As the return of the Texas Legislature in January inches closer, conversations about who should lead the Texas House are becoming more frequent across the entire state. Few lawmakers have been willing to go on the record about those discussions, but more than a few have told Texas Scorecard that the field of candidates is narrowing and one individual is drawing a lot of interest.
That lawmaker? Republican State Rep. Dade Phelan of Beaumont.
A political staffer-turned-politician, Phelan has represented the Southeast Texas-based House District 21 in the Texas House since 2014. In his first session, Phelan earned a C on the Fiscal Responsibility Index. In subsequent sessions, however, his voting record declined to an F, falling to a dismal score of 49 after the conclusion of the Texas Legislature’s 86th session in 2019.
But while Phelan’s voting record has declined, his clout within the Texas Capitol has increased. In 2019, Phelan was named the chairman of the House Committee on State Affairs—arguably the Texas House’s most powerful committee.
Previously headed by the notorious State Rep. Byron Cook of Corsicana, the committee has long been the killing field for conservative legislation on issues including protecting the unborn, strengthening gun rights, and protecting religious liberty.
With Phelan at the helm, some priorities did advance.
Legislation to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying, for example, made it through the committee both as a House bill and as a Senate bill—though the legislation was defeated on the House floor by a coalition of Republicans joining with Democrats.
Other priorities, however, never made it through Phelan’s committee.
One prominent example was the preemption legislation filed by State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R–Conroe) that would have prevented local governments from micromanaging private businesses.
Creighton described his legislation, initially filed as Senate Bill 15, as follows:
Texas cities have begun to expand their regulatory scope and pass local ordinances regarding private employment practices–matters that have traditionally been handled at the state and federal level for the sake of better consistency and compliance. These ordinances have created an inconsistent patchwork of regulations that make it difficult for cities to attract new businesses, create jobs, and for businesses to operate in multiple jurisdictions. S.B. 15 prohibits a municipality or county from requiring certain employment benefits or policies.
Supported by grassroots Republicans, social conservatives, and small-business groups, Creighton’s initial legislation made it through the Texas Senate as five independent items of legislation and was referred to Phelan’s committee, where they were met with hostility.
Though many expected the legislation to have a layup in the GOP-dominated committee, Phelan immediately defied Republican activists and small businesses and inserted a “nondiscrimination” rider to each bill to appease LGBT activists, telling the media he’s “done talking about bashing on the gay community.”
“It’s completely unacceptable,” added Phelan. “This is 2019.”
At the time, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R–Angleton) backed Phelan.
“The reality is: We’re not happy with cities passing these paid sick-leave ordinances; it’s not fair and good for Texas business and Texas job growth. But we are also not going to allow discrimination to occur,” he told Austin’s KXAN.
Together, Phelan and Bonnen killed the legislation and prevented it from passing. And due to his efforts, Phelan was one of only three Texas House Republicans to receive a positive grade from Equality Texas, a pro-LGBT advocacy organization whose legislative goals include imposing statewide comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, including but not limited to employment, housing and public accommodations, implementing legal protections for individuals who conduct homosexual statutory rape, and requiring religious adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples.
For his work to “defang” preemption legislation, Phelan was deemed one of the “best legislators” by liberal publication Texas Monthly—a designation he bragged about on social media.
Were he to officially enter the race for Speaker of the Texas House, Phelan would not be the first, as Democrat State Reps. Senfronia Thompson (Houston) and Trey Martinez Fischer (San Antonio) have already announced their candidacies.
Members of the Texas House will cast their votes for the next Speaker of the House as one of the first orders of business when the Legislature reconvenes on January 12, 2021.