Angleton state Republican Representative Dennis Bonnen—often known by the nickname Dennis the Menace—claimed victory in the state speaker’s race Monday after the cohesiveness of the House Democratic Caucus, and a potential roadblock to his election, fell apart. The apparent elevation of Bonnen to replace retiring House Speaker Joe Straus came after a weekend in which several Republican candidates dropped out of contention in the face of growing GOP support for Bonnen.
Following the model of Straus, a Republican could have forged a coalition with Democrats to overtake someone like Bonnen whose initial support seemed to be almost exclusively from the Republican Caucus. By the time he held a news conference Monday afternoon, Bonnen could declare he had won the support of 109 fellow House members: 81 Republicans and 28 Democrats. The actual election for speaker will not occur until the first day of the next Legislature, January 8, 2019. The speaker is elected by members of the House.
Several speaker candidates–Representative Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, in particular–had attempted to build a coalition of Republican members and the House Democratic Caucus. The caucus had picked up a dozen seats in last week’s election. But the conservative wing of the Republican Party made the vote for speaker a purity test. As one Democratic lawmaker put it, several speaker candidates, “Wanted to bring us Democrats to the dance, but they didn’t want anyone seeing them dance with us.”
Bonnen’s emergence drew the ire of many Democrats who held an emergency conference call Monday morning to assess Bonnen’s perceived momentum coming out of the weekend. Democrats had presumed the election results would give them more influence over the selection of the next speaker. To be cut out influencing the leadership selection is counter to the will of the electorate, they thought.
“Texans made a decision this past election cycle,” said Representative César Blanco, D-El Paso, “and they sent twelve new Democrats to the House. Texans made a decision to be bipartisan.”
But candidate after candidate who opposed Bonnen began withdrawing over the weekend in the face of news that Bonnen had secured the necessary support. It takes 76 members to win a majority of the 150-member chamber.
Bonnen first won office in the Texas House in 1996 at the age of 24. He is a banker and has been a staunch conservative, voting in favor of measures to make an abortion more difficult for a woman to obtain. But last year he also told The Facts of Clute that he opposed private school vouchers—an issue that usually is opposed by Democrats and rural Republicans. “Texas must focus on improving our public education system so that every student has the opportunity to succeed.”
Straus named Bonnen as his speaker pro tempore, or assistant speaker, and Bonnen did a masterful job of running the chamber when Straus was absent. And during the 2017 legislature—perhaps with an eye on running for speaker—Bonnen tried to hold his petulance that has earned him a reputation in check. In both 2015 and 2017, Bonnen often criticized legislation pushed by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and having Bonnen the bully stand up to Patrick the bully was an endearing quality for some House members. Straus took the heat for House members who did not want to have to vote on Patrick’s transgender-discriminating bathroom bill last year. And when Patrick pushed a bill to cap spending increases by local governments to four percent a year, Bonnen countered with a bill that would only have required an election when spending exceeded six percent. Governor Greg Abbott is proposing a 2.5 percent cap. But during the past two legislative sessions Abbott has found himself as the third point in a triangle, unaligned with either Patrick or Straus. A cooperative relationship with Bonnen would give Abbott greater flexibility in holding Patrick in check.
Balding with a heavy brow and frequently displaying a two-day growth of beard, Bonnen looks a lot like Doug Stamper from the Netflix program “House of Cards.” Bonnen got his nickname in the 2007 legislature when he was chairman of the House Committee on Environmental Regulation and developed a reputation for killing bills opposed by the petrochemical industry in his district. The Austin Chronicle wrote that Bonnen “is notoriously charmless, bullying and dismissive of any contrary viewpoint in committee.” The Texas Observer wrote, “Bonnen has raised willful ineffectiveness to an art form.”
In 2017, Bonnen caused an interstate squabble and raised concerns about his ethnic sensitivity when he compared the cost of educating immigrant children from Central America to the cost of educating children displaced from Louisiana by Hurricane Katrina. “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.”
Texas Monthly put Bonnen on the worst legislator list in 2011, saying, “Any hope that he would elevate his behavior evaporated in the closing days with a series of peevish maneuvers.” But then he made the list of best legislators in 2015: “He began this session by leading the House’s border security effort and produced a plan that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. But when it came to the biggest clash of the session, Bonnen’s wits and skill were augmented by his street-fighting background.”
In 2006, Bonnen voted in favor of legislation to create a new franchise tax to help finance public schools and cut property taxes. But the tax never performed as expected, and in 2015 as chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, Bonnen carried legislation to cut the franchise tax by 25 percent. He said it would save business an average $10,000 a year in taxes.
One of the most cohesive voting blocs in the House—the Mexican American Legislative Caucus—has not forgiven the legislative maneuver that Bonnen engineered during the last session that effectively stopped debate on the anti-immigrant sanctuary cities bill and allowed the measure to finally be voted on, and passed, by the full House. Shortly after Bonnen announced he had enough votes to secure the speakership, MALC released a statement: “MALC looks forward to establishing a dialogue with Speaker Bonnen about ending the anti-Latino initiatives and rhetoric that have defined recent legislative sessions. We also stand ready to defend all communities against politicians, parties or groups that attack the vulnerable for political gain. It is core to our mission and service to protect civil and voting rights for all Texans.”