Originally posted by Yvonne Mintz, editor and publisher of The Facts.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen started Monday dropping his son off at school in Brazoria County. By 3 p.m. he stood behind a bank of microphones in Austin, flanked by other legislators, announcing he had secured more than enough votes to become the next speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.
And with that, Bonnen, an approachable public servant here at home, one who, as a reporter and editor for The Facts, I’d alternately argued with and congratulated over the years, became at least the third-most powerful politician in the state. It’s a huge platform, and it comes with scrutiny unlike the 22-year Texas House veteran has seen before.
It had been a couple of weeks since Bonnen announced his intention to run for speaker, drafted into the race by fellow House members who considered his experience standing up for the House, particularly to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, as one key qualification.
After he dropped their son off at school Monday, Bonnen, 46, decided he should be in Austin. His wife, Kim, drove. On that ride, using the political dexterity that got him drafted into the race to begin with, he went from a candidate for speaker to the guy with the votes in hand. By 11 a.m., he had called the press conference.
By 3 p.m., Bonnen was the heir apparent to the speakership, with pledges of support from 109 of the 150 House members — well more than the 76 votes he needed.
The congratulations poured in, but so did the criticism. An e-mail to The Facts from someone in Austin called Bonnen racist and sexist — a reference to comments he made during a debate in the House. In one instance, in support of a bill he championed on preserving automatic enrollment for top 10 percent graduates who choose to stay home a year before going to a state university, Bonnen said some in the Hispanic culture did not encourage their young women to leave the house when they were 18.
I’ve known Bonnen for 21 years, and I’ve disagreed with him on many things in that time, but I’ve never thought him a sexist or a racist.
While local officials and friends expressed pride in Bonnen, some online comments from outside the district got nasty. By the end of the day Monday, someone had created a fake Twitter account in his name, joking about handing out chairmanships.
Bonnen fully expects the criticism to get louder as the 2019 session approaches.
“This is a very powerful position and therefore you’re going to have people want to destroy people who might be in that position,” Bonnen said. “… Their goal is also to wear me down and make me not do it.”
The most significant issue facing the state, as he sees it, is school finance. It’s the job of the members, though, to come to a conclusion as to how they want that issue to be resolved.
“My role is not to pick a winner and loser on policy,” Bonnen said. “My job is to create a fair environment for the membership to decide which way they want to go.”
Bonnen had served as retired Speaker Joe Straus’s right hand, the hard-charging one who chaired the powerful Ways and Means Committee and stood up to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who many, including The Facts, have criticized as holding the last session hostage over his pet issues.
“I think it’s one of the reasons the members have selected me to be speaker, is that I’ve showed over time that I can work respectfully with the lieutenant governor, but also show strength,” Bonnen said. “So I’m not gonna let him push the House around.”
He doesn’t see himself as the pit bull going into next session, though.
“I will shift,” he said. “And there are plenty of strong members of the Texas House, and we will put them all to work making sure that the House is successful.”
Politically, that could be risky. But Bonnen says he has no aspirations for higher office. His deep affinity for the Texas House means he is willing to take it on.
For now, he’s focused on building a staff. After Monday’s press conference, he looked around and realized he had only one person, longtime chief of staff Shera Eichler, working for him in Austin.
The speaker of the Texas House generally has a staff of 30. As chairman of the Ways and Means committee, Bonnen had five.
Later Monday, Bonnen’s office announced he had hired Dr. Brian McCall, chancellor of the Texas State University System, to lead the transition team. By the end of the week, a few more key staffers had been added.
There hasn’t been much downtime, and his mind rarely shuts off, Bonnen said.
“It will settle down,” he said. “Right now there’s just a tremendous amount that’s happening.”
Bonnen tries to respond to every member of the House who reaches out.
“Is that a lot?” I asked.
“A whole lot.”
He is making time to keep his commitments back home, Bonnen said. On Wednesday, he again dropped his son off at school before speaking at the Brazosport Association of Retired School Personnel meeting.
“I’ve never missed,” he said. “It’s one of the most important groups that I represent. Retired teachers are a priority, my district and my constituents are a priority.”
It was after that retired teachers event, in the parking lot at Vernor Materials during an anniversary event for that business, where Bonnen had his first post-press conference conversation with the lieutenant governor.
“It was cordial,” he said.
There’s little time to focus on the pettiness or the noise from outside, he said.
“My colleagues recruited me to do this for the right reasons and I’m gonna stay focused on what’s right.”