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In Dade Phelan’s bid for Texas House speaker, trust was key

When Dade Phelan rolled out a list this month of Texas House members backing his bid to become the next speaker, the chamber’s wide and oftentimes complicated ideological spectrum was on full display.

The list included Briscoe Cain, a Deer Park Republican hailing from the most conservative faction of the GOP. It included Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat serving as the Legislature’s longest-serving woman and Black person. And it included members from nearly every part of the state — from the Rio Grande Valley to North Texas, from El Paso to the Gulf Coast and the big cities in between.

Phelan’s list put the Beaumont Republican over the number of needed votes to claim he was poised to lead a chamber that has been fractured over the past two years by a tough election cycle and a political scandal that led to the downfall of the prior speaker. And it embodied the reputation he’s built inside the chamber during his relatively short tenure in office.

Phelan, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is described among colleagues and other Capitol observers as a straight-shooter who knows the legislative process inside and out and who has a track record of being hardworking and accommodating. Members say Phelan has earned their trust — a crucial element in a 150-member chamber that’s mainly fueled by personal relationships — and they point to stories of him going out of his way to help with bills or with the sometimes dizzying ways of the Legislature to prove it.

“Dade is one of those guys that has those three qualities — he’s a man of integrity, he has character and he is honest,” said former state Rep. Allan Ritter, a Democrat-turned-Republican who served in the Legislature for eight terms before he retired and Phelan succeeded him. “If a member has those, golly, they’ve got a good chance of making things work.”

House members will officially cast a vote for speaker on the first day of the legislative session, though Phelan has already started his ascent into the speaker’s office, tapping one of his former bosses, former state Sen. Tommy Williams, to lead his transition team, and naming Capitol veteran Julia Rathgeber to serve as his chief of staff.

And while there’s a chance things could shift between now and January, members are acknowledging Phelan as the presumptive speaker to replace Republican Dennis Bonnen, a hard-charging, longtime House member who will retire at the end of his term after a hardline conservative activist released a secret recording of him encouraging the targeting of 10 GOP members for primary challenges.

For a lot of House members, that scandal shattered the goodwill and trust Bonnen had fostered in the chamber after spearheading a session that by all accounts was revered among members for its success on bread-and-butter issues, such as property tax and school finance reforms.

Phelan was a part of Bonnen’s leadership team during that session and has told members he plans, like Bonnen, to run the House by letting members drive the chamber’s business. His reputation and seemingly different personality has some feeling optimistic he can help the House reach the finish line without jeopardizing trust to get there.

“Balls and strikes”

Phelan, 45, grew up in Beaumont, where his family runs a fourth-generation commercial real estate development firm. He and his wife, Kim, an attorney, have four young boys — Ford, Mack, Hank and Luke.

While still a relatively new member of the Legislature, his experience in Texas government and politics is broad. While attending the University of Texas at Austin, Phelan cut his teeth at the Capitol by working as an aide to Democratic state Rep. Mark Stiles. After graduating with a degree in government and business in 1998, Phelan moved to Washington, D.C., to work for U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, then the Republican House majority leader who represented Texas’ 26th Congressional District. Phelan returned to Austin in 2001 and went to work for Williams, a legislative veteran who’s now chairing Phelan’s transition team.

Before running for the state House, Phelan served as a gubernatorial appointee for the Lower Neches Valley Authority. Phelan served alongside Kathleen Jackson, who called the lawmaker “down-to-earth” and “thoughtful.”

“When Dade spoke, everyone listened,” Jackson, now a Texas Water Development Board member, told The Texas Tribune. “That’s because I think they knew he took time to find out what was going on.”

After Ritter announced he would retire from the Legislature, Phelan ran for House District 21 in 2014. Phelan easily bested the other Republican candidate in the primary and then cruised in the general election. The seat Phelan won covers an area of the state that stretches along the Gulf Coast and snakes up against the Texas-Louisiana border, and it has been devastated by hurricanes and floods in recent years. In 2019, he was one of the main architects behind a number of disaster relief- and flood mitigation-related bills that stretched beyond partisan lines and directed $1.7 billion toward flood control projects and repairs across the state.

State Rep. Armando Walle, a Houston Democrat, said the two worked together on some of those bills and that Phelan was honest with him throughout. When the two were at an impasse, Walle said, “we at least respected each other’s position on it.”

“Personal relationships matter in our chamber,” Walle said. “You have to work with people from different perspectives … and I think [Phelan] understands that.”

Phelan made impressions with others, too. After being elected speaker for the first time at the start of the 2019 session, Bonnen tapped Phelan to chair the powerful State Affairs Committee, which often oversees some of the state’s most hot-button issues.

One such issue that came across his desk was a proposal that sought to bar cities from enacting rules on how businesses schedule their employees’ shifts. The idea had broad support among the business community and Republicans in both chambers after multiple cities had passed regulations requiring employers in their cities to offer paid sick leave. But the Senate passed a version to remove nondiscrimination protections, leading to worries among LGBTQ advocates that it would nullify city rules that banned discrimination against workers based on their sexual orientation.

When the measure reached Phelan’s committee, he inserted the protections back in. The decision created an impasse with Senate leadership, and the bill — which had begun the session seeming certain to pass — eventually died.

In a podcast interview, Phelan told Tribune CEO Evan Smith that he wanted to make “100% certain that we’re not opening up any avenues for workplace discrimination.”

“I’m kind of done talking about bashing on the gay community,” he said. “It’s completely unacceptable. This is 2019.”

Democrats were delighted with the outcome — in that case. But on a number of occasions, Phelan has sided with Republicans on some of the more conservative proposals that have ended up at the Legislature. In 2017, Phelan voted for an anti-“sanctuary cities” bill that prompted mass protests among Democrats and Latino organizers. The bill required local police to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and allowed police to inquire about the immigration status of people they lawfully detained. Opponents called it a “show-me-your-papers” law that invited racial profiling and would make immigrant groups fearful of police.

And in 2019, he sponsored a bill popular among hardline conservatives that would have banned governments from using taxpayer dollars to lobby the Legislature. That measure ultimately failed, but is among the Texas GOP’s top priorities for 2021.

But while lawmakers on both sides might have differences with him, House members say it’s Phelan’s transparency on where he stands that has built inroads and respect with colleagues across the ideological spectrum.

“I take him at his word when he says he just wants to be a speaker who calls the balls and the strikes,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, a Fort Worth Republican and member of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus. “Honestly, I think that’s all you can ask for from a speaker.”

“You’ll know where he is going” 

In some ways, the Texas House that convenes in January will look a lot like the one that gaveled out two years ago under Bonnen’s tutelage. It will still have 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats, with a Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick-led Senate across the building and Gov. Greg Abbott in the governor’s office.

But the circumstances have changed. House members are facing a pandemic, massive budget shortfalls and fractured relationships after a particularly polarizing election cycle and the scandal that led to Bonnen’s downfall. Plus, they’ll face the grueling and cutthroat process of redrawing the state’s political maps.

Overall, the Legislature is bracing for one of the toughest sessions in years.

The knowledge of that loomed over the race to replace Bonnen, which had been relatively quiet heading into the homestretch before Election Day.

Part of that silence, some suggested, was due to the uncertainty surrounding which party would be in control of the House — and by how many seats. As the election neared though, factions began forming and members filed paperwork to run for the gavel. Among Republicans, two clear groups had formed: One with Phelan and other members who had been instrumental in organizing the support that won Bonnen the gavel in 2018, and another that included more ideologically moderate members who helped spur the speaker’s retirement after his political scandal.

On the Sunday before Election Day, Phelan became the seventh candidate to enter the race after the group of Republicans he was associated with met in Austin and picked him as their preferred member for the job.

By Wednesday afternoon, and with Republicans confident their majority in the House would remain nearly the same, Phelan announced at a Capitol news conference that the speaker’s race was over. He claimed he had backing from a “supermajority of the Republican caucus” and a “broad coalition of support” from Democrats. He released a bipartisan list of 83 names soon after.

But the rival Republican faction, which had become known among members as “Team Texas,” was not giving up. Later that evening, the group’s preferred candidate, state Rep. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, announced he was ending his bid and getting behind state Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria, who was gunning to be the Legislature’s first female speaker.

With that backdrop, the newly formed “Equity Caucus,” a group of Democratic lawmakers who formed the coalition to advocate for women’s equity in House leadership and pledged to vote for a speaker candidate as a bloc, met with both Phelan and Morrison.

In the group’s meeting with Phelan, members asked how he would handle controversial social issues — and “he said he would do his best to make sure we are on track and able to get business done,” state Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat and member of the bloc, said.

“We decided that we are going to have faith that Phelan will lead the body in a bipartisan manner,” she told the Tribune, “and we decided to have our bloc vote and give our support to him.”

Faced with the choice between a woman candidate and the candidate who already claimed to have the votes, the group went public with its pick of Phelan.

The group’s endorsement effectively quashed what uncertainty there was left about the speaker’s race not yet being over. Soon after, Morrison ended her bid, saying her supporters were “uniting the Republican Caucus with our support of Dade Phelan.”

Still, Phelan faces some skepticism as the January start of the legislative session approaches.

In an email to supporters the week after the election, Texas GOP Chair Allen West wrote that the state party “will not support, nor accept” Phelan as the next speaker and called the lawmaker a “Republican political traitor” for gaining the gavel with the support of Democrats. A number of House Republicans defended Phelan, asking West to “stop the childish name-calling” and saying he “needs to go back to” Florida.

Some of the House’s more conservative Republicans, such as Krause, have said Phelan should have time during the session for members to judge his actions one way or the other.

“I keep coming back to the fact that one of Dade’s strengths is what you see is what you get from him,” Krause said. “You may agree with him, you may not, but you’ll know where he’s going.”

“At the end of the day, we have to look at the work product,” said state Rep. James White, R-Hillister. “We’ll see where we land in 140 days.”

Walle, the Houston Democrat, said he would probably have to file legislation next session that would name a highway in Beaumont after Bum Phillips, a former coach for the Houston Oilers football team who was from the area and “roamed sidelines in a cowboy hat and boots with pearl snap shirts” — referencing a joke between him and Phelan that the two had bonded over while in the Legislature.

“When I talk about personal relationships … you try to connect with people,” Walle said. “That’s just human nature.”

— By Cassandra Pollock of The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.