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Even after quorum breaks, GOP House Speaker says he won’t campaign against Dem House members

In interview, Dade Phelan says he wants to try to mend fences between Republicans and Democrats after tense special sessions, upcoming redistricting battles.

By Allie Morris and Gromer Jeffers Jr.

House Speaker Dade Phelan
House Speaker Dade Phelan stands at the dais in the House chamber of the Texas Capitol in Austin on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. / (Juan Figueroa/ The Dallas Morning News)

AUSTIN — Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan won’t campaign against his Democratic colleagues in the 2022 election, saying it would only inflame tensions in a chamber still divided over a weeks-long summer stalemate.

“I will absolutely not get involved running against incumbent members of the House,” the first term speaker told The Dallas Morning News on Friday. “I don’t think that helps decorum in the House. I don’t think it helps us having a good working environment.”

But while Phelan indicated a desire to mend relations, he also expressed an openness to reviving a transgender sports bill House Democrats killed in the special session that ended Thursday.

Lawmakers will meet again this fall to begin redistricting. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is already lobbying to reconsider the bill that would restrict transgender student athletes from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity.

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“It’s something that I think a lot of members want to debate, there’s no doubt about it, on the House floor,” Phelan said. “I personally don’t want to see boys competing against girls in sports, it’s not something I think is fair. But it’s going to be what the House wants to do… My main concern going into this next special session is redistricting.”

In an interview with The News, Phelan addressed the climate in the Texas House, fractured by three quorum breaks by Democrats over the GOP elections bill and frustrated Republicans seeking punishment of the runaways.

After the hard-fought legislative session, the atmosphere is only expected to intensify when lawmakers return in the coming weeks to redraw the state and congressional district boundaries.

In next year’s election, all 150 House members will have to run in the freshly drawn districts, some with unfamiliar constituents. The 2022 contest gives Republicans an opportunity to expand their majority in the House, particularly if they target sitting Democrats.

Phelan, who plans to run again for House speaker, pushed off the notion that he would take part.

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“There are plenty of groups in this world that fill the role of electioneering and recruiting candidates and supporting those candidates where the speaker of the House does not need to get involved in that,” he said.

“If I’m getting involved it’s going to be an open seat. I’m not going after incumbents and I hope that remains the case for my colleagues across the aisle,” he said.

Phelan’s predecessor made a similar pledge in 2019 and warned of consequences for members who went after each other in elections. Ultimately, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen retired after the emergence of a secret recording that revealed he discussed targeting 10 Republicans for defeat with Empower Texans leader Michael Quinn Sullivan, among other things.

It remains to be seen whether other House members will follow Phelan’s lead. The House speaker said he’s talked with some Democratic colleagues about how they need to stay out of Republican races as well.

In the 2020 election, Democrats spent millions of dollars on a push to win control of the Texas House by targeting vulnerable Republicans, including several in the Dallas area. Ultimately, they came up short and made no dent in House Republicans’ 83-67 majority split.

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The House Democratic Campaign Committee’s priority is protecting incumbents and recruiting candidates to run for open seats next year, said Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Farmers Branch.

“Incumbent protection is our number one priority in the redistricting year. That’s really where our focus is,” she said. “We know Republicans are going to do everything they can to minimize Democratic opportunities in redistricting.”

The partisan redistricting process could further fray relations between House Republicans and Democrats.

When a majority of House Democrats fled the Capitol on July 12 to protest the GOP elections bill, the chamber didn’t have enough members to conduct business. Even so, Republican legislators spent their summer in Austin, at one point OK’ing law enforcement to hunt down absent Democrats and bring them back. None was ever apprehended. Democrats gave up their quorum-break in mid-August.

Then, Republicans pushed through much of their agenda in the final two weeks of the special session, including bills to further restrict abortion, overhaul the bail bond system and spend an extra $1.8 billion on border security.

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Phelan is confident time will restore good relations in the House.

“Relationships heal, but it’s a two-way street,” he said. “Everyone has to want them to heal and I think they do.”

Allie Morris, Austin Bureau Correspondent. Allie has covered Texas politics for two years and written about everything from tax policy to child protection. She previously worked for the San Antonio Express-News and in New Hampshire, as the statehouse reporter for the Concord Monitor.

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