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Beaumont Could Lose A Lot If Phelan Fails Runoff

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan is in the fight of his political life thanks to a Trump-backed primary challenger. If he fails to win, Beaumont could also lose big.

District 21 is not one of the state’s more famous political districts. It covers most of Beaumont, which is a city compared to most small Texas towns, but definitely a town compared to nearby Houston. One-fifth of the population lives below the poverty line. While Beaumont once prospered thanks to Spindletop and shipbuilding during World War II, it has seen noticeable decline in the last half century.

In short, it’s a place that needs some help, and it’s been getting that in the form of Phelan. First elected in 2014, Phelan has been a voice for expanding the social safety net in places like his home district. With him as speaker, there has been a better chance of improvements for his constituents.

Take health care. Texas is the largest state to not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Consequently, the state has an enormous uninsured population, 19 percent. The number is actually slightly higher in Beaumont at 20 percent. Phelan has balked at supporting full expansion, but has at least said he is open to the conversation.

In the meantime, he has supported and pushed through some expansions, including allowing parents to stay on Medicaid for longer periods post-partum, up to a year. It’s far below what the district needs, but it is something. That bill was only possible because of bipartisan support, something that Phelan has been famous for maintaining in the lege despite how it angers the far-right base.

Over the last decade, Phelan has helped bring public dollars back to Beaumont for investments in mental health and flood control. As speaker, he keeps the city in the spotlight.

Places like Beaumont often fade into the background in state politics, which is mostly concerned with the rural vs. city dynamic. That Beaumont represents so much of what Texans need, including additional access to healthcare and benefits, is embodied in the comparatively moderate political style of the speaker. With Phelan, Beaumont has a voice.

That voice is likely to be silenced if he loses to his challenger, David Covey. Covey is not on anyone’s list to be the next speaker, so Beaumont will lose the clout given to the third-most powerful person in the world’s eighth-largest economy.

As former Governor Rick Perry put it at a campaign event, “You’re sitting at the table. “When every big decision is made in Austin, Texas. When you pick up the phone and you call him, he answers . . . because you know him. You go to church, you see him downtown. He’s your guy. He knows how to get things done.”

The campaign against Phelan has been part of a statewide attempt at eradicating any challenge to the far-rightward lurch of Texas GOP. Covey is not backed by he concerned citizens of Beaumont, but instead state and national figures who are primarily concerned with passing school vouchers, further restricting the rights of LGBT and pregnant people, and waging a border war. Without Phelan, Beaumont becomes just another cog in that machine.

Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner is an award-winning freelance journalist, the author of The Rook Circle, and a member of The Black Math Experiment. He lives in Houston where he spends most of his time investigating corruption and strange happenings. Jef has written for Houston Press, Free Press Houston, and Houston Chronicle.

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