With State Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) poised to assume leadership over the state’s lower chamber, it’s worth exploring just who this man who will hold the gavel is.
First, a note on the powers that Phelan will wield. These have grown considerably over the course of the last 40 years, though they are still technically beholden to rules set by the House Rules of Procedure, which are voted on at the beginning of each session. Nominally, the speaker is meant to merely oversee the chamber’s function, but in reality, the role has almost total influence on committee membership, and by extension which bills reach the floor for a vote.
The scope of the speaker’s rule has been subject to much criticism from both parties. It has led to some rather dramatic revolts, such as in 2007 when Rep. Pat Haggerty staged a walkout against Speaker Tom Craddick. This event was the catalyst for some rule changes in 2011 that curtailed the power of the office and made removing a bad one easier. Still, there is no doubt the speaker has a lot of influence over what can become law.
Phelan has already drawn criticism, but surprisingly from the right. When Democrats failed to flip the Texas House in the recent elections, Phelan could have chosen to cement conservative power. Instead, he appears to be following the lead of President-elect Joe Biden and reaching across the aisle. Phelan was actually the choice of speaker from House Democrats, which earned him the ire of controversial Texas GOP Chairman (and noted conspiracy theorist) Allen West. West responded to Phelan’s apparent rise to the role negatively in an email to supporters.
“Texas will not allow the undermining of our ‘Texas Republic.’ This is why the Republican Party of Texas is perplexed and will not support a potential Texas speaker of the House who would seek affirmation from progressive socialist Democrats to attain that position,” West wrote. He also referred to the idea of Democrats and Republicans working together as “idiotic.”
It’s easy to see why the more hardline Republicans might reject Phelan. He’s been far more open to progressive causes than many conservatives. He personally encouraged Texans to tune in as the Texas Legislative Black Caucus rolled out their proposal for a George Floyd Act this past August and is a founding member of the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. Under Phelan’s leadership, a law curtailing abuses of power by the police is far more likely to pass than expected under Republican leadership, though there would still be the less welcoming environment of the state Senate to contend with.
Criminal justice reform is inextricably linked with drug reform, and here Phelan is also far more progressive than the conservative rank and file. He co-authored and supported 2019 bills for expanding medical marijuana, reducing drug penalties, and opening up hemp production in the state. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws gives him a score of 67 out of 100.
Phelan’s position on some social issues have earned him praise from the left. He is one of only three Texas Republicans to earn a positive score from Equality Texas, a pro-LGBT advocacy group. Phelan sided with LGBT interests against protecting businesses that discriminate against them.
That’s not to say he’s secretly a Democrat. The National Rifle Association gives him a full 100 percent score, and he has supported a few controversial expansions of gun ownership. One of them was HB 1177, which protected people from penalties when they carry guns without a license during an evacuation and allowed guns in shelters provided the shelters agreed. Opponents of the bill claimed that it would lead to less responsible ownership and shootings during a natural disaster.
Disasters are definitely on Phelan’s mind. He is one of the authors of HB 13, which takes $3.26 billion from the Economic Stabilization (Rainy Day) Fund to be used for flood prevention and response infrastructure.
But Phelan has also not shied away from siding with the far right of the GOP representation in the House. He publicly supported Briscoe Cain (who is famous for threatening to shoot Beto O’Rourke) for heading to Philadelphia to work with attorneys attempting to validate President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and tampering. Phelan cheered Brisco on Twitter, claiming “FACT — @BriscoeCain is never afraid of a fight!”Lastly, Phelan is very much an anti-reproductive freedom politician, and his speakership is likely not good news for abortion access in the state. He co-sponsored SB 8, which prohibited the sale of fetal tissue for research purposes. He also backed the Alternatives for Abortion program that puts state funds into pregnancy crisis centers, which tend to be run by religious groups intent on shaming women and providing reproductive misinformation rather than actual health care. That said, he does not appear to be an actual prohibitionist when it comes to abortion access, which places him in a group different from others who might have held the office he is about to assume.