Tom Oliverson to challenge Dade Phelan for Texas House speakership

The announcement comes as Phelan is fighting a runoff primary challenge.

By Sarah AschMarch 22, 2024 12:40 pm,

State Rep. Tom Oliverson on Thursday announced a surprise challenge to Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan as the speaker fights to retain his seat in a May runoff.

Oliverson condemned Phelan’s “dysfunctional” leadership in the House and 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.

Lauren McGaughy, who covers state politics for The Texas Newsroom, said the most surprising thing about the announcement is the timing.

“We haven’t even gotten to the May runoff election,” she said. “So it’s quite early. But the fact that Oliverson himself is throwing his hat in the ring is perhaps unsurprising. He is in Republican leadership, [vice chairman of] the caucus.”

Rep. Tom Oliverson
Photo via Texas House of Representatives

Oliverson was the author of controversial legislation last session to ban gender-affirming care for minors.

“So his star politically has been rising, but he’s considered more of a workhorse than a show horse,” McGaughy said. “Very active legislatively. And so, you know, that that will definitely play into his vision for the speakership.”

McGaughy said Oliverson is pitching himself as someone who will come in and get party priorities through the chamber.

“He thinks that there has been too much – well he didn’t use this word, but faffing around, frankly – too much delay before bills are getting passed,” she said. “He thinks Democrats shouldn’t hold any committee chairmanships in the House at all.

“It’s been common for speakers to name chairs from the opposite party, going back 100 years. But he said that he is going to do away with that practice and Republicans need to start acting like they’re the ones in charge.”

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Oliverson also signaled he would back Gov. Greg Abbott’s school choice plan, which did not make it through the House last year under Phelan’s leadership. However, Oliverson did not explicitly endorse Phelan’s opponent, David Covey, in the upcoming runoff.

“He actually said in his announcement that he thinks that Phelan has been a good member for his district, and that he hopes the voters will take that into account when they go to the polls,” McGaughy said. “Notably, however, Phelan’s challenger, David Covey, was in the audience during that announcement. And so while Oliverson didn’t come out and say, ‘elect this man over Phelan,’ he kind of sidestepped that and was taking a little bit more of a centrist position on it.”

Oliverson’s announcement is the latest development in an ongoing rift in the Texas GOP, McGaughy said.

“I think that Oliverson would say he’s trying to dampen that, he’s trying to put the fighting to an end,” she said. “But by throwing his hat into the ring so quickly, he’s ensuring there will be some kind of a leadership battle. And that’s something we’re going to have to watch, going forward.”

Oliverson also said he plans to campaign publicly for the speakership, which McGaughy said is unusual.

“We’ll probably see more public statements from him, even some kind of traditional campaigning, for speaker, but more out in the open,” she said. “He’s already laid out his mission, his vision. And it’s not just for the legislative mission, but also he wants to fundamentally remake the way that the House does its business, which is pretty major.”

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