This article was written by Andrea Zelinski and appeared on San Antonio Express-News.
AUSTIN — The Texas House will have a new leader come January, and Rep. Dennis Bonnen says he’s it.
The Republican from Angleton, south of Houston, is already planning his swearing-in ceremony although the vote of the 150-member House is seven weeks away.
Bonnen, a shrewd tactician who has served in the Texas House since he was 24 years old, has reason to be confident. He has amassed 109 pledges of support, from Republicans as well as 31 Democrats.
Some members want to give him the gavel because they say he will work well with tea party Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Texas Senate. Others want to elect him because they believe he’s willing to throw sharp elbows Patrick’s way.
Abruptly shoving other contenders for speaker out of the way is the sort of thing his colleagues in the House expect from Bonnen, a 46-year-old bank executive who has spent virtually his entire adult life as a state representative.
At the Texas Capitol, Bonnen has chaired committees under two speakers and served as speaker pro tempore when former House Speaker Joe Straus was absent.
“I can remember him getting angry,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, recalling a skirmish between the House and Senate over property taxes in the 2017 legislative session. “That’s what members want. They want someone to stand up for the House.”
If he indeed gets the job in January, Bonnen will have to shepherd the Republican-led chamber through political issues that have stalled in the Legislature for years, like increasing state funding for schools and reforms to quell property tax increases by local governments. But his larger task will be to revitalize the party’s brand after an election with a dozen lost GOP seats and uncomfortably narrow political wins for others.
“There was a clamoring from within the party, within the delegation, for him to ride in as a white knight and save the Republican Party,” said Jones.
Republicans still have a commanding 83-67 majority in the House, but they also lost two seats in the Senate, where they now hold a 19-12 majority. Patrick won re-election, but by a narrow 4.8 percentage points, compared to nearly 20 percentage points four years ago.
Bonnen appears to be up for the challenge, calling for unity as his central theme. Pledges supporting his candidacy have come from both Republicans and Democrats and he has appointed a bipartisan group to begin vetting candidates for parliamentarian, a key job in the House entrusted to know and interpret the chamber rules.
“He’s proven that he’s a strong leader. There’s no doubt,” said Chris Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman who has not pledged his support for Bonnen. “I think he’s proved that in his very short and very effective campaign for speaker.”
Pouring water on GOP infighting
Bonnen’s candidacy was something of a surprise. Months ago, Bonnen joked that the talk of him as speaker upset his family, according to the Texas Tribune, and asked that his name be taken off any list of potential candidates. He changed course in October, announcing he would run after 40 Republican lawmakers met in Austin and agreed he would be the best choice. Since then, every other contender for the race has dropped out, making him likely to win the post on the first day of the 2019 legislative session.
Bonnen did not respond to a request for comment.
Internal squabbles within the large Republican caucus caused major divisions in the House in recent years. Some praised outgoing House Speaker Straus, a San Antonio Republican, for using his centrist views to operate as a voice of reason. Others claimed he used his influence to kill bills he didn’t like.
State Rep. Jim Murphy, a Houston Republican, is convinced Bonnen would remain committed to “conservative principles” while showing fairness to the entire House.
“I think having this level of consensus this early in the process bodes very well for the upcoming session,” said Murphy, who called Bonnen’s “passion” and “ability to speak clearly and bluntly” necessary characteristics of any speaker.
State Rep. Rick Miller, a Republican from Sugar Land, is looking to Bonnen to help unite the Republican caucus after a 2017 session that “wasn’t pretty.”
“He’ll allow the members to run the House with him,” said Miller, who stood with Bonnen at his press conference Monday. “That’s all we want.”
Though Bonnen’s initial supporters included 31 Democrats, the House’s conservative branch – particularly those in the tea party-aligned Freedom Caucus – were encouraged that Bonnen sought the speakers post by first approaching Republican lawmakers, instead of courting votes from Democrats.
Under much different circumstances, Straus won enough votes to knock off his predecessor by gathering the support of Democrats and a coalition of Republicans.
“Members’ biggest problem with Straus was that he allowed his own personal ideology to determine the future of legislation,” said state Rep. Briscoe Cain, of Baytown, a member of the Freedom Caucus. “Our hope is that Bonnen instead allows members to represent their districts and lets legislation pass or fail based on the will of the body.”
He added: “Bonnen has expressed that he is looking forward to working with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, which is a considerable departure from the previous leadership.”
Yet for many members, it was Bonnen’s reputation as tactician that drew their support.
“What was an important characteristic in a speaker candidate was could they stand up to Patrick?” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. “Can they advance the position of the House vis a vis the lieutenant governor? I think Dennis has more than proved that he can do that.”
Hitting the reset button
Democrats who initially mobilized behind Bonnen included those who had worked with him in the House for decades. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, acknowledged that Bonnen comes from “a really conservative district,” but was nonetheless an early backer among Democrats after Bonnen picked up momentum. She said he would “protect the integrity of the House.”
“We don’t want anybody who’s going to be walked on by the other house. Even though we come here with different agendas, we have common agendas too,” she said.
Members of the Republican Caucus agree that Bonnen has a unique opportunity to bring together a party that had fractured over a particularly contentious legislation during the 2017 session.
The Senate forged ahead with the so-called bathroom bill that would have regulated which bathrooms people who are transgender can use. The LGBTQ community rallied to fight it, as did businesses arguing such a law would cost the state economy. Straus and his leadership team refused to advance the bill, with Straus declaring at one point, “Tell the lieutenant governor I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”
Despite past clashes, Republicans were generally confident that Bonnen and Patrick two would start the session with a blank slate.
“One of the first things you’ll see is that the reset button will be hit on the communication with the lieutenant governor and the governor,” said Rep. John Zerwas, a Republican from Richmond and former contender for speaker. “That sort of deteriorated a bit during the last session with Speaker Straus and the lieutenant governor, and the governor to some extent.”