For Texas Speaker, Suite Gets Sweeter
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
As the first Republican speaker of the Texas House of Representatives since Reconstruction, Tom Craddick has reshaped Lone Star State politics. Now, Craddick wants to leave a lasting mark on the Texas Capitol itself, with a controversial $500,000 project to deck out his own apartment there.
The controversy comes not because Craddick occupies the nation's only residence in a state capitol - it's been a fringe benefit Texas House speakers have enjoyed since at least 1899 - but because of the project's lavishness and who's paying for it. Craddick plans to use corporate money to pay for upgrades that include replacing kitchen appliances with restaurant-grade equipment and installing pricey toilets.
Craddick joined the Texas House in 1969, became speaker in 2003 and will seek another term as speaker in January
The speaker and his wife, Nadine, raised the money from private donors, principally political allies who have long supported Texas Republicans, including President Bush and Craddick. And they've brought in so much money - $1.2 million at last count - that they predict there will be plenty left for future speakers to spend on their own amenities.
The donations will cover the cost of revamping both the main kitchen and an auxiliary kitchen, two bathrooms and a library, said Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee. The renovations began this summer and are scheduled to be finished by the time lawmakers return to Austin in January.
"This project is a gift to all Texans because it is an enhancement of Texas' finest architectural achievement - the Capitol building. Although the living quarters are private - just as in the governor's mansion - it is still important to bring that area to the necessary level as the rest of the building to continue to maintain the Capitol in its entirety," DeLee said in a statement.
Eight previous speakers of the Texas House, all Democrats, endorsed Craddick's renovation plans.
DeLee said using private money to pay for the rehab will save taxpayer dollars.
But one critic said the fundraising effort raises red flags, because the donations to the state still ingratiate donors with the speaker.
"This is public property that we allow (Craddick) to use. The taxpayers would probably be better off if we didn't pay his salary, but are we going to let Texas utilities pay his salary?" asked Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a group that tracks money in Texas politics and which has clashed with Craddick on numerous ethics issues.
T. Boone Pickens and Harold Simmons, two billionaire oilmen-turned-investors, each paid $250,000 for the project, as did AT&T. All three of those top donors have business before the Texas Legislature.
AT&T, the San Antonio-based company formerly known as SBC, has long been the top spender on lobbying in Texas pursuing interests in the telecommunications and cable TV businesses, according to the Texans for Public Justice.
Pickens wants legislative approval to sell water from the Texas Panhandle to the Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio areas. And Simmons is asking for clearance from lawmakers to bury nuclear waste in West Texas.
Wal-Mart, Southwest Airlines, Anheuser-Busch, gambling interests and beer distributors were also among the donors.
It is illegal to use corporate money to fund state election activities in Texas, a law that is at the heart of the state case against former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R). But the corporate donations are permissible to revamp Craddick's apartment, because they go to the state, not Craddick's campaign.
McDonald said the effect is the same. "It's another pot for them to curry favor with the political establishment with," he said.
DeLee disputed that in a telephone interview with Stateline.org . "It is not a way to curry favor. The donations are being made to the State Preservation Board, not the speaker. This is the way renovations have taken place in the Capitol building historically," she said.
Columnists and bloggers have lampooned the Craddicks for the luxurious finishes they requested, after The Associated Press reported that the couple requested a $14,700 range, a $7,000 refrigerator, a $1,300 shower door and two $1,000 toilets.
In public statements and fundraising pitches, the Craddicks have said one of their chief reasons for upgrading the kitchens is to install commercial-grade appliances in the kitchens, so their staff can prepare daily meals for the 150 members of the House when they're in session.
Craddick spends about half of his time in Austin, said DeLee. The Texas Legislature meets in regular session every other year for nearly six months, plus occasional special sessions.
But McDonald said the speaker's apartment doesn't need to be used to feed House members.
"They're under no obligation to serve 150 House members, and I bet Mrs. Craddick doesn't have 150 House members over for lunch every day… This is absurd, this is not her role," he said, noting that the Capitol has a large cafeteria and dining rooms for House members.
The Texas speaker remains the only state lawmaker in the country who enjoys the perk of having a residence in the Capitol. An apartment for the Texas lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, was eliminated after a fire there in the 1980s.
The Craddicks have declined to let reporters in Texas tour the speaker's apartment, which is directly behind the House chamber. But the speaker and his wife have posted a video online showing a tour of the facilities before the renovations began.