How Phelan became the frontrunner for Texas House speakership


For the second consecutive session, the Texas House of Representatives will have a new guiding hand when it convenes for the 87th regular legislative session in January. And that man will be Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont).

Phelan outflanked eight other legislators who threw their hats into the ring.

In the span of about a week and a half, the speaker’s race went from wide open after the first-out-of-the-gate filing of Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) and effectively closed the day after Election Day with Phelan’s announcement of 83 supportive legislators, which has since grown to over 100.

He said upon jumping into the race, “The job of the Speaker is to find common ground between these differences, and help create policy that benefits Texans from all walks of life. My goal is to focus on what unites us and offer leadership that allows members to represent their unique districts, and the values of constituents they serve.”

Phelan was the successor picked by those closest with outgoing Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), and Phelan himself is close with the soon-to-be-former speaker. One of Bonnen’s top lieutenants, Phelan holds the chairmanship for one of the big four house committees: State Affairs.

The relationship even extends beyond the cover of the pink dome. Both from the Houston area, Phelan’s family investment firm — Phelan Investments, which he operates with his brothers — purchased Bonnen’s Heritage Bank and merged that and Phelan’s brother, Lan’s, Third Coast Bank.

Bonnen chose not to seek reelection after a recording disclosed a secret meeting in which he offered press credentials to Empower Texans’ Michael Quinn Sullivan in exchange for the grassroots conservative organization’s cooperation in targeting a political hit list of select Republican House members.

The Beaumont legislator put his name to 160 bills last session and ushered many more through his State Affairs Committee post. He was ranked 60th out of 82 Republicans on Rice University Professor Mark P. Jones’ conservative to liberal legislative ratings from 2019.

On the Club for Growth’s newly minted state-level legislative rankings, Phelan received a score of 59 out of 100, placing him tied for 48th. On guns, specifically, Phelan has fared better with an “A+” rating from both the National Rifle Association and the Texas State Rifle Association.

Phelan’s initial list of supporters included chairmen of two of the other big three committees: Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) of Appropriations and Rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo) of Calendars.

The fourth, Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria), chairwoman of the Local & Consent Calendars Committee, was the last potential opposition to Phelan’s speakership but withdrew the day after his announcement, lending Phelan her endorsement.

Other declared speaker candidates were also on the list including Thompson, Reps. John Cyrier (R-Lockhart), Oscar Longoria (D-Mission), Joe Moody (D-El Paso), and Chris Paddie (R-Marshall).

Additionally, every returning member of the conservative Texas Freedom Caucus lent their name to the list — Reps. Briscoe Cain (R-Houston), Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville), Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), Matt Shaheen (R-Plano), Valoree Swanson (R-Spring), and Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) — as well as incoming caucus member Cody Vasut (R-Angleton) who is succeeding Bonnen in his state House district.

The Texas Freedom Caucus’s ranks dwindled slightly as it lost two founding members, Reps. Kyle Biedermann (R-Fredericksburg) and Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington). The former left in part due to the caucus’ planned list of potential speaker candidates it would support.

Bipartisan support was something Phelan touted, which included a group of 15 Democrats who dubbed themselves the “Equity Caucus,” a group of female state representatives pressing for an increased number of women in House leadership positions. 

Members include Reps. Vikki Goodwin (D-Austin), Jessica González (D-Dallas), Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin), Donna Howard (D-Austin), Celia Israel (D-Austin), and Julie Johnson (D-Carrollton).

By November 5, Phelan said the list of support had grown to encompass 57 Republicans and 49 Democrats.

Generally, two camps within the GOP caucus formed. The first, which dubbed themselves “Team Texas” consisted of mostly former speaker Joe Straus-types like Morrison and Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin).

The second, which gave themselves no public moniker but was called “Team Bonnen” by other members, consisted of a wide array of members throughout the House GOP caucus — some considered more moderate, the members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, and many in between.

This is the faction that would eventually crown Phelan as their man to grasp the gavel.

Two Democrats — Thompson and Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) — were the first to file for speaker, which left the GOP scrambling to form its backing. Democrat’s chances of filling the speakership hinged upon their taking of the House, a feat that required them to flip nine seats.

That hope did not materialize as Democrats flipped only one seat, Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston), and lost one seat, Rep. Gina Calanni (D-Katy). And so, the partisan makeup remained unchanged.

About 40 members of the GOP caucus convened on Sunday, October 25. Members of both “camps” were invited, but no decisions were made.

There, representative and former Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) spoke of the need to be unified in the GOP selection, specifically in the context of the looming redistricting. Craddick’s name was floated by some as an option for speakership, but it never materialized beyond that, let alone into an official candidacy.

Craddick’s name would be included on the initial list of support released by Phelan.

As of that October 25 meeting, only two official candidates had declared.

Later that week, Thompson received backing from the Texas Legislative Black Caucus — sans Rep. James White (R-Hillister). But by the time of Phelan’s announcement, he had corralled support from nine of the 10 caucus members, each of which were named on his list of support. Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) was the only exception.

That same day, October 29, five members jumped into the race — Paddie, Cyrier, Ashby, Morrison, and Longoria.

With a growing field and no clear frontrunner, the behind-the-scenes positioning crescendoed.

On November 1 members of what would become the Phelan camp met, and later that evening the Beaumont legislator declared his candidacy for speaker.

Presenting notable opposition for Phelan, Speaker Pro Tempore Joe Moody entered the race. Last year, Bonnen told the press, “Texas would be very blessed if there was a Democrat majority and Joe Moody wanted to lead the House.”

On Election Day, Morrison abruptly signaled her withdrawal from the race, backing Ashby for the post. But a day later, in the wake of Phelan’s capitol presser announcing broad support, the pair traded places with Ashby dropping out to support Morrison, calling her “uniquely equipped to provide the leadership we need to truly heal from the division and strife that exists in our chamber still today.”

“Division” and the “need to heal” were frequent phrases used by candidates who announced — each a gesture aimed at the dramatic circumstances surrounding Bonnen’s forthcoming exit.

Meanwhile, Democrats’ hopes to control the lower chamber washed away with the proverbial “Blue Wave” they rode in on — thus causing Longoria, and later Thompson, to withdraw their names.

Paddie declared his exit the morning after Election Day as well, before what would become Phelan’s football-spiking press conference.

Appropriately staged in the speaker’s press room that day, Phelan told reporters, simply, “The race is over.”

The announcement prompted a response from Republican Party of Texas (RPT) Chairman Allen West, digging in a rival position, stating, “The actions of Rep. Dade Phelan don’t present a good first step in restoring trust, confidence, and credibility for the House GOP Majority.”

He later said in an email statement that RPT will “not support, nor accept, State Rep. Dade Phelan as Speaker of the Texas House,” even calling Phelan a “Republican political traitor.”

Each of the previous three speakers — Republicans Bonnen, Straus, and Craddick — had Democratic support. However, it was Straus, during the ousting of Craddick, who did so with only 11 supporting Republican votes along with the House Democratic caucus.

This tiff continued and resulted in an intra-party war of words between West and various members of the state House over the critical opposition — including Bonnen who hit back saying, “[West] needs a one-way ticket back to Florida.”

West wasn’t the only figure on the right to oppose Phelan. Texas Values Action PAC broadcasted its opposition shortly after Phelan’s entry into the race citing his role in inserting an LGBT non-discrimination provision into a religious liberty bill during State Affairs Committee proceedings.

A day after Phelan’s announcement, the Morrison-supporting group, including Ashby, convened. That meeting eventually culminated in her withdrawal from the race. With Morrison’s exit, any formidable intra-GOP caucus opposition to Phelan’s quest for the gavel evaporated.

Ashby, however, has yet to publicly throw his support behind Phelan, possibly explained by his inclusion on the political hit list proffered to Sullivan.

Since the post-election maneuvering, the speaker’s race waters have remained calm, absent of any ripple or billow.

On November 5, Phelan tapped former state senator, and his former boss, Tommy Williams to lead his transition team.

A few days later, Phelan announced a bipartisan group to examine House procedures as they relate to the pandemic — which comprised of Reps. Cain, Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), Donna Howard (D-Austin), Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth), Moody, Paddie, John Smithee (R-Amarillo), Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie), John Turner (D-Dallas), and Armando Walle (D-Houston).

Chairing and vice-chairing that group is Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Cypress) and Thompson, respectively.

Governor Greg Abbott broke his silence, congratulating the speaker heir-apparent Phelan on November 10.

On Monday, November 16, Phelan announced Julia Rathgeber as his chief of staff for the coming session. Rathgeber has served as the president and CEO of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas since December 2015. She also previously served as Governor Greg Abbott’s deputy chief of staff.

This week, the House GOP caucus will convene in Austin for its annual retreat, and has a policy meeting scheduled at which priorities for the session may be discussed.

Last year’s retreat provided the watershed moment in which Bonnen was confronted with caucus members about forgoing reelection.

Phelan’s swift ascension to the dais is not yet formally complete, as the official vote will occur on January 12, the first day of the 87th Legislative Session.

But the battle lines going into session have somewhat been drawn and Phelan will likely have to contend with a vocal GOP chairman looking for every opportunity to hold his feet to the fire during a pandemic-laden session — neither of which his predecessor faced.

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