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El Paso lawmakers reflect on Craddick's time as Speaker of the House
January 12, 2009

One of Craddick's main goals as a young legislator with few Republican colleagues was to see more members of the GOP elected to the Texas House. Over the years, he raised money for Republican candidates and watched his party's power grow in the Legislature.

Written by Brandi Grissom, The El Paso Times


AUSTIN - El Paso lawmakers were worried in 2003 when state Rep. Tom Craddick became the first Republican Texas House speaker since Reconstruction.

Six years later after they all joined a team that helped topple the powerful leader, local lawmakers said the Midland Republican's leadership was more hurtful than helpful to El Paso.

"I can't think of one positive thing he did (for El Paso) while he was there," said outgoing state Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso.

Local legislators described Craddick's six years at the House helm as bruising and difficult, a time when funding for the city's top priority, a four-year medical school, was held hostage as leverage for votes. Business leaders in the community, however, paint a brighter picture. Were it not for Craddick, they said, Texas Tech University's Paul L. Foster School of Medicine in El Paso, would not be preparing to accept its first class of four-year medical students this year.

"He had West Texas in his heart," said Rick Francis, Chairman of the Bank of the West-El Paso and a member of the Texas Tech board of regents. "Under Tom Craddick's watch this community got a lot of resources."

Craddick entered the Texas House in 1969 at age 25, one of nine Republicans in a Democrat-dominated state.

He made a name for himself early on, as outgoing state Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso, recalled. Both were members of the so-called Dirty 30, who in 1971 worked against an unpopular House Speaker Gus Mutscher, who was later convicted on bribery charges.

"We thought they were on our side," Moreno said of Craddick and other Republicans in the Dirty 30. "We thought they were trying to be for good government."

One of Craddick's main goals as a young legislator with few Republican colleagues was to see more members of the GOP elected to the Texas House. Over the years, he raised money for Republican candidates and watched his party's power grow in the Legislature.

Finally, in 2003, Republicans won a historic 88 seats in the 150-member chamber. A grateful GOP majority transformed their longtime benefactor into House Speaker and one of the most powerful men in Texas government.

Michael Phillips, a Colin College history professor whose book about Texas House speakers is due out next year, said when Craddick assumed the office he was the most powerful speaker in history.

Three factors, Phillips said, made Craddick so influential. Previous speakers had already amassed power in the position. State lawmakers had become the recipients of large contributions because the federal government had ceded more responsibility to them.

And perhaps most critically for Craddick, he had been instrumental in the election of nearly every Republican in the House.

"This gave him an authority and the membership of the Republican caucus had a great sense of personal debt to him," Phillips said.

The way Craddick used that authority, Phillips said, led to his demise.

Instead of creating a collegial atmosphere where Democrats and Republicans could work together as his predecessor, state Rep. Pete Laney, had done, Phillips said Craddick reigned through fear. His multi-million-dollar campaign war chest loomed overhead as potential retribution for lawmakers who dared vote against Craddick's interests.

"They were afraid of tangling with this massive political machine," Phillips said.

In the El Paso delegation, veteran Rep. Haggerty was among the most outspoken of Craddick's opponents. In 2007, he led a rowdy walkout from the House chamber after railing against alleged power abuse by Craddick.

He paid the price.

Craddick's allies poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of El Paso businessman Dee Margo, who defeated Haggerty in the March primary.

After nearly 20 years in office, Haggerty was undone by a leader from his own political party.

El Paso lawmakers said it wasn't just elections Craddick used as leverage to garner support for his own agenda.

When Craddick first took office, getting money for the budding four-year medical school in El Paso was top priority for the delegation.

"Once he gave it to us, knew damn well there wouldn't be any power over us, so that's why he didn't do anything in session after session," Haggerty said.

Time after time, they said, that money was used as a carrot to extract from El Paso lawmakers votes on other issues that were not in the best interest of the border community.

In 2003, a powerful Craddick ally on the budget-writing committee reportedly told El Paso legislators dollars for the medical school would be withheld if they did not vote for measures to reform medical malpractice and to make it tougher to file lawsuits in Texas.

Two years later, when El Paso lawmakers sought $60 million to hire faculty at the medical school so officials could prepare for the first class of doctors-in-training, the money was yanked from the budget at the last minute.

In its place $13 million appeared for a clinic in Midland, Craddick's hometown.

In another fruitless attempt to curry Craddick's favor during a special legislative session later that year, El Paso legislators voted for a school funding measure even though it would have left local schools behind.

When Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, both Republicans, called for emergency funding to get the medical school going, Craddick rejected the proposal. Other funding priorities, he said in 2006, were more pressing.

"The problem was in the House, and it was an issue between the House delegation and the Speaker," Dewhurst told the El Paso Times then.

Without money to hire faculty, Texas Tech officials had to push back the planned opening from fall 2008 to fall 2009.

Hoping to finally get the funds in 2007, state Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, was the only local legislator to vote for Craddick to lead the Texas House

. Lawmakers did approve $48 million for the school. Chavez said she helped in the process with her position on the influential House budget-writing committee, but it was El Paso business leaders who contributed to Craddick's campaign whose medical school pleas mattered more to the House leader.

"I appreciated the opportunity I had to ... be a member of the Appropriations Committee under his leadership," Chavez said. "I don't, however, feel that I was ever on the A team."

That became readily apparent when Chavez presented a bill that would have allowed the Tiguas to resume gaming at Speaking Rock Casino.

The vote on the measure ended in a 66-66 tie after a heated and unpleasant late-night debate.

Craddick could have broken the tie, and Chavez's most important bill of the session would have passed the House, even if it was doomed to fail in the Senate.

He didn't.

"He left me on the dance floor without a partner when he didn't vote to break the 66-66 tie," Chavez said.

El Paso business leaders, however, said even if Craddick clashed with local lawmakers, he was good to the border city.

Rick Francis, who was chairman of the Texas Tech board of regents, said Craddick sat down with local business leaders when he became Speaker and helped them map out a plan to get the medical school funded.

Craddick explained, Francis said, that the community had to show its support for the school by investing its own capital. And he told the business leaders they would have to prove to other lawmakers that the medical school would benefit the entire state, not just El Paso.

"We never experienced any of that type of pay-to-play type of thing with him at all," Francis said.

Ted Houghton, a member of the Texas Transportation Committee who runs an insurance and financial management firm, said if Craddick hadn't supported the medical school, El Paso would still be waiting for money.

"Regardless of what anybody else says, he allowed that to happen," Houghton said. "It took some time to get it, but we got it."

Though many legislators chaffed under Craddick's leadership and staged a dramatic rebellion against him, the controversial leader is unlikely to be more than a note in Texas history, said Ross Ramsey editor of the political journal Texas Weekly.

Texas House speakers, he said, are rarely noted unless they served during a major event or they went to jail.

"They're just the guy who gets to run it for a while," Ramsey said.

El Paso lawmakers said they are hoping the next guy, state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, runs the House differently.

"We just want a friendlier House run by well-placed and well-meaning people," said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. "And give everybody a shot."

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