Houston Chronicle: A daughter of West Texas rises in Austin

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AUSTIN – On midterm election night, under a steady drizzle, the Craddicks of Midland split up in front of the W Hotel. The valet lot was full.

The old man, Tom, once among the most powerful figures in Texas, waited below the awning. His daughter went looking for a space to park. They were running late to a celebration.

Tom had been a state representative since the 1960s, when power still emanated from the small towns and the vast ranches and when he could count on both hands his fellow House Republicans. His six-year tenure as a legislative leader had been tumultuous, but he had held onto his seat and his skills of persuasion. Securing a space in the lot, he notified his daughter, who soon returned in an SUV with license plates that said SO, for State Official.

“What’s your name?” the valet asked.

“Craddick,” said Christi Leigh Craddick.

She all but leapt from the car, raven hair trimmed above the shoulders, wearing a skirt and jacket with thick buttons and a triangular collar strikingly redolent of the pink suit made famous by Jacqueline Kennedy in the early 1960s, when Democratic ideas were nationally ascendant and Democratic machines still held clout in Texas. Hers, though, was sparkling red, the color of the faction on the rise in 2014.

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For the Republican Party of Texas, Craddick is emerging as a singular asset, dedicated by her own account to “limited government, personal freedom, traditional family values and private enterprise.”

As Railroad Commission chairman – the term she prefers over chairwoman or chair – she controls permits for the oil and gas industry, a primary source of the state’s economic might. As a woman holding statewide office, she provides the only dose of diversity aside from the Hispanic lineage of newly elected land commissioner George P. Bush. Last spring, the state party appointed her to lead this year’s campaign, dubbed Victory 2014.

Built on close ties to her father’s political operation, her career has long drawn criticism. As she seeks to establish an independent identity, defining herself against the more strident fringes of the Republican Party, her admirers say she will lean on the values instilled during her childhood in West Texas.

Greeting her parents under the hotel awning, Craddick hurried along the wet sidewalk, slowing only to help her mother up a slick staircase.

At the top of the stairs, where speakers were blasting country music and people in all manner of red were drinking $6 beers, she shook a few outstretched hands. The house lights flashed. Within minutes a supporter told her, “I think you’re up.”

Craddick pressed through the crowd. Her mother and father followed, holding hands. Backstage, she handed off her purse. The chairman of the Republican Party of Texas was preparing to introduce her. She seemed to have arrived at just the right time.

Doesn’t always toe the line

Every morning, in the lobby of the Railroad Commission, Christi Craddick passes a painting of wildfowl wandering a field of shortgrass and cactus with a pumpjack bobbing unobtrusively in the background. The landscape looks little like the modern industry she regulates.

Her job, which pays $137,500 yearly, often involves explaining the task of the agency she leads. The Railroad Commission, despite its name, has not had any role in regulating the railroads for nearly a decade.

At a time of divisive politics, she presents herself as a keeper of an open door and an open mind. On Twitter, she has been known to send critics her phone number. So far, her overtures have done little to dispel the image of an industry apologist.

“Her primary concern, as with most commissioners, is getting the permits written quickly so oil and gas companies can develop their resources,” said Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the state chapter of the Sierra Club. “She’s part of the system we have. We’ve chosen to regulate oil and gas with three elected officials, and those commissioners generally raise money from the oil and gas industry.”

Craddick does not dispute the point. Of the $200,000 in campaign contributions she reported in the first half of this year, a significant number of the big checks came from oil executives. “I like industry,” she said. “They do a good job, I believe, in this state. They want us to regulate them.”

For a politician operating at a time of conservative purity tests, though, she has taken some remarkable positions.

When the North Texas city of Denton voted to ban hydraulic fracturing, the petroleum extraction technique that has propped up the state economy for half a decade while raising bitterly contested concerns about pollution, health and safety, she joined her fellow commissioners in a statement expressing disappointment. But she alone issued a separate essay calling for a more cooperative dialogue.

“Let me be clear: The voice of the people of Denton should not be overruled,” she wrote, even as the state’s main oil and gas trade association filed court documents seeking to do just that.

For much of the year, as thousands of children entered the state from Latin America through Mexico, Gov. Rick Perry and his successor-elect, Greg Abbott, campaigned on promises to secure the border with troops, airplanes, boats, weapons and surveillance. One of Craddick’s colleagues on the commission, David Porter, even expressed “grave concerns that some of these illegal aliens may in fact be terrorists.”

Last month, in an essay published on the Opinion page of the Houston Chronicle, Craddick issued a rejoinder of sorts. Energy industry reforms underway in Mexico, she suggested, could set the stage for a less antagonistic era. She concluded, without naming names, “If we can move from a mindset of fear toward one of cooperation and collaboration, we will be well on our way to a mutually beneficial future.”

‘We won!’

By the end of election night, red, white and blue balloons would descend, a Texas flag backdrop would rise from the stage and guitar chords would cut the air. A singer hired to entertain, Pat Green, would call to the crowd: “Come on! We won!”

Christi Craddick would see none of it. She went home early, to a two-story stone house in the lakeside neighborhood of Tarrytown, where she spent the night checking on her daughter, who’d been home sick with a nanny, and watching more election returns.

For all her genuine conservatism, Craddick defines “traditional family values” in a manner progressive enough to include pursuing a high-profile career while raising a child alone by choice. At 44, she has never married.

Chose law to escape politics

Her own childhood, in a modest ranch-style house in Midland, afforded few luxuries more precious than a hole in the fence to play with the neighbor children, despite her father’s growing wealth. He was a loyal oil man, making a fortune on investments while listing his occupation as a sales representative for a drilling services company on West Texas Avenue. Christi rode her bike to school, accompanied her parents to St. Anne’s Catholic Church and played soccer through junior high. At age 12, she attended her first state political convention.

Then perhaps more than now, said Ernest Angelo, Christi’s godfather and a next-door neighbor who served as mayor for eight years, the notion of West Texas values was “not entirely facetious. It’s people that are patriotic, they’re ambitious, they’re entrepreneurial. They believe in character.”

Guided by an aptitude test, Christi chose the University of Texas, where she enrolled in an honors program and joined a sorority. She moved uncertainly at first, giving up the notion of a medical degree because of the chemistry. At 22, she served as chief page at the Republican National Convention. She enrolled at the UT School of Law, she said in an expansive interview, “to get out of politics.”

“I liked the legal world, I liked the way you learn to think,” she said. “But 2,000 billable hours just wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

Instead, Craddick set out as a solo practitioner working from a home office. It was a career option available only to the kind of young lawyer whose father was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. She lunched at the unpretentious Castle Hill Café, attended Longhorns games and ingratiated herself with the Texas Federation of Republican Women.

By 1997, just two years out of law school, Craddick was defending herself against complaints about conflicts of interest. Hired by a group promoting electric utility deregulation, she was initially assigned to lobby her father. Hired by an oil and gas trade association, she promoted pipeline legislation written in part by her father. Hired by the developer Wayne Duddlesten, she helped obtain state tax breaks through a bill partly written by her father for a hotel next to the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.

Craddick said she never directly urged her father to vote one way or another. The Texas Ethics Commission has never censured her behavior.

Her lobbying ended in 2002, but not the way her critics expected. When the Republicans gained their first majority in the House since Reconstruction, Tom Craddick rose to speaker, promising to preside with an inclusive style.

Christi moved onto his political staff, for a salary that rose from about $7,000 to $12,000 a month, plus bonuses at Christmas. Her father’s term lasted six years, ending in mayhem on the floor and charges of despotism. Registering once again as a lobbyist, she reported only one client, a Midland company called Scythian, which she billed less than $25,000. She was out of a job.

‘That’s her world’

On Inauguration Day 2011, the Craddicks of Midland gathered at their daughter’s house. Tom Sr., still a state representative but no longer the speaker, went outside to take a call from an oil industry official. The Railroad Commission chairman was planning to resign. The caller wanted to know whether the job interested Tom. It did not, but when he went back inside with the news, it did interest his daughter.

That version of events – an unnamed oil industry official calls a senior lawmaker to handpick the next top oil industry regulator – comes directly from Christi Craddick. Viewed one way, the anecdote confirms every suspicion of the state’s corrupt good-old-boy network. Viewed another, the telling of it suggests a striking confidence in her personal and familial incorruptibility.

“That’s her world: politics, oil, gas, business deals,” said Bill Miller, a power broker who has worked closely with the family for decades. “She couldn’t have picked a better training ground.”

The seat in question ended up going via gubernatorial appointment to an investment banker. Undeterred, Craddick put her name on the ballot for a six-year elected term on the three-member commission.

In the primary, she ran against five other Republicans, including a longtime political ally of her father’s. She carried a big notebook, asking people their opinions of oil and gas regulations. Along with an assistant and her parents, she handed out 10,000 fliers at the state party convention. She went to events featuring the right-wing firebrand Ted Cruz, because he was drawing big crowds.

“I ended up being the Tea Party candidate in my race, because I met with those people,” she said, “but I didn’t tell them anything different than I told regular Republicans.”

Driving north on Interstate 35 to a campaign event in 2011, she took a call from an adoption agency in Dallas, where her name had been on a waiting list for about nine months.

The agenda for the trip changed. Her resolve did not. Craddick brought home Catherine, spent some time bonding and found a nanny. When she returned to the campaign trail, she aimed to sleep at home every night. She traveled to 50 counties, plus weekly trips to Dallas and Houston. Often, she found the last flight out of Hobby or Love Field; occasionally friends volunteered private aircraft. She says Catherine, who turned 3 on Thanksgiving, has developed “strong opinions.”

“Gee,” says one of Craddick’s closest friends, a business lobbyist named Lara Keel, “I wonder where she got that?”

Taking center stage

Backstage at the election night party, the Craddicks of Midland heard the last country strains of Lyle Lovett and Tanya Tucker. Christi, who usually speaks impromptu, gathered her notes. The loudspeakers boomed with DJ Khaled rapping, “All I Do Is Win.”

For months, Christi had been campaigning and raising money. Along the way, she met donors and voters across the party spectrum. Mass mailings listed her name on the stationery.

“Victory Chair is one of those jobs where if everything goes well, it can be very good for you,” the party chairman, Steve Munisteri, said in an interview. “She’s one of those rare individuals who can keep afoot among every faction of our party. She’s exceptionally well-positioned.”

The men she helped elect to the highest offices are in their 50s and 60s. At her age, she can afford to wait out a few terms. The minority party has taken notice. “They’re right to put her forward,” said Colin Strother, a Democratic political consultant. “Other than that, it’s a bunch of old white guys.”

As the loudspeakers shook, Munisteri took the stage. He waved his arms in triumph and declared victory in martial terms, using the words “crushed,” “annihilated” and “completely wiped out.”

“Our base turned out, their base did not. Who had the better ground game, right?” he crowed. “Tonight is a night that we owe a huge thank you, I owe a huge thank you, for a job that many times was thankless but tonight is not thankless, because I give you the woman who helped lead us to victory, our 2014 Victory state chairman, Commissioner Christi Craddick!”

Christi Leigh Craddick, of Austin, the champion of Victory 2014, took center stage in her bright red suit, smiling broadly, with her parents watching from the wings. The first word out of her mouth was, “Wow.”

You can also read the full Houston Chronicle article here.