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Crystal Balls

One of the rules of political reporting: Don't predict the future.

One of the rules of political reporting: Don't predict the future.

We'll start by saying we don't know who is going to win the race for speaker next week.

But we can say that it's not over yet. Stripped to the basics, what you have here are two competing assertions. Tom Craddick says he has more than enough votes to win election to a third term as the House's presiding officer. Jim Pitts says he's got enough votes to "force a change in the leadership of the House." We and others might have asked him whether that means he can beat Craddick, but he didn't answer questions after making a statement to reporters and others at his own press conference.

Pitts — after only one week in the contest — won the support of Brian McCall, R-Plano, who got all this noise started by declaring himself a candidate a few days before Christmas.

McCall couldn't get to the 75 votes needed to win election. When Pitts got in, he was trying to win votes of Republicans who aren't happy with Craddick but who didn't want to sign on with McCall, whose voters were predominantly Democrats.

Pitts and McCall got together and decided McCall couldn't win. McCall endorsed Pitts, hoping the supporters he'd attracted would join those in the Pitts camp to make a majority in the House.

Word got out, like it does. (Ben Franklin: "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.") Pitts called a press conference, announcing that he and McCall would have a statement.

He announced it 23 hours in advance of the press conference. Had they announced a press conference in, say, an hour, the press would have jumped to the conclusion that Pitts had the election won and that he was ready to make the sort of announcement Craddick made four years ago, or Pete Laney made 14 years ago — the one where a speaker candidate stands in front of well over half the House members and says the game is over.

If you call a press conference a full day in advance, some gears begin to turn. It looks like you're trying to stampede the last few voters you need by telling them it's a done deal and they'd better sign up or face political purgatory or maybe even hell. It gives the competition a full day to work on questionable votes, to set up quickie smear campaigns, and to tell that same handful of skittish voters that you're just trying to spook them and they'd better sign up or face all the bad stuff. And it forces you to go ahead with your press conference even if you don't have anything to say. To do otherwise could lose you some critical momentum, with opponents and lobsters and the media all saying you had to call it off because your number was somewhere south of the required 75.

Pitts got stuck with the news-less conference-less news conference. He and McCall were the only legislators in the crowded appropriations committee room.

McCall started, talking about why some legislators want change and meandering around to his support for Pitts, which was already old news. He got off a good line, as usual: "Jim Pitts is not my first choice." He said the election of a speaker ought to be an internal thing — a reference, apparently, to members getting calls from lobbyists and other outsiders telling them how they should vote. He said he favors a secret ballot for the speaker election on Tuesday (McCall has only pre-filed one bill; HB 132 would require record votes on most legislative actions, including "the appointment or election of a legislative officer or other public official"). He said the challengers can't do the normal thing, showing up in a roomful of legislators supporting them, for fear of what might result: "In this case, you can't do that, because the pressures and the threats and the arm-twisting are too big."

Pitts wanted to make three points: One, that he's got the experience for the job; two, that he's a "very proud Republican" but also can work with Democrats; and three, that he wants to push a higher standard of ethical behavior in the House. He singled out the practice of some committee chairs letting lobbyists pay for food for committee members and their staffs during sessions.

When they were done, a spokeswoman for Craddick (who had sidestepped reporters at two events during the day) said he wouldn't be issuing any new lists, but said three members have moved from supporting challengers to supporting him. Reps. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker; Ken Paxton, R-McKinney; and Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, are all back in the Craddick camp.

Exactly How They Said It

Politicians are more careful with words than most writers. They're cautious of the traps set when they open their mouths, and how those can spring shut months or weeks or days later. So look at what McCall and Pitts said about the outcome of the speaker's race. Did they call it, or would most of these quotes stand up if the incumbent won and merely changed his style?

McCall: "We have adequate support to change the way the Texas House is operated."

McCall, on not listing members who support Pitts: "We're not at the finish line. So we will work on our own time."

Pitts: "As of last night and today, we had more than enough votes to bring a change in leadership to the Texas House and a change in Texas. . . Members do not feel they could openly declare their support because they would face retribution for doing so."

On listing supporters: "I told you that I will not play the list game in this campaign and that has not changed. . . I told you I would not put a member in jeopardy, that I would not reveal names of support. But I guarantee you, the race is over."

On the only poll that counts: "If the speaker wants to release a list of names today, tomorrow, or the next day, he can do that. That's his prerogative. But I promise you, many of the members he's listed as supporters will not be voting for Tom Craddick on Tuesday when the roll is called next week. And that tally — the one taken on the floor of the Texas House — is the only one that really matters."

Finally, the only line where Pitts actually  had himself in the House's high chair: "As speaker, I look forward to working with all the other 149 members of the Texas House. . . we'll see you next Tuesday."

Chasing Squirrels

The challenge to House Speaker Tom Craddick is the first real race for legislative leadership since Sens. Bill Ratliff and David Sibley faced off after the general elections in 2000 that put Gov. George W. Bush in the White House and Lt. Gov. Rick Perry in the Governor's Mansion.

The Senate was in Republican hands. Both of the leading contenders were Republicans. Outsiders kibitzed and chattered without really knowing what was going on inside. And the race went to a floor vote in spite of running predictions from the chattering class and other gasbags who said it wouldn't.

Ratliff won a close race, unanimously. That's always the way. See the result — a vote one way or the other — then ask for unanimous consent. That's a way of protecting members (at least in public) who supported the loser.

But until the votes were actually counted, it wasn't clear to anyone in the room how things would turn out. The unusual challenge to Craddick — this just doesn't happen much in Texas politics — is just as uncertain.

Ratliff got there because he won most of the Democrats to his side. He put Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, in charge of finance, and that appointment spurred conservative Republicans to revolt against Ratliff when it came time to elect Perry's successor two years later. Ratliff and then Sibley and then Greg Abbott all got out of the way after initial efforts to win a full term, and David Dewhurst won his first term as the Senate's head guy. That's a cautionary tale for Craddick's remaining challenger, Jim Pitts. Challengers to Craddick start with more support from Democrats than from Republicans, a crack in the foundation that — should Craddick fall — could come back to haunt his successor.

The experience and most of the outside GOP apparatus — such as it is — belongs to Craddick in this race. But his enemies have been successfully sniping at his supporters and some of his lieutenants. Ron Wilson and Talmadge Heflin fell two years ago, taking out one of Craddick's most influential Democrats and his Republican Appropriations Committee chairman. Democrats picked up a seat in that first election cycle. This time, they picked up six seats (including one in a special election last spring). Three ranking members fell before the general election. Public Education Chairman Kent Grusendorf of Arlington lost the GOP primary. Democrat Vilma Luna of Corpus Christi won in March and would have won in November, but dropped out last summer, giving up spots on three powerful committees to join the lobby. Al Edwards, D-Houston, lost his seat and his chairmanship in the Democratic primary. Those don't include the races that flipped seats from the Republican to the Democratic column.

Opposing a sitting legislative leader is risky. But a speaker is supposed to offer safe haven to come election time, protecting members and obliging them to their protector. Less effective protection lowers the obligation. And Craddick's side hasn't won many "punitive" elections; the risk of opposition is low. For some members who don't have powerful positions, there's no political reason to remain loyal to the current leader. The conservatives come after Republicans who don't back Craddick. The liberals go after Democrats who do support Craddick, and general election voters are in a vaguely blue mood that the Republicans didn't offset this year. Members are insecure about it.

Craddick has 40 committees to appoint. He lost nine chairs to retirement and defeat this year, and ten vice chairs (there's some double-counting in there because of people who held two positions and left) to defeat, resignation and retirement. He lost some more after the elections were over.

When Brian McCall pulled the trigger on his challenge a couple of days before Christmas, Craddick lost four more chairs, who decided to give up their current gigs to support someone else. One — Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie — decided to give up the House's most powerful committee job to challenge the guy who gave it to him (McCall later dropped out and pledged to support Pitts). In addition to Pitts, three members declined to sign a letter from chairmen supporting Craddick: Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, Pensions & Investments; Allan Ritter, D-Nederland, Economic Development; and Robert Talton, R-Pasadena, Urban Affairs.

Challengers haven't made the names of their supporters public. Craddick did, twice, and in a way that made it look like he was standing on one of the icebergs Al Gore is so worried about.

After the election, he issued a list of 109 members he said had signed cards pledging their support for a third term in the high chair for Craddick. That was a defensive move, designed to quell talk of a challenge. And with nobody declaring a challenge, it looked smart. But McCall filed papers declaring himself a candidate as the holidays began. After McCall filed, Craddick released another list. This one had 84 names on it along with a statement that he'd checked with House members who wanted to strongly reaffirm their support.

One of the 84 — Pitts — announced his challenge to Craddick a few hours later, making that second, shrunken list look shaky. And any list is wobbly, because legislators lie about who they're supporting. If everyone is telling the truth, there are about 175 people in the House. That 's what the votes claimed officially and unofficially by the candidates add up to, more or less.

This is a rare type of election — outside of high school — where the candidates actually know all of the voters and have some information about the likes and dislikes and weaknesses and grudges and favors that will influence their support. And knowing all of those things makes everyone skittish about claiming victory and putting names to it.

Craddick's list gave Pitts and McCall access to better information than the speaker himself possessed. They know who's promised to them, and they know who's promised to Craddick. He's not sure about their list, and they're not offering assistance. He can only assume everyone who's not on his list is against him. And he knows — this is always true in these elections — that some of the people who are on his list could flake.

It takes 75 votes to win, but the candidates have to determine who's honest and who's not, and under what circumstances. The day Craddick announced he had the votes to become speaker four years ago, then-Speaker Pete Laney had well over 100 pledge cards (he released them before Craddick's announcement). And when Laney won in 1993, he had more than 80 votes in hand but his opponent, Jim Rudd, didn't think that number was a real one.

What McCall was Selling, Pitts has Adopted

Brian McCall says he decided to challenge House Speaker Tom Craddick because "a large number of House members want to get behind someone who will try to give every member a voice in this process."

That number wasn't large enough before now.

He says the election of the next speaker of the House is about process — and not policy — about how the House is run and who steers legislation and ideas. "The speaker should be in the background with the House in the foreground," he says. "This is about empowering members."

The current way of doing things, he says, has dashed reelection hopes of members of both parties who were in what ought to have been safe seats. It's resulted in turnover that wouldn't have happened otherwise, according to McCall. And he implies that it's because the House's current leadership has put members in harm's way and then offered no protection.

He says the election of a speaker isn't about the philosophy of the person in the job — "Jim Pitts and I and Tom Craddick are not different on politics at all" — but about the way the House is run. He sidesteps a question about what the election might mean to people outside the House, saying he's been spending his time on the phone with members and not with the public. But he says voters aren't served by a system that shuts out some members and by extension, the people they represent.

"If all of us represent 150,000 people and some are in the penalty box. . . there's nothing in the Constitution that says anything about penalty boxes," he says.

He thinks legislation should come from the bottom of the House — the membership — instead of from the office of the speaker. Craddick manages legislation instead of leaving that to the members and their committees, he says. And lobbyists, according to McCall, should have to make their arguments to members instead of lobbying only the speaker and leaving it to him and his staff to tell legislators what to do. "If bills are really that good, you shouldn't have to twist arms to get them to pass," he says.

Any challenge to Craddick starts with a group of four- to five-dozen Democrats and then requires the votes of a couple dozen Republicans to make a majority. One criticism for challengers from Craddick supporters is that they'll have to answer to those Democrats.

McCall says the race isn't over yet — and so the vote total isn't known, much less the ultimate mix of elephants and donkeys behind the winner. He says the proportion of Democrats and Republicans on committees — and in committee chairmanships — should be proportional to their membership in the House regardless of who elects a speaker. And in a flourish of spin, he says a challenger who relies on Democrats would have to move to the right to get a majority on a big vote or a constitutional amendment. Craddick, whose base is on the right, would have to move to the left to get votes. "To get 100 votes would take a coalition-type leadership" no matter who is in the chair, he says.

Before he dropped out of the race, he was hoping that the contest would end over before the House assembles for its regular session next week: "I would hope to settle this before then, to protect all the women and children and guests from having to watch."

Number Three

When Pitts joined the contest, he looked a little kooky. He was the third candidate trying to get votes. House Speaker Tom Craddick was seeking reelection. Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, was challenging. Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, dropped her bid to support McCall.

Pitts says he got in because Craddick's support is primarily from Republicans and McCall's was predominantly from Democrats. He thinks he's the candidate that can unify the House. "There's an impression that the Democratic caucus has a candidate and that the Republican caucus has a candidate. We need someone who can put that together."

He said he had been getting calls from Republicans and Democrats who wanted another alternative and he started calling members over the New Year's weekend to solicit votes. He isn't collecting pledge cards:  "I've talked to members who signed cards for Tom Craddick and Brian McCall and Senfronia Thompson."

He didn't have anything bad to say about anybody, but said he'd told both of the other candidates he didn't think they could win the backing of a majority of the House. McCall finally bought that argument and joined him.

Flotsam & Jetsam

• In HD-29, Mike O'Day and Randy Weber advanced to round two — a special election that's been set for January 16 by Gov. Rick Perry (that's a week after the vote for speaker). The winner will be a Republican: O'Day finished in front, with 47.9 percent of the votes, followed by Weber at 28.1 percent, Anthony DiNovo at 22.4 percent and John Gorman at 1.6 percent. Everybody but DiNovo is a Republican, and all four claim Pearland as home. The spread between the top two was 1,444 votes out of 7,320 cast. Full results, if you're interested, are online at the Texas Secretary of State's website. The winner will replace the late Rep. Glenda Dawson, R-Pearland.

• Susan Combs took the oath of office in the first few minutes of the New Year, which allowed her to authorize some sprucing of the executive offices at the Comptroller of Public Accounts. She's getting rid of John Sharp's Aggie maroon carpet — it's shot, after 16 years of traffic — in favor of a color she calls Wheat. "It was cheap," she said.

Todd Staples was sworn in as the state's 11th commissioner of agriculture by Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson. Judges generally have low name ID with voters, and apparently with others. House Speaker Tom Craddick introduced Jefferson as "Warren."

• The Legislative Budget Board postponed a meeting where lawmakers will set a constitutional cap on spending they intend to break later this year. Their plan to spend state tax money to lower local school property taxes forces them to choose between budget cuts they really don't want to make, on one hand, and a vote to increase spending faster than the economy is growing, on the other. They'll meet January 11.

• The race for speaker has been a blogger's paradise. We sampled some of their takes (as we do every week) in Out There.

Combs Hires Up

Comptroller Susan Combs picked Martin Hubert — who was her number two at the Department of Agriculture — to be deputy comptroller. That's a constitutional position, and he was sworn in by a notary as the holidays came to a close.

The first rumors about this were correct, as it turns out: Hubert's name has been in the mix for the deputy comptroller gig since it became apparent Combs would likely be the next comptroller — well before Election Day.

Hubert left the ag department earlier this year to become a commissioner at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. He was general counsel to the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock before joining Combs at the ag department in 1999. He was a federal government liaison for Texas A&M University, and worked on the state Senate's Natural Resources Committee before that. Hubert's a graduate of Texas A&M, St. Mary's Law School, and has a master's degree in federal tax law from Georgetown University. Gov. Rick Perry appointed Hubert to the TCEQ on September 1. He'll replace Billy Hamilton, who worked for three comptrollers and held a couple of private sector jobs before leaving state government earlier this month.

A few days later, Combs named more of her top staff. New (and old) faces at the comptroller's office include a group from TDA, one who'll be serving his fifth comptroller, and a couple from outside. Combs made Martin Cherry, who started at the agency when Robert Calvert was comptroller, her general counsel.

Several top spots will be filled by people who worked for her at the Department of Agriculture; others by folks who'll be working for Combs for the first time:

Delane Caesar, who did marketing and promotion at TDA, will be director of public outreach and strategies.

Victor Gonzalez, who ran administrative services and technology at TDA, will be director of innovation and chief technology officer.

Raette Smith Hearne will be director of administration, a title she had at TDA.

Gilberto Mendoza, TDA's internal auditor, will do that same job at the comptroller's office.

Lisa Minton, who left the comptroller's office to be Combs' chief of staff at TDA, will return as director of research and analysis.

Allen Spelce will be the new director of communications, a post he held at TDA. He's another former comptroller employee who's coming back.

Trey Powers will be a legislative liaison for the comptroller, a post he held at Ag.

Robert Wood, who ran rural economic development at Ag, will be director of local government assistance and economic development.

R.J. DeSilva Gooneratne, until recently a TV newscaster in Austin, will be the agency's spokesman.

Patricia Vojack, who worked for Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, will be director of legislative affairs.

Marty De Leon, most recently at the Texas Association of School Boards, will be a legislative liaison for Combs.

Political People and Their Moves

Gov. Rick Perry bestowed some jobs and titles over the holidays: Alfredo Rodriguez, from his campaign office, will join the government shop as director of community affairs; Kris Heckmann is Perry's Senate liaison; Chris Cronn will be his House liaison; and Cassie Brown is his new legislative assistant. Those last three will work for former Sen. Ken Armbrister, who came on to run Perry's legislative office.

Nick James, who worked for Armbrister (for 13 years) and Bob Bullock and Lindon Williams and Bill Moore, is going to make his way as a lobbyist now that Armbrister's out of the Senate.

Robert Peeler, chief of staff to Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, has opened a lobby shop and signed up some utility, beer and pharmaceutical clients. Holly Jeffcoat got promoted and will be Jackson's new chief.

Jesse Ancira, former general counsel and then associate deputy comptroller, is joining Dan Martinez & Associates, a tax consulting firm. That's a Houston firm, but he'll office in Austin as the company's chief legal and operations officer. He'll stay clear of cases he handled as a state employee.

Eddie Solis, until recently the legislative liaison for the comptroller's office, joins the Teas Municipal Retirement System as its government relations director.

Mark Mitchell is the new chief of staff for Rep. Joe Straus III, R-San Antonio.

Walt Smith, legislative aide to former U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, has joined the Texas Rural Water Association staff as a lobbyist in the association's Austin and Washington DC offices.

Robert Bacon is the new deputy banking commissioner for the state. That's a promotion — he'd been the Texas Banking Commission's director of bank and trust supervision.

Attorney Randall Terrell is the new political director for Equality Texas.

David Guenthner has joined the Texas Public Policy Foundation as director of media and government relations. He'd been at the Texas Workforce Commission for two years.

Gov. Perry appointed David Gregorio Cabrales of Dallas to the Texas Racing Commission. He's an attorney with Locke Lidell & Sapp.

The Guv named and Charlye Ola Farris of Wichita Falls and Carol Carlson Gunn of Graford to Midwestern State University's board of regents. Farris is an attorney. Gunn is on a number of civic boards and serves on the MSU Foundation's board.

GTT: White House Counsel Harriet Miers is leaving Washington after six years working for George W. Bush. She was the president's personal lawyer before he ever won elected office and left the law firm where she was president to work for him in Austin at the Texas Lottery Commission. She was briefly an appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, until Republicans shouted her out of the running. She'll be at the White House until the end of the month.

Out: Former legislator, attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Dan Morales, who's been serving time in a federal pen for fraud and for filing a false income tax return. He's moved to a halfway house in San Antonio in anticipation of his full release this spring.

And Ben Reyes, a former state representative and Houston City Council member, was released from a halfway house. He went to federal prison, convicted of trying to bribe city officials to support a contract.

Quotes of the Week

Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, in the Houston Chronicle, on his support of Republican Tom Craddick for speaker: "If you don't put him in a corner and if you don't punch him, he'll work with you. Now, has anyone opposed him and survived? I don't know. If you're asking me if I'm going to take that chance, no."

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on her bid to challenge Craddick: "The most important thing for me is that we get good leadership, whether it's me or someone else who will provide that leadership. If I saw that I couldn't make it, I wouldn't just say, 'To hell with it, let Craddick stay there.' I'd line up with someone else."

Lobbyist/publicist Bill Miller, a Craddick supporter, in the Houston Chronicle, saying (early) that Craddick has the thing sewed up: "It's closed out. We're done. Our support is solid hard. The deal is over. They're in our pocket. There's no race anymore. People can run but they'll lose."

Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, in the Houston Chronicle on the race for speaker: "It was kind of an assault on his leadership style, so we've got to talk about that . . . You've got to sit down and say, 'OK, how can we do better?' Or maybe we need to get all on the same page if we're going to do the right thing for the people of Texas."

Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, talking about the speaker's race in the Tyler Morning Telegraph: "In order to win that position, Brian McCall would have to do a lot of concessions to the Democrats. I think that would be disastrous. It would result in a Republican-majority House being controlled by the Democrats."

Rep. Chuck Hopson, D-Jacksonville, telling The Dallas Morning News he's been getting 25 to 30 calls from colleagues who want his vote for one side or the other in the Speaker's race: "It's driving me crazy."


Texas Weekly: Volume 23, Issue 27, 8 January 2007. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2007 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 302-5703 or email biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.

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