Rep. John Smithee emerges as House hero among Paxton supporters, floated for speaker

State Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, discusses a bill on Aug. 8, 2017. This month, he's being floated by Paxton allies as a potential House speaker candidate. (Bob Daemmrich For The Texas Tribune, Bob Daemmrich For The Texas Tribune)

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When Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick delivered his blistering speech at the end of Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial criticizing the House’s process for bringing the charges, he mentioned one name six times.

John Smithee.

Patrick, who served as judge in the trial, extolled the long-serving Republican state representative from Amarillo as he otherwise bashed the House for how it impeached the attorney general in May. Smithee vigorously opposed Paxton’s impeachment at the time, giving a speech from the floor that argued the case was based upon “triple hearsay.”

“I think Rep. Smithee’s speech was one of the most honest and courageous speeches I have ever heard in the House,” Patrick concluded.

Now, Smithee finds himself in a bigger spotlight as Republicans in the Legislature weigh a path forward after the divisive impeachment battle. Some of Paxton’s allies are touting Smithee as a House speaker candidate, as the current speaker, Dade Phelan, faces calls from the most conservative flank of the party to resign.

“It was totally unexpected,” Smithee said in an interview Tuesday. “I had no idea Gov. Patrick would do that.”

Smithee added he nonetheless appreciated Patrick’s speech and was especially glad about its timing — at the immediate conclusion of the trial — so it could be part of the court record. Patrick has made that point repeatedly amid criticism the speech portrayed him as biased.

Smithee said he was “really impressed” with how the Senate conducted the trial, and as for the outcome, he said he had “a lot of confidence” in the senators’ judgment.

One of the most senior members of the House, Smithee, an attorney, has served since 1985. He represents Texas House District 86, a solidly red area in the Texas Panhandle.

Smithee is an unlikely ally for Paxton’s allies on the far right. He ranked as the 63rd most conservative member in one analysis from the regular session. And he drew a primary challenger even after his attention-grabbing speech against Paxton’s impeachment.

He is also among the rural Republicans who previously voted in opposition to school vouchers, a pet issue of the lieutenant governor. Smithee has since indicated more openness to the proposal.

Smithee ended up as one of 23 out of 85 Republicans who voted against Paxton’s impeachment in the House, but his speech made him the face of the opposition. He said he knew was effectively going against Phelan, but it was not personal.

“I’ve been there a long time,” Smithee said. “I’ve learned if there’s something you need to say and you don’t say it, you regret it later on.”

Smithee’s speech was among the most memorable on the day the House impeached Paxton. For nearly 20 minutes, Smithee criticized the House impeachment process as opaque, rushed and unfair to the accused. He was especially critical of the decision to have only House investigators testify under oath what they learned from witnesses, calling it “hearsay within hearsay within hearsay.” The House has defended that as normal procedure where people who report crimes are not expected to be placed under oath to do so.

“I’m aware that there are certain members … who want to get rid of General Paxton for whatever reason in the worst possible way,” Smithee said. “I’m here to tell you what we are doing is the worst possible way.”

The Senate ultimately acquitted Paxton of all 16 impeachment articles that it took up in the trial. The articles alleged he misused his office to help his friend and donor Nate Paul harass and investigate his enemies.

Patrick has continued to praise Smithee in a media blitz since the trial. He more recently referenced Smithee in a long tweet Friday that ended by saying Phelan is “unworthy of his leadership position” — the farthest Patrick has ever gone in calling for a new speaker. The next day, the State Republican Executive Committee, the governing body of the Texas GOP, almost unanimously passed a resolution calling for Phelan’s resignation.

The SREC resolution said that if Phelan does not resign before the upcoming special session, members should "vote to vacate the chair" and effectively overthrow him. That requires at least 76 votes and is very unlikely to happen.

By Sunday, two Phelan antagonists in the House — Reps. Steve Toth of The Woodlands and Tony Tinderholt of Arlington — were openly encouraging Smithee to run for speaker.

The next speaker election is far off. It would take place at the start of the 2025 regular session, and the GOP caucus would likely coalesce behind a nominee in the weeks before.

Asked about running for speaker, Smithee noted he has a primary opponent and said his “sole focus is one step at a time.”

“I’m not really looking beyond just the primary,” Smithee said, adding that he “hasn’t done anything to promote” a possible speaker run.

Phelan’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But he quietly filed to run for speaker again in February and has not shown any signs of bowing to the pressure to step down after the Paxton verdict.

Smithee’s primary opponent is Jamie Haynes, an Amarillo real estate agent who has become a prominent activist for “parental rights.” She launched her campaign in late June and did not mention Smithee but called for “representatives who will fight for our Texas conservative values in Austin.”

She did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

But Haynes’ focus on “parental rights” could loom as lawmakers prepare for an October special session on Gov. Greg Abbott’s push for “school choice,” or letting parents use taxpayer dollars to take their kids out of public schools. Smithee voted for a budget amendment opposing such programs in 2021 but voted against a similar amendment earlier this year.

“I think it needs to be discussed, and so I’m glad it’s going to come up in the context of a special session,” Smithee said. “I’ll be surprised if a bill doesn’t pass in the special session when you’ve got the governor pushing it this hard.”

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