Once it became clear that Republicans would retain control of the Texas House of Representatives, Beaumont state Rep. Dade Phelan announced he's poised to become its next speaker.
During a press conference on Nov. 4, Phelan revealed a list of 83 state representatives who say they’ll vote for him.
“The race is over and the work of the 150 members coming together to serve Texas begins today,” he said.
Just 76 state representatives are needed to secure Phelan a win.
“I think the majority of this list right here — that will continue to grow — they trust me,” Phelan continued. “And I put my trust in them as well.”
Phelan’s support did continue to grow. On Nov. 5, he tweeted that he’d been backed by 106 state representatives: 57 Republicans and 49 Democrats. That same day, his rival for the position, Victoria state Rep. Geanie Morrison, withdrew from the race, according to the Victoria Advocate.
Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said Phelan is a practical choice for House speaker. He’s someone who is in the “middle of the Republican Party” in terms of his ideology and approach to policies.
Phelan, who won a fourth term Election Day, also appeals to members of the opposition.
“For Democrats, he’s someone who’s about as good as they can expect to get as a speaker in terms of proximity to them on some issues,” Jones said.
Phelan leans more left than some of his conservative colleagues on certain social matters. For instance, the House State Affairs Committee, of which he is the chair, voted to include language protecting local nondiscrimination ordinances in preemption bills covering paid sick leave, according to Equality Texas, an LGBTQ+ policy advocacy organization. In 2019, Phelan publicly stated “bashing on the gay community” is “completely unacceptable.”
Yet the presumptive House speaker also appeals to more right-leaning Republicans for his pro-NRA and anti-abortion stances, said Thomas Marshall, political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Phelan is regarded as a cautious politician who won’t “throw bombs just to do it,” Marshall said. He’s similar to past speakers of the House such as Joe Straus and pre-scandal Dennis Bonnen in that way, he added. (Bonnen, who is the current speaker, is not seeking reelection after he was caught on tape denigrating colleagues and plotting to target Republicans in the primaries.)
In Texas, it’s normal for potential speakers to receive bipartisan support, Marshall said; members of the opposite party get behind popular candidates in the hopes of receiving chairmanships and committee positions.
“If you have ambitions, you wouldn’t want to be the last guy to hold out,” Marshall said.
Following Phelan’s announcement, Gov. Greg Abbott congratulated him for securing enough votes to become speaker.
“A strong conservative, Dade has a proven record of fighting for the lives and livelihoods of all Texans, having played a key role in authoring and passing critical legislation to bolster disaster relief and preparedness following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey,” Abbott wrote.
Phelan sponsored multiple bills to improve the state’s readiness for natural disasters following the 2017 hurricane, according to Public News Service.
Yet some Republicans weren't shy about voicing their disdain for Phelan. Allen West, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, condemned him in a statement, saying his party will "not support, nor accept" him as House speaker.
“Texas does not need a Republican political traitor, not at a time when the two diverging philosophies of governance are this lucid," West wrote.
Phelan’s original 83-member list included Republican Dallas-area state Reps. Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button. Joining on the Democratic side were state Reps. Carl Sherman, Rafael Anchía, Rhetta Bowers, Toni Rose, Yvonne Davis and state Rep.-elect Jasmine Crockett.
Sherman, who serves southern Dallas County, said Phelan was the best option for the position.
“I thought he would be fair, or the most fair I guess, of the Republicans and hopefully would not use this as a power grab to push forward red-meat issues,” Sherman said.
Richardson’s Chen Button said Phelan is a “fair, honest and intelligent leader” who treats his colleagues with respect.
"I have full confidence in his ability to ensure the Texas House is able to address the serious challenges we face during the 87th legislature,” she said in an emailed statement.
With a serious budget deficit and the coronavirus pandemic serving as backdrops, this is likely to be an “explosive session,” Marshall said. Thanks to the 2020 U.S. Census, Texas legislators will also be redrawing state and congressional districts, which could alter the course of politics here for the next decade.
The Texas House will vote for speaker on the first day of the legislative session in January.
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