more than the 76 votes he would need to retain power. Included on the list was Pitts, who said that he informed Craddick earlier this week that his support was eroding.

"I told Tom Craddick that if he couldn't get there, that I would run," Pitts said.

Alexis DeLee, Craddick's press aide, said the speaker remains confident that his support will hold. And she disputed the suggestions expressed publicly by Pitts and Talton, and privately by several other members, that Craddick uses "arm-twisting" tactics to secure votes on issues important to him.

"Members do vote their districts 98 percent of the time," DeLee said. "They always have."

The election of a speaker is usually the first order of business when the House convenes for its regular session the second Tuesday of each odd-numbered year. In most cases, the vote is a formality because the winning candidate has lined up the necessary support well in advance.

The speaker wields great power in the House because he or she appoints all committee chairmen and controls the flow of legislation on the House floor. The speaker is also co-chairman of the Legislative Budget Board, which has the power to adjust state spending when the Legislature is not in session.

Craddick, a House member from Midland since 1969, assumed power four years ago after Republicans gained control of the chamber for the first time since Reconstruction. Most Democrats have long been frustrated by his hardball style, but fissures in his Republican base were exposed during this year's special session on school finance, and after several GOP members found themselves in spirited primary races where their opponents were heavily financed by Craddick allies.

Meanwhile, key members of Craddick's leadership team, including Kent Grusendorf of Arlington, were defeated in the March GOP primary. Then in November, Democrats picked up six additional House seats.

McCall's camp boasted of having 73 supporters early Tuesday, but has not released their names because many fear retribution if Craddick wins. Pitts, a 14-year House veteran, also declined to release the names of his supporters, saying only that many have approached him to become the compromise choice.

"I realize that this chamber is somewhat divided and that we have a very difficult session ahead of us," Pitts said. "But at the end of the day, I believe that all of the members are looking for a way to vote their districts and serve together."

In the know

Jim Pitts
Age: 59
Hometown: Waxahachie

Family: Widowed, two daughters, one son
Party: Republican
Occupation: Lawyer

Experience: Member of the Texas House since 1993; chairman of the Appropriations Committee 2005-present

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