State Rep. Shelby Slawson says she’s running for House speaker in letter condemning Phelan

State Rep. Shelby Slawson, R-Stephenville, moves to final passage her bill that would ban abortion procedures at six weeks among other strict limitations, on May 6, 2021. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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State Rep. Shelby Slawson announced Thursday she is running for Texas House speaker, becoming the second member to challenge the chamber’s current leader, Dade Phelan, for control of the gavel.

Slawson, R-Stephenville, launched her candidacy in a letter to fellow House Republicans, telling them she began last year’s session as a supporter of Phelan, only to grow disillusioned by what she described as his "tight-fisted, top-down leadership." She slammed Phelan's inner circle as an "arrogant leadership cadre" and said they had run the House in a way that “continually overshadows our wins and puts us at odds with our grassroots supporters, other electeds, and our own members.”

“Our reform-minded members outnumber the status-quo supporters, and our ranks have grown with new energy this election cycle,” Slawson wrote. “We are collectively up to the task of decentralizing the power structure in the House and wholly changing the culture that throttles us instead of empowers us.”

The announcement came two days after Phelan, R-Beaumont, narrowly survived a runoff challenge from the GOP’s hard right, led by his top two political rivals, ​​Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton. Phelan told supporters Tuesday evening he intended to seek another term as speaker when the House reconvenes next January.

Some of Phelan’s GOP allies remained defiant in support of the speaker following his runoff win. His political foes noted that this year’s record wave of House GOP incumbent defeats — 15 in all — had cost Phelan a chunk of his support within the chamber.

Slawson, a 47-year-old attorney, is in her second term serving in the lower chamber. She joins state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, who was the first to announce a challenge to Phelan. Oliverson, also a former Phelan ally, responded positively to Slawson’s announcement.

“I welcome another reformer into the race for Speaker of the Texas House and applaud [Slawson] for her honest appraisal of the status quo, and optimism for the future,” Oliverson posted on social media. “The movement is growing!”

Slawson ranks among the House’s most conservative members. She is perhaps best known as the lead sponsor of Texas’ 2021 law, known colloquially as the “heartbeat bill,” that banned most abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy, before many patients know they are pregnant. It also opened the door for almost any private citizen to sue abortion providers.

The bill, enacted before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, banned the procedure once an ultrasound could detect what lawmakers defined as a fetal “heartbeat” — a term medical and legal experts say is misleading because embryos don’t possess a heart at that developmental stage.

Slawson was one of 23 House Republicans who voted against Paxton's impeachment — distinguishing her from Oliverson, who missed the vote, and Phelan, who backed the effort. The move has caused Phelan more heartburn than any other over the last year, making him a top target of Paxton and his allies, including former President Donald Trump.

Slawson also is a proponent of private school vouchers, having voted against an amendment last fall that stripped a voucher program from a broader education funding bill. She is one of 20 House Republicans who last year voted against impeachment and for school vouchers; of the 17 who sought reelection, all won their primaries.

In her letter to House GOP colleagues, Slawson contended that Phelan had put House Republicans “in the position of facing our voters and defending various indefensible leadership mistakes,” singling out “the debacle of impeachment” as the main example. She argued that impeachment had overshadowed “all our many wins” on conservative policy in the eyes of the GOP grassroots, and slammed Phelan for downplaying the issue.

“Insistence by the Speaker and his closest supporters that impeachment was a non-issue in elections, and/or is in the past and should be ignored, is self-serving and dangerous posturing that promises continued electoral warfare for its adherents,” Slawson wrote.

A spokesperson for Phelan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Slawson also committed in her letter to a slate of reforms pushed by Phelan’s critics, vowing to seek the needed 76 votes to secure the gavel “only through Republican support.” She also voiced support for ending the practice of appointing Democrats to chair some House committees and establishing an “effective workflow to secure our Republican priorities early in Session.” Oliverson has promoted the same set of changes.

Phelan, now in his second term as speaker, was easily reelected as House leader in January 2023, with all Democrats and almost all Republicans in support. Conservative rumblings of dissatisfaction had amounted to a paltry six votes for Phelan’s conservative challenger in a prior closed-door vote.

But Phelan’s support for impeachment stirred months of sustained backlash from Paxton and the conservative grassroots, causing Phelan’s popularity to plummet among the GOP’s most conservative wing, which includes most ​​party activists and wields an outsize influence in Texas’ low-turnout primaries.

Attacked by his enemies as a RINO, Phelan is also widely considered more conservative than his predecessors. He has secured passage of laws allowing the permitless carry of handguns, restricting transgender rights and testing the boundaries of Texas’ role in immigration law enforcement.

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