This article originally appeared on Houston Chronicle written by Erica Grieder.
Dennis Bonnen, a Republican state representative from Angleton, is deeply committed to the well-being of the Texas House—and its independence.
He also has a high tolerance for disagreement and no sympathy for fools.
In other words, Bonnen is an excellent choice to succeed longtime Speaker Joe Straus, who is retiring at the end of this year.
And his colleagues think so, too. That’s good news for Texas.
The 150 members of the Texas House won’t officially elect a speaker until the state Legislature convenes for its regular session in January. But on Monday, Bonnen announced that 109 of his colleagues had pledged their support, including most of the chamber’s Republicans and 28 of the Democrats.
“The speaker’s race is over,” he said, at a press conference.
No one has challenged that claim. The other representatives who had filed as candidates for speaker dropped out of the race and threw Bonnen their support. Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement congratulating him, as did Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate.
And Straus’s most vociferous critics scrambled to cast Bonnen, one of Straus’ key lieutenants, as the candidate of their choice, too. That was amusing and telling.
Since Straus announced his decision to retire, Republicans have argued that his successor should be chosen by the members of the GOP caucus, who continue to hold power in the Texas House even though Democrats picked up a dozen seats in the midterm election.
In fact, the Texas Republican Party asked GOP candidates for speaker to sign a pledge to that effect.
Bonnen did no such thing.
In fact, he went out of his way to make it clear that he had sought the support of his Democratic colleagues in his bid for the speakership, even though in the end he didn’t need it.
The speaker is elected by a simple majority, meaning 76 votes are sufficient to win; 81 of the 109 members on the list Bonnen unveiled Monday are Republicans.
That detail helps explain why hard-liners were quick to herald Bonnen’s announcement, and why many Democrats and centrists were discomfited by it.
A number of Republicans had filed as speaker candidates this year. Some of them were hoping to build a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, as Straus did.
It would appear that Bonnen, who is a conservative, took the opposite approach. He won the support of his fellow Republicans, including most of the members of the House Freedom Caucus. Bonnen then drove a wedge in the Democrats, many of whom had been hoping to play a more decisive role in the speaker’s race by sticking together in support of a moderate Republican candidate.
I have a different read on the situation, though, based on my experiences covering the Texas Legislature in 2015.
The state had a new governor and lieutenant governor that year for the first time in a decade. Both Abbott and Patrick had campaigned as conservatives, and Patrick, as lieutenant governor, tweaked the rules of the Texas Senate in order to further dilute the power of the chamber’s Democratic minority.
As a result, I spent most of my time in the Texas House. And during the course of the session, I was impressed by Bonnen’s independence as well as his intelligence. Democrats who worked with Bonnen on major legislation that year or served along side him on key committees may similarly have been impressed by how deftly he navigated the new political dynamic.
So I wasn’t surprised to see a number of the Texas House’s most experienced Democrats among the representatives who pledged to support Bonnen. It really was a strange session in 2015. The state’s right-wing activists were emboldened by Abbott and Patrick’s deference to the party’s base. And anyone could see that those activists had no influence on Bonnen, the Ways & Means chairman.
Bonnen is a conservative; there’s no question about that. But, as noted, he has no sympathy for fools. He also has no need to worry about being unseated in the primary or general election. The 25th district, which runs from Brazoria County to the coast, is deeply red. But Bonnen has represented it since 1996 and voters are clearly fond of him.
In fact, Bonnen won the Republican nomination by more than 50 percentage points this year, despite a challenge from the right. Challenger Damon Rambo was backed by the activist group EmpowerTexans, which has now heralded Bonnen’s success in the race to succeed Straus.
Democrats who were hoping for a more moderate Republican should be reassured by that, rather than discomfited. Bonnen will be the speaker of the Texas House, unless he slips on a banana peel. He won’t be its king.
And it’s possible that Bonnen will seek to lead the chamber in a more conservative direction, but clearly, that’s up to him.