The first exploration of Texas's Speaker of the House—a role that has evolved from powerless obscurity to heavyweight political preeminence.
Series: Focus on American History, Don Carleton, series editor
In a state assumed to have a constitutionally weak governor, the Speaker of the Texas House wields enormous power, with the ability to almost single-handedly dictate the legislative agenda. The House Will Come to Order charts the evolution of the Speaker's role from a relatively obscure office to one of the most powerful in the state. This fascinating account, drawn from the Briscoe Center's oral history project on the former Speakers, is the story of transition, modernization, and power struggles.
Weaving a compelling story of scandal, service, and opportunity, Patrick Cox and Michael Phillips describe the divisions within the traditional Democratic Party, the ascendance of Republicans, and how Texas business, agriculture, and media shaped perceptions of officeholders. While the governor and lieutenant governor wielded their power, the authors show how the modern Texas House Speaker built an office of equal power as the state became more complex and diverse. The authors also explore how race, class, and gender affected this transition as they explain the importance of the office in Texas and the impact the state's Speakers have had on national politics.
At the apex of its power, the Texas House Speaker's role at last receives the critical consideration it deserves.
- Foreword by Don Carleton
- Introduction: Assuming Center Stage
- Chapter One. Least Among Equals: The Presiding Speakership, 1846-1900
- Chapter Two. Accumulating Clout: The Progressive Speakership, 1900-1921
- Chapter Three. "Calculatin' Coke": The End of Progressivism and Birth of the Early Modern Speakership, 1921-1949
- Chapter Four. Pragmatic Conservatism: The Dynastic Speakership, Part One, 1949-1961
- Chapter Five. Liberals, Conservatives, and the Dilemma of Race: The Dynastic Speakership, Part Two, 1961-1969
- Chapter Six. The Old Order Is Dead, Long Live the Old Order: Sharpstown, the Price Daniel Revolution, and the Speakership in Crisis, 1969-1975
- Chapter Seven. The Executive Speakership, Part One, 1975-1983
- Chapter Eight. The Executive Speakership, Part Two, 1983-2002
- Chapter Nine. "Hell on Horses and Women": Gender and Family Life under the Dome
- Chapter Ten. The End of an Era? The Executive Speakership under Tom Craddick, 2003-2009
Both literally and metaphorically, Texas House Speakers live at the center of the state's political universe. This fact became self-evident in February 2005. That month, Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick took up the entire cover of Texas Monthly magazine. The black-and-white image, dominated by Craddick's lined face, his dark suit jacket lightened only by a Texas-flag lapel pin, showed few shades of gray. The high-contrast tones underscored the Speaker's fiercely held (critics would say inflexible) political convictions and his dominance over state politics.
The photograph signaled authority and control, an impression confirmed by a single word superimposed across Craddick's narrow frame: Power. "This guy has tons of it," declared Texas Monthly. The magazine, a mouthpiece of the Texas establishment, named Speaker Craddick as the most powerful man in the state. The article, which pointedly did not include Governor Rick Perry or Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst on its list of most powerful Texans, confirmed a story almost 170 years in the making: the Speaker of the House has become the most important political player in Texas and one of the most important elected officials in the United States.
"Although the governor of Texas is elected statewide and is typically the most well-known public official in Texas, he or she can ill afford to ignore the Speaker of the Texas House," former governor Dolph Briscoe recalled. "A wise governor builds a close and friendly working relationship with the Speaker as soon as possible after the election."2
The speakership had become so powerful that Craddick almost single-handedly muscled through the legislature the controversial redrawing of congressional district boundaries in 2003. The second Texas redistricting in two years, Craddick's move inspired House Democrats to flee to Oklahoma to break a quorum. Later, Senate Democrats absconded to New Mexico for similar reasons. Redistricting that year aimed at making the already conservative Texas congressional delegation even more Republican.
Craddick accomplished that goal, but experienced mounting frustration in crafting school-finance reform. His refusal to accept a variety of new business taxes was most often cited as the reason the legislature proved unable to approve a school-finance plan through one special session of the Seventy-eighth Legislature in 2004, the regular session of the Seventy-ninth Legislature in 2005, and two special sessions later that summer. In both redistricting and school finance, Craddick was seen as the most important player, either as an initiator or a killer of proposed laws. "In the past, whenever he has really needed them, he's been able to turn the screw and come up with 78 or 80 votes," retired longtime Republican senator Bill Ratliff said of the failure of the school finance bill. "The question is, was this a failure of leadership, or maybe he didn't care whether he had the votes or not." Craddick became a hero among GOP conservatives for redistricting. Because of his power, he became the goat to some for the school-finance fiasco.3
Attributing such control over the lawmaking process to a Texas House Speaker would have been unthinkable until the late twentieth century. As this book demonstrates, institutional changes in the Texas House and larger social changes in the state since World War II transformed the speakership from a rotating, largely honorary position charged mainly with presiding over House debates to an office in which individual Speakers have wielded tremendous power and even control over state policy. This power extends beyond Texas and can send shockwaves across the nation. Part of the reason for the redistricting battle in 2003 was that its outcome would allow Tom DeLay of Sugar Land, Texas, the Republican majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, to ensure continued Republican domination of the U.S. House, which lasted until a Democratic landslide in 2006.4
In contrast to Craddick's high-profile tenure, most Speakers have labored in relative obscurity. Governors and lieutenant governors must run highly visible and increasingly expensive statewide campaigns to win office. The Speaker, however, comes to power after being elected only by the voters of a single legislative district and then being selected by peers in the Texas House. Twelve sections of the Texas Constitution, excluding amendments, describe the qualifications, duties, and powers of the governor, and four sections outline the office of lieutenant governor. Yet the constitution, in Article 3, Section 9, dispenses with the office of House Speaker in only twenty-four words: "The House of Representatives shall, when it first assembles, organize temporarily, and thereupon proceed to the election of a speaker from its own members."5
Obscured in that simple, brisk phrase is the power of House Speakers to shape the legislative agenda. In the past 160 years, House Speakers have either stymied or clinched the passage of legislative priorities offered by governors and lieutenant governors. Speakers can move bills to the front of the House calendar or send proposals into legislative oblivion. Some House Speakers have set a tone of bipartisanship, while others have ensured an atmosphere of rancor and suspicion. Yet most Texans could not identify a single one of the seventy-four men who have held the office. With so little specific guidance from the Texas Constitution, each Speaker has shaped the office in his own image.
"For almost a century, Texas got along just fine with a speaker of the house who was no more than what the founding fathers envisioned—a presiding officer elected by his peers to keep order in the legislative process," wrote Sam Kinch, a member of the Capitol press corps for almost half a century. "The speaker was generally a strong, independent-minded person who presided over a collection of similar individuals for a single two-year term and then resumed regular legislative service as a member."6
During the history of the Texas Republic, from 1836 to 1845, nine men rapidly rotated through the Texas House speakership.7 The position remained so inconsequential after statehood that five men held the post during the first legislative session in 1846. None of these Speakers held the office long enough to pose for an official portrait.8
Speakers in the nineteenth century obviously created little personal political power during tenures that lasted two years at the most. Some Speakers appeared to have arisen from nowhere to the House leadership, only to return to obscurity after their term of public service. The one-term tradition clearly weakened the power of the office. During the first fifty-two speakerships (1846 to 1933), only two Speakers, Marion DeKalb Taylor and John Cochran, served two full stints, and both presided over the House in nonconsecutive terms. A rotating speakership that presided over a House with a high turnover kept political power diffuse, allowing the planter and business classes to remain the unfettered de facto rulers of the state from 1846 to 1933.9
The Texas House speakership has evolved in style and role through seven loosely defined historical periods.10 From 1846, the speakership changed from a limited, obscure office to one that slowly accumulated power. This happened partly because its powers were so loosely defined by a series of state constitutions and because the Texas Constitution adopted in 1876 and still in effect today so sharply delineated the authority of the governor and lieutenant governor. In politics, power abhors a vacuum, so while nineteenth-century House Speakers stood last among equals, far less influential than governors and lieutenant governors, by the early twentieth century, this power relationship had changed. By the 1970s and 1980s, Speakers like Billy Clayton and Gib Lewis had turned the office into a fiefdom that came to dominate state government.
During the "Presiding Speakership," lasting roughly from 1846 to 1900, state politics was dominated by slave owners and post-Civil War planter elites. This period saw the highest and most rapid turnover of Speakers and is characterized by a collective style of House leadership.
Reconstruction marked a brief interruption in planter hegemony, and the only two Republican Speakers in nineteenth-century Texas, Ira Hobart Evans and William Henry Sinclair, presided over a House that greatly expanded the state government's support of education and business development as well as African Americans' voting rights. This false summer of activist government proved brief, Evans and Sinclair presiding over the lower chamber only from 1870 to 1873. Texas, like its southern neighbors, resisted federal attempts to bring the state into the national political mainstream. For the next one hundred years, Texas and its people ranked at the bottom of nearly every national socioeconomic index, severely underfunding universities, hospitals, and other services.
With the inglorious conclusion of the Reconstruction era, conservative Democrats returned to power, gutted public education and support for the handicapped and the insane, and excluded former slaves from the political process. Dissident Populists forced the House to be more sympathetic to the plight of impoverished farmers of the late nineteenth century and to impose some regulations on rapacious businesses that came to dominate the increasingly industrial and urban Texas economy, but Democratic Speakers and their elite peers continued to doubt whether the state government should exercise any power outside of occasionally crushing labor unions and sanctioning attacks on Mexican Americans and Indians.
The tone of government greatly changed during the "Progressive Speakership," from 1900 to 1921. Throughout the state's history, economic development has been the tail wagging the legislative dog. During the early twentieth century, the declining role of agriculture, immigration from other states, the increase in manufacturing, and growing racial, regional, religious, and ethnic diversity forced the legislature to become more active. Speakers became more ideological, winning leadership posts not just because they were well liked, but because of their positions on prohibition, the resurrected Ku Klux Klan of the teens and twenties, the regulation of railroads, and other Progressive Era controversies.
Politically, many Speakers of the time found it necessary to strongly oppose alcohol and the teaching of evolution in public schools, as well as to complete the disenfranchisement of blacks and poor whites as rich Anglos increasingly feared losing control of the state's politics and culture.
Speakers still rotated in and out of office in the Progressive period, but a more activist agenda created opportunities and power for charismatic individuals. This trend was solidified during the "Early Modern Speakership," from 1921 to 1949. Future governor Coke Stevenson greatly enhanced the power and visibility of the Speaker's office. In 1935, Stevenson became the first Speaker to serve two consecutive terms. In Stevenson's speakership race, his opponent, future Speaker Robert W. Calvert, warned that allowing a member to serve multiple terms as Speaker threatened "tyranny." A precedent had been set, however, and after World War II, speakerships lasting several terms became the norm.
By the time of Stevenson's 1935 reelection campaign, governors and ex-governors deeply involved themselves in Speakers' races. Speakers, concerned about maintaining the continuity of policies, openly arranged for the election of their successors. In this era, an increasingly visible division between conservatives and liberals arose within the Democratic Party. Conservatives themselves were divided between pragmatic business conservatives, who sought governmental support for education and health care as a sound investment that would create job growth, and traditionalists like Stevenson, who viewed nearly all taxes as oppressive and saw little benefit in expanding the governmental agencies that regulated growth, protected workers and consumers, and educated the masses. The liberal-conservative split made managing the House more difficult. The ease of overseeing the old, unchallenged conservative hegemony gave way to the more complicated task of coalition building, even as the state dealt with the Great Depression, World War II, and the rapid industrialization of Texas during the war years.
The office became a power center during the "Dynastic Speakership" era, which lasted roughly from 1949 to 1969. Speakers implemented the desegregation of Texas public schools mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and responded to the rise of modern technologies that transformed the state's economy. They responded to these demands while they coped with a rapidly expanding population and the subsequent rising need for governmental services in education, transportation, and health care.
The size of the state government in Austin grew exponentially in the period just after World War II, and Speakers acquired more authority as a result. It became the norm for Speakers to serve at least two terms, and powerful Speakers like Reuben Senterfitt and Byron Tunnell established leadership bloodlines that could ensure the continuity of policy beyond their tenures. Beginning with Senterfitt, Speakers used the press to advance their legislative agendas and at times worked independently of the governor and lieutenant governor. They also began to expand their administrative staffs so that they could work when the legislature was not in session. When Ben Barnes took the Speaker's oath in 1965, only the equally charismatic governor, John Connally, matched his young protégé in political skill and influence. When the plodding Preston Smith followed Connally as governor, Barnes became the first Speaker to command front and center for the Capitol press.
Business lobbyists frequently determined who became Speaker and what legislation was passed, so lobby support became an essential tool in Speakers' political arsenals. This "pay to play" system came crashing down when banker Frank Sharp faced accusations that he bribed Speaker Gus Mutscher to shepherd favorable bills through the legislature. This era, the "Speakership in Crisis" (1969-1975), resulted in the criminal conviction of Mutscher for corruption and ruined the careers of some men only remotely or not at all connected to the so-called Sharpstown scandal. The next elections swept from office men like Barnes, once touted as a future president, Speaker Rayford Price, Governor Preston Smith, and much of the House and Senate rank and file. The scandal deeply wounded the long-dominant Democratic Party, widening the gulf between the party's liberal and conservative wings, and increased the participation of Republicans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and women in the state House.
During this chaos, Price Daniel, Jr., vaulted to the speakership in 1973 on a reform agenda. Committed to democracy, Daniel believed that lobbyist money had corrupted the House leadership and sought to return the office to the style of the earlier "Presiding Speakership." He announced at the beginning of his administration that he would serve one term only and that during his two years as Speaker, he would focus on rewriting the state constitution, which he believed hindered the state's economic development and left the public at the mercy of special interests. Unfortunately, Daniel's openness and his explicit desire to not dictate constitutional reform proved a tactical error. Harder-edged legislators and lobbyists interpreted his open, more laissez-faire approach to the speakership as weakness rather than a desire for consensus. Daniel failed to win approval of a new state constitution, and the speakership returned to the status quo ante.
Special interests again dictated each session's legislative priorities. During the era of the "Executive Speakership," from 1975 to 2009, conservatives like Billy Clayton and Gib Lewis held the speakership for four or more terms, dominating the office. They reached power by developing relationships with lobbyists while balancing the demands of a membership that began to reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the state. The money provided by lobbyists allowed conservative Democrats to hold on to the legislative leadership even though conservatives had become a minority within the Democratic Party.
Such conservative Democrats had to rely on alliances with an increasingly powerful Republican Party, but at the price of eroding the power of Democrats as a whole. Explicit racial demagoguery, a mainstay of conservative rhetoric in Texas until the early 1960s, faded and gave way to repeated pleas for limited government, regulatory relief for big businesses, and a return to traditional family values. Embracing these positions, conservative Democrats increasingly migrated to the Republican Party, which became the majority party in the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century.
By 2009, it seemed that the executive speakership had crashed in flames. Just as happened under Gus Mutscher in the Sharpstown era, House members accused Republican Tom Craddick of being a dictator, and the rank and file rebelled. As Speaker, Craddick had carried more clout than his predecessors by acting not only as the chief presiding officer of the House, but also as the de facto head of the Republican Party. Craddick created a powerful political machine that played a role in electing virtually every Republican then under the Capitol dome. No Speaker has ever been more influential in his party's success, more instrumental in the makeup of his caucus, more partisan, or more powerful in advancing his policies and stymieing those of his opponents. That power proved illusory. Craddick's fall came quickly, and by 2009 dissident Republicans, angered with what they saw as his imperial leadership style, aligned with the House Democratic caucus and overthrew the GOP leader. Like Price Daniel after Sharpstown, Craddick's replacement, Joe Straus, came in as a reformer promising to curb the power of the office. As of this writing, the speakership faces an uncertain future.11
Much of this book is derived from research conducted by the authors from 2003 to 2005 at the University of Texas at Austin. In November 2003, the Center for American History at the University of Texas (now the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History), in cooperation with Speaker Craddick and his wife, Nadine Craddick, launched "A Speaker from Its Own Members: A Project Documenting the History of the Speakers of the Texas House of Representatives." The authors of this book interviewed ten former Speakers, the wives of several former Speakers, living and dead, and other relatives of the men profiled here.
Additional interviews were conducted with veteran members of the Capitol press corps, including Sam Kinch, Bo Byers, Dave McNeely, and John Moritz, as well as Capitol curator Alice Turley and Doug Young of the State Preservation Board, who assisted with a decade-long restoration project begun after a devastating fire engulfed part of the Capitol's east wing in 1983.
We conducted these interviews to document the subjects' memories and observations as completely as possible. To do this, we allowed the subjects to review the interview transcripts and make additions, corrections, and deletions as they saw fit. We were more interested in capturing how they saw the role of the Speaker in Texas and national politics than in trying to catch them in errors and lapses of memory. The transcripts of these interviews, also edited for false starts and other quirks of speech, therefore are not verbatim accounts. In addition, we used archival research and interviews with other subjects in order to check the details in each interview and ensure historical accuracy.
The tale that emerges from these interviews is the history of one state's politics as its citizens struggled with change and modernization in the post-World War II era. The story includes an account of the divisions within the solid veneer of Texas's traditionally ruling Democrats, an outline of the ascendance of the Republicans, a chronicle of Texas business and agriculture, an analysis of the Texas media and its role in shaping policy and perceptions of officeholders, and an examination of how race, class, and gender shaped events in the Lone Star State. To an extent rarely acknowledged, state Speakers have touched almost every aspect of Texas life. No other elective office underwent such a dramatic change during this era. This book represents a first attempt to explain why the Texas speakership is so important, not only to Texans but to all Americans.