Oliverson challenging Phelan for Texas House speakership

Published 12:08 am Saturday, March 23, 2024

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State Rep. Tom Oliverson on Thursday announced a surprise challenge to Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, condemning his fellow Republican’s “dysfunctional” leadership as he fights for political survival in a May runoff.

Oliverson, an anesthesiologist from Cypress in his fourth term, pitched himself as the right man to realign the lower chamber with the priorities of the Republican Party, which he said Phelan too often ignored. He criticized Phelan for appointing Democrats to chair some House committees and pledged to end the longstanding tradition if elected speaker.

“The Texas House is a collegial body, but there is a difference between collegiality and capitulation,” Oliverson, 51, said. “The majority must not be held captive by the will of the minority.”

Phelan has defended the practice, arguing that it allows the Legislature to function free of the gridlock seen in Congress. His defenders also say that Democrats — who chair eight of the House’s 34 standing committees — have not used their positions to hold up conservative priorities, most of which flow through committees overseen by Republicans.

Oliverson also slammed Phelan’s “secretive” handling of the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton, which he said was sprung on members with insufficient notice. It was Oliverson’s first major broadside against Phelan on the issue: the day before the impeachment vote, he told the Dallas Morning News  “nobody is above the law” and said “we need people of high moral and ethical standard serving in public office.”

Oliverson was the only House Republican who did not cast a vote on Paxton’s impeachment on corruption and bribery charges last year, sidestepping an issue that has driven a wedge between Phelan’s allies and the party’s right flank.

Phelan, who received no forewarning of Oliverson’s bid, said in a statement that his attention will remain on helping his House incumbents prevail in their runoffs and winning his own race.

“That’s the job of the Texas Speaker, and that’s where my focus is and will continue to be,” Phelan said.

In an interview with Spectrum News, Phelan criticized Oliverson for announcing his bid while multiple House contests — including ones that involve mutual allies of Phelan and Oliverson — hung in the balance. He also pointed to Oliverson’s ties to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Phelan’s political rival who shares a political consultant with Oliverson.

“I think the timing is not appropriate,” Phelan said. “I don’t know why [he’s running]. I know who his neighbor is. His neighbor is Dan Patrick.”

The announcement was a political betrayal of Phelan, who in 2021 appointed Oliverson chair of the House insurance committee and hopes to continue as speaker. But the voters of Phelan’s Orange County-area district may not even send him back to Austin.

David Covey, a little-known but well-funded challenger, forced Phelan into a runoff in House District 21. Worse, Phelan received fewer votes in the first round, and second-place finishers rarely win runoff elections in Texas. He may become the first House Speaker since Rayford Price in 1972 to lose a primary.

But even if Phelan does manage to eke out a victory, some Republicans believe he is too weak to continue as the chamber’s leader. His critics say the results of the primary, in which nine House Republicans were ousted and eight were forced into runoffs, are a repudiation of Phelan’s leadership.

— Written by Zach Despart of Texastribune.com