Dennis Bonnen was a persuasive teenager. Even when he was winging it.
That was apparent to the Angleton High School senior’s speech teacher when Bonnen hadn’t done enough research for an assignment.
“I don’t remember what his topic was, but I knew he hadn’t worked as hard on it as he should have,” Cindy Ward recalled, “but he stood up, and he spoke, and he did a beautiful job, and he sat down. And I told him later: ’Dennis, I know you didn’t do all your research, so I don’t know how much was true and how much wasn’t, but I believed everything you told me.”
Bonnen has built a 22-year political career off his power of persuasion in the Texas House. When the 2019 legislative session convenes Tuesday, Bonnen is expected to be elected to the top job in the House after a majority of his colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, coalesced around his candidacy for speaker
Bonnen was “a mess” in high school. Not because he was bad, but because he was “extremely verbal,” Ward told the American-Statesman.
“So his propensity to speak off the cuff was born in him, I think,” she said. “He knew he was dyslexic, so this was how he learned, how he was best.”
Bonnen was born in 1972 in Houston and grew up in Angleton, the county seat of Brazoria County south of Houston, with his father, who was a lawyer; his stay-at-home mother, who volunteered in the community; and three siblings. Bonnen was active in sports and worked as the advertising manager for his school newspaper. After graduating high school in 1990, Bonnen attended Austin’s St. Edward’s University, where he studied political science.
Before finishing his bachelor’s degree, Bonnen had served as a sergeant-at-arms in the Texas House and interned for former U.S. Rep. Greg Laughlin in Washington, D.C. Laughlin represented Bonnen’s hometown and was a conservative Democrat before joining the Republican Party.
In 1996, Bonnen ran as a Republican for an open seat to represent House District 25, which now encompasses all of Matagorda County and part of Brazoria County. Bonnen competed in a four-way GOP primary and made the runoff by 10 votes. He won the nomination by 9 points and easily won the general election. The next year, Bonnen was the youngest member of the Legislature at age 24.
In his first session, Bonnen was assigned to sit on the County Affairs and Insurance committees. He went on to chair the Environmental Regulation and Land and Resource Management committees in later sessions. Bonnen also served on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee on and off before becoming its chairman in 2015. Just one session prior, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, named Bonnen speaker pro tempore, which means he presided over the chamber when the speaker was absent. Bonnen also became Straus’ enforcer and top negotiator, especially in disputes between the House and Senate.
“I don’t think of myself as a career politician,” Bonnen said in a 2012 issue of St. Edward’s University Magazine. “But there’s value in experience. You understand the process. You understand government agencies. You understand how to get things done and better help your constituency.”
Bonnen’s colleagues praised his vast knowledge of the issues and how the House operates:
• “Every time I went to the speaker’s office on the big bills, and there was a group that was huddling, Dennis Bonnen was there,” said Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio.
• “He’s inserted himself time and again into situations where he puts people with different opinions together, hammers out a solution to a problem. He has that talent,” said Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston.
• “When we go to the Legislature our first session, we don’t have all the answers, and we need to rely on senior members, and he was one of the first senior members that any one of us could go to that would take time to help explain issues to us. He was very gracious, understanding and helpful,” said state Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview.
Bonnen also has a reputation of being combative — or passionate, depending on who’s describing his personality.
Struggling to convince alarmed local government officials during a 2017 Ways and Means Committee hearing of the differences between the Senate’s property tax bill and his version, Bonnen lashed out.
“It’s very disrespectful that the mayors and the county judges and the commissioners and your lobbyists want to characterize this bill in the exact same fashion as the way it has been managed by the Senate,” he railed. “If anyone can’t tell that there’s a difference — not only on this issue but on many issues — between the Texas House and the Texas Senate, they’re just choosing not to pay attention.”
Ultimately, the House and Senate couldn’t agree on how much to limit local property tax hikes, leaving both versions to die, though conservative lawmakers are expected to try again.
Larson described Bonnen as “strong-willed,” “dogmatic” and “tenacious.”
“He’s the exact person that you want on your side on any bill,” Larson said. “He doesn’t stop. He just keeps coming.”
Farrar said time would tell if Bonnen has the temperament to be speaker.
“There’s a pretty good record of (Bonnen) yelling at people that come to testify, shutting people down who don’t agree with him, those kinds of things,” she said. “That’s also a skill. Sometimes people need to be told to sit down and behave, so that might be useful in the job, but we’ll just have to see.”
Bonnen won’t be a low-key speaker, like Straus was, said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor.
“He is much more likely to raise his voice, to show his temper, to show anger, but I think for many Republicans, they don’t view that as a bad thing,” Jones said, “especially if he channels that anger and that energy into passing legislation that helps Texas Republicans retain their majority.”
Bonnen, a life insurance agent turned banker, founded Heritage Bank in 2008 and is president, CEO and chairman of the bank’s board.
Several lawmakers and state lobbyists have held investments or leadership positions at the bank, including Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, who is a board member, according to the Texas Tribune.
Texas’ ethics laws are vague, but a Speaker Bonnen’s industry ties could come into question next session. Lawmakers who have a personal interest in legislation are required to disclose that interest and not vote on it. House speakers rarely vote on bills, though they hold tremendous sway over the fate of bills.
Bonnen also has suffered gaffes, including in 2014, when he used the term “coonass” in referring to Louisiana Cajuns during a hearing. Bonnen said it would be more expensive for the state to educate Spanish-language-only students than it had been to teach Hurricane Katrina survivors from Louisiana.
“There is a significant difference,” Bonnen said then. “We had to have a teacher who could do coonass in English, but here we have to do Spanish and English, maybe, and there’s a higher marker.”
Bonnen later apologized for using the term that many people consider pejorative.
In 2009, when debating a bill on the automatic-admission rule for public universities in Texas, Bonnen pushed for an amendment that would have allowed the highest-ranking students in their high school graduating classes to be able to attend the four-year public college of their choice even after attending a community college first. Bonnen said that arrangement would help students who can’t afford to attend a larger school or whose parents don’t want them to leave home right away, according to media reports at the time.
Explaining his position, Bonnen said he was told that in “the Hispanic culture, they are less interested in seeing their young daughters go to Austin or go to College Station at 18 years of age. They want to keep them at home.” Then-Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, criticized Bonnen for the comments and placed him on the Mexican American Legislative Caucus’ “naughty list.” Bonnen said his comments were taken out of context and explained himself in a phone call to Martinez Fischer. Bonnen followed up by giving Martinez Fischer a University of Texas onesie for his infant daughter at the time, according to the San Antonio Current.
Martinez Fischer, who is returning to the Texas House this month, told the Statesman he and Bonnen are friends and that “Dennis has an opportunity to demonstrate what kind of speaker he wants to be.”
“I think it’s very fair to say that we are starting from a very positive perspective of wanting to work in a bipartisan manner on some very complicated issues that requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to have a solution,” he said.
Martinez Fischer, who served in the House 2001-16, said though he and Bonnen had often been on opposing sides of big issues, they joined forces in a light-hearted way that drew national attention. When the maker of WD-40 in 2003 objected to a group of white House Democrats over 40 using the nickname WD-40, Bonnen, Martinez Fischer and state Rep. Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon, replied for the colleagues.
“We are appalled and offended that you and your client, the WD-40 Co., would recklessly inject the issue of race in your letter,” they wrote to the company’s attorney. “We were not aware that your client harbored reservations about doing business with Anglo white males over 40.”
Martinez Fischer, who served as the group’s lawyer, signed as “Special Counsel to Rural White Boys,” and in the postscript, the signers wrote “Mean letter to follow” and “Interested in an endorsement deal?”
“There is a personal side to every lawmaker who serves, and unfortunately, most of what’s captured are the debates and the situations where you have legislative opponents going round after round, fighting for what they believe in,” Martinez Fisher said, “but at some level, we do have personal relationships: Our spouses socialize, our children know each other, and I think that that’s an element that often gets lost in the legislative dialogue.”
Straus announced he wouldn’t seek re-election more than a year before the end of his term, and seven candidates — six Republicans and one Democrat — emerged to replace him as speaker. Bonnen wasn’t among them.
Apparently not pleased with any of the options, about 40 House Republicans met in Austin in late October to draft Bonnen, a lieutenant of Straus, but also popular with conservative Republicans.
In November, Bonnen announced speaker vote pledges from 78 Republicans and 31 Democrats, ensuring his election on the first day of the session. Bonnen said during the news conference announcing his victory that members would decide the top priority for the session.
“Having talked to numerous members, I can guarantee you that priority is school finance,” he said. “It is time Texas took on the challenge of fixing our broken school finance system, and the Texas House will be leading with all of us to get that done.”
Republicans are going into the legislative session and the 2020 election cycle in a much different political environment, having lost a dozen seats in November to Democrats, and now holding an 18-seat edge beginning Tuesday. Two Democratic-held districts are vacant, with upcoming special elections. If Democrats win in those districts, the party would need to flip nine seats in 2020 to take control of the House.
“You have a much larger portion of the caucus who’s now very much concerned with November elections and retaining the Republican majority in the Texas House,” Jones said, adding that GOP members will be “less forgiving” of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus if its members do anything that could harm the party’s image going into 2020.
That means no transgender bathroom bill, expansion of gun laws to allow so-called constitutional carry or repeal of the law allowing Texas immigrant college students living in the U.S. without authorization to pay in-state tuition — all red meat for the party’s base — in 2019, Jones said. Bonnen will have to protect his party without alienating its members.