The voting won’t take place until Jan. 8, 2019, but State Rep. Phil King of Weatherford, the first announced candidate to be the next Texas House speaker, is already running as though the election is just around the corner.
In seeking to prevail over what is likely to be a substantial list of contenders to replace outgoing Speaker Joe Straus, the 61-year-old Republican lawmaker makes it clear that he plans to leave nothing to chance in a race that will ultimately be decided on the first day of the 2019 Legislature, when House members choose a new leader.
“I can tell you this: That no one will work harder the next year to be elected speaker than I will,” King said in a recent interview from his office on the first floor of the State Capitol. “I’m in it for the long run.”
King announced his candidacy on Sept. 22, assuming that he would be challenging Straus, the five-term Republican speaker with whom King had become increasingly critical. But the dynamics of the contest changed overnight just over a week ago, on Oct. 25, when Straus announced that he would not be seeking re-election to his San Antonio House district.
As a result, the State Capitol is facing a wide-open speaker’s race that threatens to further intensify the political and philosophical divisions already roiling the Republican-controlled House.
Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a member of the Straus leadership team, announced his candidacy the day of Straus’ resignation. Other potential contenders are increasingly signaling their interest in leading the 150-member chamber.
The position is powerful and known as one of the “big three,” along with lieutenant governor and governor.
“The speaker has his finger in virtually every element of Texas politics,” said TCU political science professor Jim Riddlesperger, calling the Texas speaker a “really, really powerful position."
Riddlesperger said the speaker has “life and death power” to determine the flow of legislation and appoints committees and committee chairmen at the outset of every session, which effectively determines whether members will be in a position of influence in behalf of their districts or relegated to the equivalent of a legislative Siberia on an obscure committee.
The speaker also co-chairs the Legislative Budget Board that serves as the starting point for writing the biennial budget, the Legislature’s only mandated duty.
King’s pursuit of the speakership constitutes his loftiest challenge in an ascent that has taken him from tracking gangs as a police officer in some of Fort Worth’s toughest neighborhoods, up the ranks as a young police captain, and into the State House as an 18-year representative for Parker and Wise counties. His name adorns a successful 10-attorney law practice, Eggleston King LLP, with offices in Weatherford and Fort Worth.
The speaker has his finger in virtually every element of Texas politics.
TCU political science professor Jim Riddlesperger
Hoping to capitalize on his first-of-the-pack entry into the speaker’s race, King has spent the past six weeks since his announcement in a high energy effort to get the jump on potential rivals. He’s logged hundreds of miles in his Nissan Murano for one-on-one meetings with fellow House members and has reached out to others in phone calls. He launched a “Phil King for Texas Speaker” website last week to introduce himself statewide and promote his platform for reforming the speakership from the Straus era.
His goal, he says, is to meet with every member of the House as quickly as he can.
“I’m trying to spend a lot of time with members, just talking through what my vision is for changing the way the House operates,” he said.
‘Smack dab in the middle’
Elected to the House in 1998, King identifies himself as a Reagan Republican who is essentially at the philosophical center of the 95-member Republican majority in the House.
“Ideologically, he’s pretty much smack dab in the middle of the Republican Party,’’ says Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, who does a biennial analysis based on members’ voting records.
Although King has held two chairmanships under Straus over the past three years, he was one of 15 members who voted against Straus’ second-term re-election in 2011 and has had his differences with Straus over the speaker’s leadership style. But he is not part of the insurgent Texas Freedom Caucus, whose 12 Tea Party-backed members, including four from Tarrant County, have defiantly challenged the speaker on a multitude of fronts.
With over a year before the winner is decided, virtually no one is willing to handicap the ultimate outcome, and many members appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach before openly lining up behind favorites.
The various factions that comprise the House — including Tea Party conservatives, business-oriented establishment Republicans supportive of Straus, and minority Democrats who could help forge a victorious coalition — all have their own litmus tests for the person they want to see in the speaker’s chair. The ultimate winner could be the candidate who can best straddle those differences.
At this early stage of the race, the only two announced candidates — King and Zerwas — both pledge a gentlemanly contest, reflecting their personal friendship and a close working relationship that saw them team up in the 2017 session to reduce handgun licensing fees.
“I view him as a colleague and somebody who I think has attributes that would be very good in a speaker, and I think he feels the same about me,” Zerwas said of King in a recent telephone interview.
But the race could get ugly as others climb in and disparate factions in the House look for the candidate most in tune with their philosophical leanings. Members who have reportedly signaled their interest in the race include Republicans Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi, Four Price of Amarillo and Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, and Democratic Rep. Eric Johnson of Dallas.
Among those who say they won’t be running is one of Straus’ top lieutenants, Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who was one of 11 key Republicans who helped propel Straus into the speaker’s office in 2009 to replace embattled incumbent Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, now the dean of the House.
Geren is seeking re-election to his 10th two-year House term but says he will not run for the speakership. He declines to comment on the speaker’s race as well as King’s candidacy.
In his bid to become the third Republican House speaker since Reconstruction, King may have to prove himself to Tea Party skeptics who question if the Straus-appointed committee chairman will be aggressive enough in fully deconstructing the Straus legacy.
Asked about his relationship with the Freedom Caucus, King replies: “I try real hard to get along with everybody … My hope is that I’ve got the confidence of a majority of the members.”
King espouses many of the same philosophical principles as Tea Party members. He voted in favor of a “sanctuary cities” law authorizing officers to question detainees about their immigration status and was the House co-author of an unsuccessful “bathroom bill” to prohibit local ordinances allowing transgender citizens to use public bathrooms that match their gender identity.
King’s legislative successes in the 2017 Legislature included passage of a revised voter ID law to conform with an appeals court mandate and legislation prohibiting the state government from doing business with any company that economically boycotts Israel.
He also successfully amended a new annexation law to permit counties under 500,000, including Parker and Wise, to prohibit forced municipal annexations within a county.
As chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, King was at the center of a contentious battle over a “constitutional carry” proposal to allow the carrying of firearms without a permit. The committee ultimately approved a more restrictive compromise version that eased licensing requirements, but the measure died in the House.
‘He’d make great speaker’
Friendly and approachable, King ranks 17th in seniority in the 150-member House and often works closely with Gov. Greg Abbott, who tapped him to author a new law creating a commission to come up with a new plan to reform the state’s deeply flawed school finance system.
King also co-authored all of the governor’s bills in the special session that Abbott called in an attempt to resurrect conservative priorities that foundered in the 140-day regular session.
Longtime supporters who have watched King’s rise say he is a perfect fit to assume the reins of leadership.
“I think he’d make a great speaker,” said David Barton, head of the Aledo-based WallBuilders, a national pro-family organization. In the late 1990s, Barton, who was then vice-chairman of the Texas Republican Party, helped recruit the Weatherford attorney to run for the 61st District legislative seat that King subsequently reclaimed through nine re-elections, never with less than 65 percent of the vote.
“Philosophically, of course, he’s going to align as a conservative,” said Barton. “I like him because he’s not a polarizing figure, everyone works well with him, and he really is good at following the rules and not twisting the rules to get what he wants.”
The son of an Air Force pilot with whom he later practiced law, King was 4 years old when his family moved to Fort Worth. He grew up in Handley and attended Eastern Hills High School, participating in the school rodeo team.
A month after graduating in 1974, at the age of 18, he became a Fort Worth police cadet as part of a since discontinued program that provided a college education while grooming recruits to become full-fledged police officers after they turned 21.
After ending a cadet phase of directing traffic and writing parking tickets, King broke in as a rookie patrolman on the city’s north side in the beginning of a 15-year stint with the police department.
King met his future wife of 38 years, Terry Herweg, during his early years on the force and would occasionally “sneak by her home” while he was making the rounds. As a street cop, King was assigned to various parts of town, and served on special details to confront the growing threat of gangs in the early 1980s.
He recounts arriving at separate incidents after two officers were shot, one fatally. “That’s always a difficult thing, a friend lying on the ground,” he said.
Dave Manning, a longtime friend and fellow officer who later became president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, recalls reaching the scene of a “really bad accident on a cold icy night” to find King applying respiration to a driver whom he had pulled from a wrecked vehicle. Although it was clear that the man had died, said Manning, King continued to try to revive him even though it had become hopeless.
“You learn to respect a guy who would go as long and hard as he did trying to save him,” said Manning, who had been a classmate of King’s at Eastern Hills and followed him into the police cadet program.
Well respected within the department, King became a captain in his early 30s, assigned to command the division that covered east Fort Worth. Then-Chief Thomas Windham also appointed King as the department’s legislative affairs liaison, dispatching him to Austin for the legislative sessions of 1987 and 1989 in what constituted King’s first encounter with lawmakers.
Looking back on his years in law enforcement, King says he much preferred his time on the streets to the less adrenalin-filled roles in administration. “I really loved being a street cop, and I still miss it,” he says.
‘Exercising too much influence’
King left the police department when he was 33 to run for justice of the peace in Parker County. He began making 104-mile round trips from Weatherford to Dallas to attend night law school, eventually getting his degree from what would become Texas Weslyan (now Texas A&M) law school in Fort Worth.
King had just started his Weatherford law practice and was finishing his second term as a JP, essentially a part-time post, when Barton and the executive director of the Texas Republican Party came to his office to urge him to a run for the legislative seat being vacated by incumbent Ric Williamson, who had announced his retirement.
His first reaction was no, but family members encouraged him to make the race. He was unopposed in the 1998 Republican primary and defeated a Democratic opponent in the general election, entering the House in 1999 when Democrats still held the majority under then-Democratic Speaker Pete Laney.
King has escaped serious election challenges in his nearly two decades as the District 61 representative and draws praise from local Republican leaders.
“He’s the type of conservative that makes our state great,” said Parker County Republican Chair Zan Prince. Wise County Chairman Allen Williamson says King has done “an outstanding job” attending to the needs of Wise County even though it has fewer people than Parker.
King said he decided to jump into the race for speaker after becoming increasingly frustrated with Straus’ leadership, cementing his decision just after the legislature’s special session. He said he assumed he would be challenging Straus but is continuing to charge ahead in what is now an open race.
“I felt like the office of speaker was exercising too much influence over the process and that we were drifting quickly away from anything that resembled a member-driven process,” King said.
As part of his platform to redirect power to the members, King wants to limit the speaker and committee chairs to three terms, give members more power to get their bills debated on the floor and expedite committee assignments. He said he also supports a Freedom Caucus-backed initiative to nominate the speaker in the GOP caucus.
The House membership will undergo a facelift by the time lawmakers choose their next leader after next year’s March 6 Democratic and Republican primaries and the Nov. 6 general elections. House members face elections every two years, and a yet-to-be-determined amount of turnover is in store for the 86th Legislature that convenes January of 2019 as a result of retirements and defeats.
“A lot of things can happen between now and next year,” said Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth. ”We don't know who all’s coming back, who the voters are going to be.”