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 that “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 Beaumont-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.

Oliverson said he decided to announce for speaker after seeing the “dramatic change” in the first round of the primaries.

“It sort of answered the last question in my mind, which was, did leadership know something I didn’t know?” he said. “When we saw what we saw, it became clear to me that the status quo is too dysfunctional to continue, and that change from top to bottom was needed.”

Democratic Chairs

The debate over Democratic chairs emerged as a major flashpoint in the primary, evolving from a pet issue of a small but vocal minority to a mainstay item in hardline candidates’ stump speeches.

Some candidates sided with Phelan in defending the tradition. State Rep. John Kuempel argued at a candidate forum earlier this year that Democratic chairs “aren’t a thing. They exist, but they do not disrupt the flow of conservative legislation.” Kuempel, R-Seguin, was forced into a runoff against challenger Alan Schoolcraft, a former state lawmaker.

The issue served as a sort of litmus test of Phelan’s speakership, with some of the speaker’s most ardent critics speaking out against the practice. But some of Phelan’s House allies demurred when asked directly if they would support him for another term with the gavel.

Oliverson said he has a track record of “extreme bipartisanship,” though he said he would also push to ensure that the next speaker is elected solely by Republicans, rather than a two-party coalition that selects a more moderate leader. Speaker Joe Straus, last elected in 2017, used this method to remain in power — though some Republicans viewed it as a betrayal of conservative voters.

Democrats have been in the House minority for 22 years, unable to pass bills on their own, but they are not entirely powerless. Establishing a quorum, passing the state budget and proposing constitutional amendments all require a two-thirds majority, which Republicans do not possess.

Trying to further diminish the influence of Democrats — prompting them to retaliate by withholding support for any of the above — risks injecting the kind of partisan dysfunction into the Texas House that plagues the federal Congress.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, was quick to pounce on Oliverson’s comments.

“As Rep. Oliverson takes his campaign to the body, I look forward to debating him on his new-found hate for bipartisanship in the House—name the time and place,” said Fischer, the House Democratic leader. “Bottom line is that the Texas House is, and always will be, a deliberative body that employs the talents of all people from all walks of life. The People’s house doesn’t belong to any one party—it belongs to those who want to make a difference.”

Phelan’s first challenger

Jockeying for the speaker’s gavel has been going on behind the scenes since the primary results were tallied two weeks ago. Oliverson is merely the first candidate to go public with his intentions. That he did it before Phelan has officially been defeated — and 10 months before the House will convene to elect the next speaker — suggests he believes he can quickly consolidate support among the 150 House members who select the speaker.

Covey and a handful of GOP nominees who knocked off Phelan’s House allies attended the announcement, including Mitch Little, the former Paxton impeachment defense attorney who unseated state Rep. Kronda Thimesch of Lewisville, and Hillary Hickland, who defeated state Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple. Also in attendance was Wes Virdell, who won the seat vacated by state Rep. Andrew Murr of Junction, who led the impeachment effort in the House.

Republican state Sens. Bob Hall of Edgewood, and Kevin Sparks of Midland also looked on.

Oliverson was unopposed in his own Republican primary, and will face Democrat Brett Robinson, a progressive graduate student at the University of Houston, in the November election. The northwest Harris County district is reliably conservative, so Oliverson is likely to win.

Among Republicans in the House, Oliverson is viewed as a reliably conservative, genial, hardworking member who brings unique expertise as a medical professional. House leadership leaned on these traits last year when they put forth Oliverson as the face of Senate Bill 14, which banned gender-transitioning care for transgender minors.

In floor debates on a topic that can easily become emotionally charged, Oliverson maintained the countenance of a doctor explaining something to a patient, avoiding the bombast that can make Republicans vulnerable to accusations of bigotry.

He did not emerge entirely unscathed from the debate, however, drawing flak from the right for supporting an initial proposal to exempt children who were already receiving puberty blockers and hormone therapies. Though Oliverson argued that the science was unsettled on “the effects of rapidly withdrawing these medications from a patient,” the exemption was ultimately stripped.

He is also a vocal supporter of private school vouchers, aligning with Gov. Greg Abbott and a majority of House Republicans on the other top issue that has divided the Texas GOP. He said as speaker he would be committed to shepherding a voucher bill through the House.

Phelan did not cast a vote on vouchers, but has been attacked by some pro-voucher Republicans for not doing enough to get the legislation passed. He previously told The Texas Tribune he would have supported a scaled-back version of a voucher program. Oliverson said the bloodbath for House incumbents in the primary was the speaker’s fault for not being a leader on the issue.

“​​I believe leadership missed an opportunity to protect members by allowing that bill to fail,” said Oliverson, who serves as vice chair of the Texas House Republican Caucus and briefly led the group when it was between chairs in 2022.

Oliverson helped Phelan secure the gavel in late 2019 as one of 83 lawmakers who initially backed the Beaumont Republican’s speakership bid. He donated $10,000 to Phelan’s campaign in early February.