NOTE: Since this article was published, yet another Republican –Geanie Morrison of Victoria – reportedly filed for the speakership. It has been updated.
What GOP insiders hoped would be a quiet race for Speaker of the Texas House got suddenly heated on Thursday, with four establishment Republicans officially in the hunt – and at least one other poised to jump in. Most Texans have never heard of none of them.
Officially filing declaring their candidacy today are Republican State Reps. Chris Paddie of Marshall, Trent Ashby of Lufkin, John Cyrier of Lockhart, and Geanie Morrison of Victoria joining Democrats Senfronia Thompson of Houston and Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio
Legislators have long regarded the Texas House as a private club, and the speakership their special domain despite a consolidation of power into the office rivaling that of the governor and lieutenant governor. The position will be open when lawmakers convene on Jan. 12, 2021, because the current speaker – disgraced State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Lake Jackson) – was forced to announce his retirement from public office less than a year into his first term after being caught last year lying to the public and his colleagues about his unethical behavior and attempted use of public actions for personal political gain.
Despite the expectation Republicans will return with a majority in the Texas House, until now there have been no public discussions among the GOP lawmakers about who would take the reins of power. Numerous legislators, staffers, and consultants have in recent days described to Texas Scorecard an escalating race behind the scenes and purposefully conducted outside public view.
Why Were They Waiting?
A legislator-only meeting was held in Temple last weekend where about half of the Texas House Republican Caucus—41 by one count—to ostensibly discuss rules and structure reforms needed in the wake of Bonnen’s abuse of power.
Notably absent from the open-invitation legislator-only meeting, according to multiple sources, were many lawmakers friendly with Mr. Bonnen – including, most significantly, Dade Phelan of Beaumont.
Phelan has emerged as the “Team Bonnen” candidate for speaker – a term recently used by State Rep. Kyle Biedermann (R-Fredericksburg). According to sources, the “Team Bonnen” members were purposefully absent from the discussion attended by a majority of their Republican colleagues.
Another group of lawmakers, who purport to call themselves “Team Texas,” are reportedly pushing State Rep. Chris Paddie of Marshall as their preferred pick to wield the gavel. While others in that group – notably Mr. Ashby, Tan Parker of Flower Mound, and John Smithee of Amarillo– are reportedly vying for the slot, Paddie has been seen as the frontrunner.
Sources say Paddie and Ashby both attended the meeting in Temple.
Thus far the intraparty contest among Texas House Republicans leaves a lot to be desired. Phelan, Paddie, and Ashby all have a rather straightforward political history: they are establishment Republicans, with little respect for the policy reforms promoted by grassroots activists.
Excusing Corruption Or Allowing Reform?
The voting records of Phelan, Paddie, and Ashby are virtually indistinguishable, and clumped together in various legislative rankings. Cyrier’s ratings are slightly better. Phelan was one of only three Republicans to earn praise from LGBTQ activists following the most recent session – the other two were Sarah Davis (Houston) and Todd Hunter (Corpus Christi).
On the Fiscal Responsibility Index, Phelan earned a 49 in 2019, compared to Paddie’s 47 and Ashby’s 45. Cyrier had the highest rating at 64, and Morrison had the lowest at 41. On the other hand, Phelan voted for the 2019 ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying, while Ashby led the fight against the popular reform. Paddie, Morrison, and Cyrier joined Ashby’s opposition.
On the other hand, both Ashby and Paddie did speak out against Bonnen ethical lapses and abuse of power. Paddie actually paid a price for it, with Bonnen kicking him off the Texas Sunset Commission—an action one of Paddie’s fellow legislators called retribution for speaking out against the speaker.
“Speaker Bonnen is striking back at House Republicans from the grave,” Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands said on Twitter at the time. “What he did to Chris Paddie was not only wrong, it was also destructive to the Texas House. Enough damage has been done by Speaker Bonnen. No more lists. No more retribution. Respectfully, it’s time for him to go.”
Paddie and Ashby both appear to be open to reforming the speakership as evidenced by their participation in the (private) Temple meeting.
By bringing the campaign for the GOP speakership nomination into the open, Paddie and Ashby are giving Texans an opportunity to speak out. Legislators now have an obligation to answer questions from voters about the speaker candidates and their priorities prior to both a Republican caucus meeting to pick a party nominee, and the January vote on the House floor.
Another Secret Meeting
“Team Bonnen” is reportedly having their own secret meeting this coming Sunday, with the expectation that they will come out unified behind a single anti-reform candidate. Right now that appears to be Mr. Phelan.
Significantly, the “Temple” meeting was open to every Republican legislator (if not anyone else). According to reports, this coming Sunday’s Team Bonnen meeting is by invitation-only, with many in the GOP caucus being excluded.
The last two Texas House Speakers – Dennis Bonnen and Joe Straus – came to power through secret meetings held behind closed doors. The results enabled the crony class of lobbyists in Austin and empowered the Democrats, while disenfranchising Texans.
Unless they are determined to repeat the errors of the past, Republicans can only clean up Austin by exposing themselves to the cleansing sunlight of public scrutiny.