88th LegislatureRep. Tinderholt Takes Stock of Speakership Challenge, Unsuccessful Effort to Ban Democratic Chairs

The challenger gained only one vote from the two that voted against Phelan two years ago, but drummed up quite the public notice.
January 19, 2023
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Applause and cheers from the flood of GOP activists in the Texas House gallery was the only tangible reward for state Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) after his longshot challenge to Rep. Dade Phelan’s (R-Beaumont) speakership.

Last week began with a Phelan victory in a floor vote — out of 150 votes Tinderholt received three, one more than voted against Phelan’s first election in 2021 — and ended with a frenzy of engagement with the hundreds of activists who made their way to Austin.

In the middle, an intense fight over the appointment of Democratic committee chairs concluded with no record vote, derailed by a cleverly crafted and summarily reviled parliamentary maneuver.

Silly,” “despicable,” and “steamrolled,” were among the words Tinderholt used to describe it in an interview with The Texan.

Despite that, Tinderholt called his challenge “successful, 100 percent.”

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What many members of the Texas House will tell you is that this is an intra-House issue, but we brought it outside the House — we brought voters to the speaker’s fight,” he added.

The issue became the feature of the race for House speaker, and in many respects, the pined-for votes on banning Democratic chairs were considered proxy votes on the speakership itself.

The Runway

It’s important to challenge broken systems,” Tinderholt said. 

The Arlington Republican has been in the House since 2015. He was among the original members of the conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, which he left before the 2021 session.

That session, he voted for Phelan as speaker in the unopposed contest; the only two nays in the vote were from freshmen state Reps. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) and Jeff Cason (R-Bedford), the latter of whom is no longer in the Legislature.

But as the 88th Legislature approached, Tinderholt decided the speaker needed some competition and jumped in the race — encouraged by a roused wing of the Republican Party angry with Phelan for appointing Democratic members as committee chairs. It became such a hot topic that the rule change made it on the Texas GOP convention’s legislative priority list usually reserved for actual policy items.

That list was compiled by the 10,000 delegates to the Texas GOP Convention. The item also passed with 81 percent of support on the May primary ballot as a proposition — a statement of general support or opposition by members of the primary electorate.

Passing the eight GOP legislative priorities was the main plank of Tinderholt’s candidacy. But given that Democratic chair appointments and the rules fight therein both precede the policy phase of the session and may affect its outcome, a prospective ban on that practice received more attention and immediate priority than everything else.

Democratic committee chairs do kill legislative items on the Texas GOP list, in the past and possibly in the future. Last session, now-Sen. Mayes Middleton’s (R-Galveston) school choice bill languished in the House Public Education Committee chaired by state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston).

But the other three GOP legislative priorities that did not pass in some fashion during the 87th Legislature went through Republican-chaired committees: a child gender modification ban, monument protection, and a taxpayer-funded lobbying ban.

On the flip side, the Legislature last session passed permitless carry, religious freedom protections, the Texas Heartbeat Act, and the abortion “trigger ban” — which effectively became the abolition of abortion, a GOP priority, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. Election reform then passed in a delayed manner after not one, but two quorum busts by House Democrats — some of whom were committee chairs.

This session, a new slate of eight priorities are on the table, some of which take on previous issues from a different angle. That list was passed at the GOP convention before the landmark abortion ruling and another in August concerning adults under 21 carrying handguns.

Pointing to that list, Tinderholt said, “Out of the thousand bills we’ll pass, how difficult is it for 149 members plus the speaker to sprinkle in eight that helped us get elected? Eight that the people that vote for us say they want?”

Phelan frequently defended the practice of Democratic committee chair appointments, often comparing them to Congress’s single-party appointments and that body’s travails.

Words of caution,” the speaker said in his victory speech on Tuesday last week addressing the freshmen lawmakers, “please do not confuse this body with the one in Washington, D.C. After watching Congress attempt to function last week, I cannot imagine why some want Texas to be like D.C.”

During his brief challenge to Phelan, Tinderholt said members with whom he spoke were often fearful of retribution by leadership if they supported the challenger or the ban on Democratic chairs.

There’s three reasons my colleagues didn’t want to take the Democratic chair vote: they don’t want to make the speaker mad, they don’t want to make the Democrats mad [and risk another quorum break], or they don’t believe in the issue and the party activists setting priorities,” he said.

There is a long-standing divide within the Republican Party of Texas over its role in the legislative process — whether it has a role to play in lawmaking, or if its focus should solely be on electoral functions.

Tinderholt said that he had a conversation with an “area leader” — a GOP precinct chair that organizes all the others in his “area” — who tried to relay the group’s support for Tinderholt to their state representative.

The unnamed representative, Tinderholt said, told that activist, “I don’t need the state party. I don’t need the county party. I don’t care about the precinct chairs and you as an area leader. I have thousands of dollars in my account and will win with or without you. We create the priorities of the Capitol as state representatives. The party doesn’t do that.”

That philosophical disagreement, along with the numbers game that is the speakership race, set the table for a stint of pandemonium when the body convened to handle its first business.

Two Frenzied Days

It was the worst-kept secret in Capitol circles last week that the Texas GOP and various groups from across the state planned on busing in hundreds of activists to populate the House gallery on Thursday — the day on which many, including members, thought the rules debate would be scheduled.

But near the end of Tuesday, the speaker’s office announced both the housekeeping and rules resolutions would be considered the following day. Since then, the speaker has been accused of deliberately choosing Wednesday over Thursday for those deliberations.

To allege the Speaker ‘moved’ the rules vote is disingenuous and downright deceitful,” Cait Wittman, communications director for Speaker Phelan, told The Texan in a statement.

The rules vote was never scheduled for Thursday. In fact, it couldn’t be scheduled at all until the Speaker was elected on Tuesday. Someone made a bad assumption regarding the House’s work schedule and scheduled their Capitol visit for the wrong day — that’s no one’s fault but their own.”

The events on the floor took on a twist when state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) arrived at the back microphone and called a point of order against the first amendment to ban Democratic chairs, alleging it violated a new provision in the just-passed housekeeping resolution which forbade chamber resources from being used for “political purposes.”

The chair, Phelan, ruled in favor of the point of order, killing that amendment and a subsequent one that would have restricted Democratic chairmanship from certain, high-importance committees.

During the floor pandemonium, Tinderholt and Slaton could be seen pacing up and down the main aisleway talking on their cell phones, trying to figure out a parliamentary response to the ruling. At one point, Tinderholt announced a list of six members, himself included, to challenge the ruling of the chair — four shy of the necessary 10. By the time the second amendment came around, perishing by the same ruling, the list had not grown any further.

The majority of Republicans rolled over and I think people forget who they work for,” Tinderholt said of the ruling, thanking the ones who signed onto his list, and also thanking freshman Rep. Terri Leo-Wilson (R-Galveston) who did not in time.

Tinderholt said he didn’t foresee that housekeeping resolution provision being used to kill the amendments. At the Thursday press conference in front of the activists, state Rep. Richard Hayes (R-Denton) — who voted for Phelan but was one of the members who signed on to challenge the chair’s ruling — said, “What we learned from this is that we have to pre-meet the meeting…and figure out our contingencies.”

We were in the fight and we got out-fought and so I’m going to take some personal responsibility for that, and I think the other members should take some personal responsibility for that.”

Tinderholt said he agreed with some of Hayes’ assessment and disagreed with other portions, adding that the past cannot be dwelled upon.

But assessing the state of the House, Tinderholt again didn’t mince words, opining, “This big friend fest that happens on the floor where they’re all high-fiving each other and being friends is more important to a lot of members than their real job of representing the people that were in the gallery today, and the 200,000 people at home.”

One physical achievement of Tinderholt’s challenge was a federal judge invalidating a provision of Texas election code that prohibited individual and political action committee spending in a speakership race — a suit that would have had no basis had Tinderholt not been in the race.

His sight now moves toward the remaining seven GOP priorities. Moving forward, Tinderholt stressed he wants to work with everyone, Republicans and Democrats alike.

Even so, the issue that inflamed the 2023 speakership race shows no sign of going away.

Phelan said that committee request cards were sent out on Friday — let the shot clock begin toward committee assignments and the actual legislating of the 88th Legislature.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.