Texas State Capitol at night
A photo of the Texas State Capitol at night. (Courtesy photo | commons.wikimedia.org)

AUSTIN — After getting three votes in a futile bid to lead the Texas House of Representatives, Rep. Tony Tinderholt of Arlington is sounding a conciliatory note as he dusts himself off from defeat and resumes his role as a legislative point man for ultra-right conservatives.

“I’m going to try not to burn bridges,” the 52-year-old five-term Republican told the Fort Worth Report in assessing his future in the 88th Legislative session after his failed opening-day challenge of House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who was elected to a second term by 145-3. 

During two interviews looking ahead from his lopsided loss,  Tinderholt also suggested that some of his conservative House allies who voted against him were afraid to buck the speaker.  

His three votes, all Republicans, came from himself, freshman Tarrant County colleague Nate Schatzline and Royse City Rep. Bryan Slaton.   

Tony Tinderholt
Tony Tinderholt

“There’s members that voted for the speaker that I think would have voted differently, but there’s always an unhealthy fear of leadership, no matter what,” he said.  “They’re afraid to vote for someone different out of fear they will lose opportunities. And there were members that aren’t happy with how the speaker leads, but they voted for him. “

Nevertheless, Tinderholt repeatedly stressed that he recognizes and respects the speaker’s authority as leader of the House and will seek ways to find unity on key priorities embraced by the Texas Republican Party, including toughening penalties for election violations, banning abortions, defending gun rights and banning gender modification of children.

“I want to be very clear,” he said. “The speaker is in charge of the Texas House, not me. It’s that simple. People have to respect that. And I don’t agree with some of the things he does. But after an election like that, we have to move forward. We have to try to find common ground for all Republicans to get the Republican priorities accomplished. …And I’m going to keep trying hard to be respectful.”

He also described the speaker as “a nice guy” and “great dad” regardless of their political differences. 

 “I just don’t agree with with him politically, and that’s OK. That is what is supposed to happen in that building. The election happened. He won. He’s the speaker. The race is over.”

Tinderholt says he doesn’t regret his decision to enter the race, but he could nevertheless face repercussions for challenging the speaker, possibly through undesirable committee assignments or lack of progress for legislative priorities.   

“I think any member of the Texas House can stake out any role they’ve wished to,” said Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, a member of the leadership team who chairs the House Republican Caucus that encompasses the chamber’s 86-member Republican majority.  “I question whether or not he thinks challenging a popular incumbent speaker and only getting three votes is the best way to represent his district.”

Tinderholt, entering his fifth two-year term in the House, took office in January 2015 after unseating four-term Republican incumbent Diane Patrick in the party’s primary during the height of the Tea Party insurgency and then winning the General Election with 56 percent of the vote over a Democrat and a Libertarian.  He represents District 94 in Tarrant County, which includes parts of Arlington, Bedford and Euless, all of Hurst, Dalworthington Gardens and Pantego and a sliver of eastern Fort Worth. 

The lawmaker, who served a total of 21 years in both the Air Force and Army, is chairman of the House Veterans Caucus and served on the Committee on Defense and Veterans Affairs and the Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety during the 2021 session. Like all House members, he is subject to reassignment when the speaker issues new committee postings in the coming days.

Despite his pledge to “be respectful,” Tinderholt prompted an angry Twitter reprimand from a Republican colleague when he erroneously told conservative activists at a rally on Thursday that Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, handed over papers to the House parliamentarian that went against their interests in seeking to block Democrats from chairing committees.  

After Tinderholt told the activists that Leach was working against them, Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth corrected that narrative by tweeting that Leach did not furnish the opinions and only asked “to read them and then gave them back.” He added: “Tony is mistaken or is a liar.” 

Leach unleashed an even stronger tweet:  “This is a flat-out lie.  Unreal.”

Tinderholt, acknowledging his error, said in the interview “that it was an absolute mistake.’” He said Geren called to tell him “what really happened”  and Tinderholt promised to correct the error, then quickly called Leach.  “It was a mistake, and I’m making the correction immediately,” he said he told Leach.

The dust-up stemmed from an issue that shadowed the Legislature’s opening days and underscored Tinderholt’s standing with grassroots conservatives who grew out of the Tea Party movement.  Julie McCarty of Grapevine, CEO of the conservative True Texas Project in North Texas, said the Tarrant County lawmaker has “the full support of the grassroots, not just in his district but across the state.”  

Activists who rallied at the State Capitol on Thursday, as well as the state Republican Party leadership,  have insisted that lawmakers ban the appointment of Democrats to chair committees.  Tinderholt, along with several other allies, have led the fight in favor of the ban.    

During a debate over House rules on Wednesday, Tinderholt helped push for an amendment to end the decades-long practice of allowing members of the minority party — which have been Democrats since 2003 — from holding the committee gavel. 

Speaker Phelan ruled the amendment out of order, drawing a sharp pushback from Texas Republican Chairman Matt Rinaldi that the House leader showed “utter contempt for Republican voters” by refusing to allow a vote. 

Meeting with reporters last week, Phelan defended the practice of appointing committee chairs from the minority party as “long-standing tradition” that pre-dated Republican control of the House and said much of the work performed by committees is neither Democrat or Republican but based on the issues.

“A lot of stuff we do in the House is not Republican-Democrat,” and there are committees “that aren’t partisan,” he said. “So I see no reason why I can’t look to some of my Democratic colleagues to lead those committees.”

Although Phelan’s ruling closed that phase of the issue, busloads of activists came to Austin the following day, gathering for a press conference headed by Tinderholt, Schatzline and several other lawmakers fighting against Democratic-led committees.  Tinderholt received the biggest round of applause when his time came to speak.

Maggie Clopton Wright, 77, of Burleson, a Republican activist who attended the gathering from Johnson County, said she regarded Tinderholt as a “hero” because he was willing to challenge the speaker even though it could jeopardize his position in the House.  

“He stuck his neck on the chopping block because he’ll be punished,” she said.  But, she added, “We’ll be cheering him.”

David Montgomery is a  longtime journalist who has served as an Austin Bureau chief for the Dallas Times Herald, Austin and Washington bureau chief for the  Fort Worth Star Telegram, and Moscow bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers. He also served in the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder and McClatchy Newspapers. As head of Media Southwest Freelance, he also reports and writes for freelance clients that include the Fort Worth Report, New York Times, Stateline, Texas Highways and other entities. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri.

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David Montgomery

David Montgomery is a longtime journalist who has served as an Austin Bureau chief for the Dallas Times Herald, Austin and Washington bureau chief for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and Moscow bureau...