Updated at 6:20 p.m. to reflect Morrison’s return to the race and updates throughout.
AUSTIN — State Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said Wednesday he has secured enough votes to become the next speaker of the Texas House, but rival lawmakers did not surrender their challenge and called for a meeting of the Republican caucus to discuss the election.
Phelan, who won a fourth term Tuesday, stressed at a Capitol news conference that he’s assembled an unbeatable coalition of fellow Republicans and Democrats. He said he had a supermajority of the Republican caucus as well as several Democrats, including the House’s most senior Black members and several of the chamber’s most influential Hispanic representatives.
“I am humbled and honored to have the support to be the next speaker of the Texas House,” Phelan said.
Phelan, 45, served as chairman of the powerful State Affairs committee last session and was part of the leadership team for current Speaker Dennis Bonnen of Angleton, who did not seek reelection after he was pressured to resign when a secret recording revealed he was targeting fellow Republicans in primaries.
But in a twist late Wednesday, Lufkin Republican Trent Ashby, who appeared to be Phelan’s last GOP rival for the spot, dropped out of the race and endorsed Victoria Republican Geanie Morrison, who had taken herself out of the running for the position Tuesday night to support Ashby.
Morrison, who has served in the Legislature since 1999, would be the first woman elected speaker of the House. An experienced legislator, Morrison has served on some of the House’s most important committees, including appropriations, transportation and higher education, which she chaired for three sessions.
“While I’ve been truly humbled by the overwhelming support of my friends and colleagues, I believe that Geanie is uniquely equipped to provide the leadership we need to truly heal from the division and strife that exists in our chamber,” Ashby said.
In light of Morrison’s decision to reenter the race, Ashby urged the House Republican Caucus to schedule a meeting and give all of its members “an equal, transparent, and fair opportunity to select the next speaker.”
Ashby is one of the GOP lawmakers who was targeted by Bonnen and Lubbock state Rep. Dustin Burrows in a meeting with conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan last July. The disclosure of that meeting led to Bonnen’s fall as speaker and the resignation of Burrows as chairman of the House GOP Caucus.
None of the 10 lawmakers targeted by Bonnen and Burrows are on Phelan’s list — which includes Burrows. Several other members of Bonnen’s leadership team — including Plano Rep. Jeff Leach, Fort Worth Rep. Craig Goldman and Muenster Rep. Drew Springer — are also on Phelan’s list.
Texas House Democrats said they were aware Wednesday morning that Phelan had declared a majority of the chamber’s votes and would discuss the announcement at their previously scheduled caucus meeting. The Democrats issued no statement after their meeting.
Phelan, who is from a prominent Beaumont family that has a commercial real estate development company, made his announcement less than 24 hours after Republicans successfully protected their majority in the Texas House. Democrats had spent tens of millions of dollars on trying to flip the chamber for the first time since 2001 but were beat back by the GOP.
“Politics is over,” Phelan said during a news conference at the Capitol. “Now it’s time to heal and service begins today.”
After the news conference, Phelan released a list of 83 state representatives who had pledged to vote for him. The chamber’s 150 members elect their speaker at the beginning of every session, and the winning candidate needs just a majority — 76 — of votes to win the spot.
Phelan’s list included two Republicans who had sought the position then dropped out of the speaker’s race: John Cyrier of Lockhart and Chris Paddie of Marshall. It also included three of the four Democrats who had filed for the race: Oscar Longoria of Mission, Joe Moody of El Paso and Senfronia Thompson of Houston. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who is also seeking the position, was not included.
Among the Democrats on the list were Dallas state Reps. Yvonne Davis, Toni Rose, Rhetta Bowers, Carl Sherman and Rafael Anchía and state Rep.-elect Jasmine Crockett. Phelan had strong support from the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, which had previously thrown its support behind Thompson, who is Black.
Dallas’ two GOP representatives, Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button, were also on the list.
The next speaker will face a tough battle to unite a House that’s politically divided, even among Republicans. Phelan said he convinced a majority of the House to vote for him based on trust.
“It’s about being an honest broker, it’s about calling balls and strikes,” he said. “It’s not about politics, not about vote records, it’s not about policy. It’s not about where you’re from. It’s about trust.”
“The majority of this list right here that we continue to grow, they trust me.”
‘We will come together’
In laying out his vision for the House, Phelan hearkened back to his first days in the state Capitol, where he worked as a staffer to Democratic State Rep. Mark Stiles in 1994.
“I love this institution. I love the Texas House of Representatives and we’re going to maintain this integrity, and bipartisan work ethic, and we will come together, to face the budget deficit, COVID-19 [and] redistricting, next session,” he said. “That’s my promise.”
He said he had not been able to discuss top priorities with other lawmakers but would have those conversations moving forward. He said the session will be focused on recovering from COVID-19 and handling the state’s projected $4.5 billion budget deficit.
It will also be a logistic challenge, he said, because of the infectious nature of the disease, but lawmakers are discussing ways to have as much public input and press access as possible.
Phelan, a Catholic, gained a reputation at the Legislature as a “gentleman” who let witnesses speak in his committee even during marathon hearings over controversial legislation. Last session he was the House’s lead author for the Hurricane Harvey relief package that sent $1.7 billion of the state’s rainy day fund to areas affected by the storm, including his hometown.
Phelan has considerable experience in water management after being appointed to the Lower Neches Valley Authority by former Gov. Rick Perry.
Morrison also had experience with state government before being elected to office. She worked on Gov. George W. Bush’s staff as executive director of the Governor’s Commission for Women and was appointed by Bush to the Texas Commission for Volunteerism and Community Service and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission.
Democrats lost big in their effort to flip the Texas House on Tuesday. They targeted more than two dozen races with a goal of flipping nine net seats. While some races were still not finalized, the partisanship split of the chamber remained 83-67, the same as before the election.
One of the races still up in the air is House District 112 in northeast Dallas County, where GOP incumbent Angie Chen Button was leading Democrat Brandy K. Chambers by 223 votes. Chambers said the race is too close to call and urged supporters to be patient as the vote counting proceeds.
Mail ballots postmarked Nov. 3 that are sent from within the country and were received by Wednesday at 5 p.m. must be counted. Military and overseas ballots have until Monday, Nov. 9, to be counted.