Wednesday, January 03, 2007

“One of the most dramatic coups in recent Texas political history.”

2 GOP foes of Craddick join forces to oust the speaker

Jan. 03, 2007

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Austin Bureau
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN - Waxahachie Republican Jim Pitts, the head of the powerful Texas House Appropriations Committee, won the endorsement of his one-time rival Brian McCall of Plano on Wednesday in the effort to oust House Speaker Tom Craddick when the Legislature convenes next week.

Several House sources said Pitts will announce Thursday that he has enough Republicans in his camp to end Craddick’s four-year reign as speaker - but only if the 14-year House veteran can secure the backing of the bulk of the House Democrats to get the 75 votes needed for victory.

If the effort succeeds, Craddick’s opponents will have executed one of the most dramatic coups in recent Texas political history.

“Both members had substantial support, but they thought it would be best to consolidate that support behind Jim and move forward,” said one Republican House member close to the negotiations who asked that his name be withheld because of the sensitivity of the talks.

While reports that Pitts and McCall had joined forces reverberated through the Capitol, Craddick’s camp maintained an air of calm. Spokeswoman Alexis DeLee said she was unaware of any agreement that would lead to the House leader’s ouster when the 80th Legislative session begins Tuesday.

Craddick support

Several Craddick loyalists said they had no plans to abandon the long-serving lawmaker in his quest for a third term at the helm.

“Last I heard, the people that were supporting Craddick were solid,” said state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

The race for speaker has dominated news from Austin during the usually quiet holiday season. Whoever wins the post will wield great power in state government, controlling the flow of legislation to the House floor and making all of the members’ committee assignments. Bills that do not have at least tacit support from the speaker seldom make their way into the law books.

McCall, an eight-term Republican, announced his challenge to Craddick just before Christmas and soon won the backing of a substantial bloc of House Democrats. Pitts joined the race last week, saying that he could bring more Republicans, thereby avoiding the appearance that the outnumbered Democrats had retaken control of the 150-member House by default.

Both men have sharply criticized Craddick’s leadership as heavy-handed, saying that many members were often pressured to vote against the interests of their constituents to advance the speaker’s agenda.

The GOP House member close to the negotiations said the names of Pitts’ supporters will be made public today, but one key Democrat cautioned that the deal was not yet done.

“Democrats believe McCall would be a good speaker,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, R-Houston. “I don’t think Democrats have had a good opportunity as a whole to discern whether they think Pitts falls into that same category.”

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said either would be an improvement from the status quo.

“I find a great deal of satisfaction in the notion that Tom Craddick will not be speaker anymore,” said Burnam, the only House member who voted against Craddick when he became speaker in 2003.

A high-risk bluff?

Some Craddick backers suggested that Pitts and McCall had concocted a high-risk bluff in a last-ditch effort to bring pliable members to their side. And Craddick has insisted that he had the support needed to win a third term as speaker, but implicitly acknowledged that some of that backing had eroded in recent weeks. Soon after the Nov. 7 elections, Craddick released the names of 109 members supporting his re-election. Then on Dec. 28, he revised the list saying that he had the “unequivocal support” of 84 members.

But the list included the name of Pitts, and he announced his challenge within hours of Craddick’s decision to release it.

State Rep. Todd Smith, a Euless Republican and a Craddick critic, said he plans to attend Pitts’ news conference, scheduled for 4 p.m. in the Capitol.

“I’m voting for Jim because I think he’ll be a good speaker,” Smith said, “not because he does or does not have the votes to win.”

© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram: