Politics

How Beaumont State Rep. Dade Phelan Clinched The Texas House Speakership

Phelan will face one of the most difficult sessions in decades, with issues ranging from COVID-19 relief to redistricting.

Dade Phelan, inset, is the likely nest Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

State Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has effectively locked up the race to become the next Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. That will make him the third person to hold the gavel in as many sessions.

Talk with anyone who's worked with Dade Phelan in the Texas Legislature, and one of the first things you'll hear is that he's a hard worker.

"Dade is just an ideal fit for this role," said Republican John Zerwas, who represented Fort Bend County for 12 years before stepping down in 2019 to become executive vice executive vice chancellor for health affairs for the University of Texas System. "My experience with him is he's a very solid, hardworking individual, very honest, very transparent, and is always looking for a solution."

That's a view that extends across the aisle. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, was herself a candidate for speaker before throwing her endorsement to Phelan.

"He's a person that keeps his word,” Thompson said. “He works on an issue, and he sticks to it.”

Thompson, one of the longest-serving members of the Texas House, said she remembered Phelan from the days he worked for then-state Rep. Mark Stiles, a Democrat, in the days when Democrats controlled the chamber. Phelan was later a staffer for Republican sate Sen. Tommy Williams.

Phelan's work ethic was on full display in the 2019 session when he chaired the House State Affairs Committee. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, was his vice chair.

“We had some controversial legislation in committee dealing with nondiscrimination ordinances, and this was, I believe, the longest committee hearing that we've had in the Texas House, after having (an) almost 10-, 12-hour workday, we started our committee hearing that then lasted 13 hours,” Hernandez said. “He was at the helm the entire time, remained respectful of every single witness that was there to testify, whether or not he agreed with their position.”

Perhaps his most significant accomplishment was to shepherd the session's flood relief bill to passage in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Phelan's Beaumont district was one of the hardest hit outside the Houston area.

Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, who wrote the original bill, said that, as sympathetic as many members were in the wake of Harvey, it was an uphill fight to pass the multibillion-dollar package while the legislature was simultaneously trying to pass property tax reform.

“It's very difficult to pass a bill over there, and certainly one with several billions of dollars' worth of funding, at the same time that every billion dollars appropriated for property tax relief was a savings of about $80 per household for the average Texas homeowner,” Creighton said. “So, there was a competition of priorities going on, and without Dade being the author of that bill in the House, it would not have passed.”

Phelan's outreach to Democrats to clinch the speakership earned him accusations of treason by GOP party chairman Allen West. John Zerwas says that hasn't hurt Phelan at all.

“The party chairman does not have any sway or impact in the Republican caucus of the House, frankly,” Zerwas said. “The chairman is free to say what he wants, but he's off base not only in his characterization of the presumptive speaker, Dade Phelan, (but) he's also off base in I think trying to exercise that role and will in the speakership.”

Former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, now a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute, said Phelan will face challenges unlike any speaker in Emmett's lifetime.

"He and his team have to determine how the legislature's going to function under COVID protocol,” Emmett said. “Are they going to meet in person? Are they going to socially distance? Are they going to wear masks? Are they going to meet in the Capitol? And all of that has got to be in the parameters set by the Constitution of the State of Texas.”

Sherri Greenberg, who teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin, checked off a long list of challenges Phelan will have to meet, "around the budget, around local control versus preemption, public education, policing, racial injustice, health care, voting, and then you layer on top of that redistricting, that's going to make for a very difficult regular session.”

Electing the speaker will be the Texas House's first order of business when it convenes on Jan. 12.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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