Tom Craddick, half a century later, is still his own politician

Tom Craddick — for better or worse — has always been his own politician. He’s stood against Texas political headwinds since his first election as a 25-year-old Roman Catholic Republican nearly half a century ago.

“My dad was a Democratic precinct chairman when I ran. He had to resign,” Craddick recalls. “He said, ‘Son, the state is run by Democrats, you won’t ever get anywhere.’”

Craddick won. He was sworn in six days prior to Richard Nixon’s first inaugural address in January 1969, just one of eight Republicans in the Texas House of Representatives.

“Greatness comes in simple trappings,” Nixon exhorted, calling for a renewed national dialog. “To lower our voices would be a simple thing.”

As an ethical platitude, the slim, soft-spoken boy from humble Midland beginnings might’ve agreed. As Nixonian messaging, the already formidable businessman and Texas Tech doctoral candidate, who innately intuited the political potential of underestimated West Texas grit, might’ve nodded.

Or, perhaps, Craddick dismissed it all with his sideways grin. Because regardless of outside influence — whether it be the leader of the free world or the leader of his home — Tom Craddick has always gone his own way.

In his first session, his bill to establish a district court in Midland was rebuffed. “They told me Republicans can’t file bills,” he said. Dutifully, yet defiantly, he collected enough Democratic signatures that his bill couldn’t be rejected again. Midland got its court.

Some 34 years later, he’d gotten somewhere: the speakership of the Texas House, the first GOP speaker since Reconstruction. Even then, Craddick defied then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and threatened to kill what many consider to be his own hallmark legislation — Texas redistricting of 2003 — if the new maps didn’t render Midland its own congressman.

Craddick won. And from the victory emerged Mike Conaway in 2005.

A half-century being guided by his own counsel — from his rise to speaker in a body previously composed of elder Democrats, to the fall of his speakership in a supermajority of Republicans in 2009 — explains Craddick’s independence today.

Particularly his championing of issues against prevailing libertarian winds from the Texas GOP. Like bans on payday lending and texting while driving.

“I think payday lending is criminal,” Craddick told me, recounting how a woman from his district borrowed $4,500 for her mother’s funeral. After six months, she had made payments of $5,000 and still owed $13,000.

“Do you think 500 percent interest is fair?” he asks, his Catholic social concerns — the same convictions that’ve driven his pro-life convictions for decades — driving his tone more than partisan affiliation.

From there, Craddick delved into texting while driving and the rights of other passengers on the road. I asked if the two are connected.

“You can take the two and put them together if you want,” he said, arguing the greatest expense to church charities is bailing poor people out of lending crunches. “Why have 46 other states passed texting while driving bans?” he then asks, citing a Texas A&M study that shows the ban would save the lives of 90 Texans annually.

It’s something to hear Craddick, 73, still as independent, engaged and hardball as ever, forge a type of justice Republican movement.

“Well that’s how I feel inside me,” he said. “I think that’s needed. If that makes me a ‘liberal’ or a ‘Democrat’ or whatever. I was a Republican before anyone was a Republican, and I was conservative before anyone was a conservative.”

Recounting a recent dinner at which a founder of Texas Monthly argued the state’s political continuum has over five decades, quite unbelievably, moved Craddick from far-right to the political middle, the dean of Texas Republicanism conceded. “Maybe that’s right. Maybe that’s what happens through the time. But I think you have to be a realist if you’re going to get elected, serve your community and serve those people who elected you.”

Craddick’s efforts to end payday lending went nowhere this session. But his texting while driving ban — after a decade-long fight — was signed into law.

Well, sort of.

On Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session call is a bill to use Craddick’s law to override all existing hands-free local ordinances with one uniform state law.

“I’m going to vote against the bill, whoever he has introduce it. I think local entities ought to have the right to enhance that law if they want to,” he said.

In this, Abbott will likely be the latest to learn that one thing has not changed over the last half century of Texas politics: Tom Craddick is still his own politician.

Jay Leeson is, among other things, a writer and talk radio host in Lubbock and editor of Contact him on Twitter @jayleeson or by email.

This column first appeared in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

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