Texas Legislature 2019

“The right man at this point in Texas history”: How Dennis Bonnen led the Texas House

Dennis Bonnen gaveled out on Monday with much of the same widespread support in the Texas House that accompanied his unanimous election to the speaker’s gavel in January.

Speaker Dennis Bonnen during the Texas Fallen Heroes ceremony  on May 25, 2019

Dennis Bonnen gaveled the Texas House back to order knowing what he had to do next.

It was the week before the Legislature was set to adjourn, and one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priorities had seemingly just died. The mental health bill, one that Republican leaders had championed in the wake of last year’s deadly Santa Fe High School shooting, had been torpedoed by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, the chamber’s most outspoken member, on a technicality. And Bonnen, the new House speaker, was running up against a crucial midnight deadline to revive the legislation.

The Angleton Republican would swiftly put the train back on its track by reviving the measure as an amendment to a school safety bill that had already passed earlier that evening. But the scene in the chamber, which was working to pass the legislation before it was too late, would not end that night without some tense exchanges.

“I’m sick of this shit!” Stickland, a Republican from Bedford, could be heard telling the speaker.

The measure, despite Stickland’s protests, passed.

Bonnen’s success that night showcased someone who, after spending roughly half his life as a member of the House, became a speaker of the House who let his focus for finishing the session largely unblemished override his pugnacious side. He paved his path to the speaker’s gavel with lightning speed after House Republicans were dealt a blow to their ranks in November, solidifying a bread-and-butter agenda for the chamber before session even began. He governed with a public insistence that it should be the members — not the speaker — driving the House’s business. And he negotiated with a sense of savviness that kept conversations about more politically volatile pieces of legislation on the rails.

Because of that, Bonnen gaveled out the House on Monday, a number of members said, with much of the same glow that accompanied his unanimous election to the dais.

“As I said from the beginning, the Texas House is where you come and debate,” Bonnen told reporters on Monday, the last day of the 140-stretch at the Legislature. “You argue big issues, and you have fierce discussion — but you do it with respect to each other.”

“The right man at this point in Texas history”

Before Bonnen was officially elected House speaker in January, the lower chamber had already acknowledged its priority of the session: overhauling the state’s outdated school finance system. Other meaty policy issues landed on the Legislature’s to-do list, such as reforming a complicated property tax system — and state lawmakers would, for the most part, deliver on the work that had been laid before them.

Part of that success was thanks to Bonnen, his Senate counterpart, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Gov. Greg Abbott pledging to work side-by-side to deliver on priorities without letting personalities get in the way. And Bonnen worked just as hard to build a similar peace in the chamber he presided over, cultivating both Democrats and Republicans who had been thorns in the side of the previous speaker, Joe Straus.

“Dennis really understands the House,” Patrick told reporters the weekend before the Legislature adjourned for the year. “He knows the issues. He knows the rules.”

House members from the left wing to the right one seemed to agree. Had Bonnen given every member a fair shake? Had he let members drive the legislative process? And had the speaker tamped down on his short-tempered tendencies in the moments it mattered most? Yes, many of them said.

“I think he is the right man at this point in Texas history,” said state Rep. Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat who serves as first vice-chair of her party’s caucus and as a member of the House’s first-ever LGBTQ Caucus.

For state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, an Arlington Republican and member of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, Bonnen “did a good job at following through with the things I asked of him prior to pledging to vote for him.” The new speaker, Tinderholt said, also did not wade into members’ pet issues.

Both Israel and Tinderholt carried legislation this session that, in previous years, was dead on arrival in the House. For Israel, it was a bill that would have banned the practice of conversion therapy for minors. And for Tinderholt, it was a measure that would have criminalized abortion. Under new leadership, and, with it, new committee chairs, each bill received a committee hearing for the first time. Neither piece of legislation ever advanced beyond that. But the progress, for both Israel and Tinderholt, was an acknowledgment that Bonnen had kept his thumb off the scales.

“He’s a student of the Legislature, a historian of the House,” Israel said. “There was no orders from him to Chair [Senfronia] Thompson: ‘Thou shalt not have an early hearing on this.’”

Democrats relished in other benefits, partly thanks to the 12 seats they had picked up in the November elections. The speaker tapped a number of Democrats to chair high-profile House committees, and he named another to serve as speaker pro tem — a position Bonnen himself held under Straus. Bonnen also worked closely with state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, including on a deal to help assuage the controversial issue of teacher pay just before the chamber’s school finance debate.

“The speaker understood the priorities of the Democratic Caucus members, and we worked well together to keep the House on track,” Turner said the Sunday before the Legislature gaveled out.

Turner, along with a number of other members, chalked up a good chunk of their productive relationships with Bonnen to the access they had to the speaker and his staff. If a member had concerns or needed to touch base with Bonnen, they said, the speaker or a staffer would make time to meet.

Bonnen was also more visible outside the chamber. It wasn’t unusual for the speaker to pop by committee hearings. He also made time for an informal meeting the House General Investigating Committee held to discuss the chamber’s new sexual misconduct policy.

And in the last weekend of the session, after the House had approved the consensus property tax bill, Bonnen walked across the Capitol rotunda and into the Senate to watch the upper chamber do the same.

“I’ve never seen the speaker of the House in the Senate chamber before!” remarked one senator as Bonnen smiled from the back of the chamber.

“Who’s the chair of that conference committee?”

On that Tuesday night in the House, when the popular mental health bill nearly died, Stickland and Bonnen had a series of fiery exchanges, with each back-and-forth running the risk of combusting the chamber’s business.

“Argue your point of order,” Bonnen told Stickland, “and move on.”

Stickland, who said he tried to kill the measure because he thought it “had some very bad unintended consequences,” took to the microphone to protest what he characterized as the House skirting its own rules.

“Members, we all kinda know what’s going on here,” he said solemnly. “Apparently, these rules and the order of business doesn’t matter at this time of the night.”

Bonnen, reflecting on that evening with reporters Monday, said he was proud of what happened.

“It tells you a lot about the Texas House this session,” he said. “Mr. Stickland had a good [procedural move], and … we’re going to fairly apply the rules, and we did it that night.”

But, he added, “we don’t let a parliamentary procedure that was rightfully done create a reason to not accomplish school safety and mental health.”

After tense moments, Bonnen seemed to savor opportunities to breed camaraderie in the House, often by uniting the chamber against its — sometimes playful, sometimes serious — rival with the Senate.

The day after the Stickland and Bonnen kerfuffle, a House member stepped up to the chamber’s front microphone to call a vote on his bill that would let kids in Texas legally run their own lemonade stands. After the legislation passed the House earlier in the session, the Senate had approved it with some changes. The House author wanted to accept the Senate’s version of the bill, but a few members began to agitate against it. Before long, that House member was convinced — and he sent the bill to a conference committee for both chambers to work on a compromise. A “U-S-A” chant erupted in the chamber. Members banged their desks. Others whistled.

“It’s the first time I smiled genuinely in weeks!” exclaimed one House member to another after the cheers died down.

The House also swelled with pride as members in May unanimously signed off on the Legislature’s school finance bill — an $11.6 billion package that leaders cast as one of the most transformational pieces of legislation in recent state history.

“The speaker let us do our jobs,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican who had spearheaded the bill in the House, as he beamed at Bonnen.

But there were also times it seemed to almost slip Bonnen’s mind that he was Dennis 2.0, a leader who had pledged to 149 other House members that his short-tempered days and public outbursts were behind them all.

In May, for example, a proposal Bonnen backed with Patrick and Abbott to increase the state sales tax by one percentage point fell apart after it became clear the measure didn’t have enough support to pass the Legislature. A number of instrumental House members blamed state Sen. Paul Bettencourt for the proposal’s demise, lamenting that the Houston Republican’s public opposition had killed the state’s chances of using new revenue to pay for long-term school district tax cuts.

Later that night, a messenger from the Senate arrived to deliver the list of senators who had been tapped to serve on a conference committee for a priority property tax reform bill, which Bettencourt had shepherded through the upper chamber.

The messenger rattled off the five names of senators, including the detail that state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, would chair the committee — not Bettencourt, who, as author of the bill, was expected to hold the post. Bonnen leaned into his microphone and asked without skipping a beat, “Who’s the chair of that conference committee?”

“Hancock,” the messenger replied.

“Thank you,” Bonnen said, banging his gavel to dismiss the messenger from the chamber as laughter broke out among House members.

“The consequence is simple”

As session progressed, the early signs of GOP infighting, prompted by hardline conservative groups, appeared to be brewing. Empower Texans, a political advocacy group known for its combative style, had grown increasingly frustrated that priorities outlined by the Texas GOP were dying at the Legislature — and blamed Bonnen for most of it.

The group had, at one point before session began, expressed cautious optimism that Bonnen would be a drastic departure from Straus, which Empower Texans worked hard to cast as a villain. But its optimism was short-lived.

“Under [Bonnen] and the sycophantic #GOP Surrender Caucus, #prolife & #2a priorities died,” Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, tweeted days before the session ended. “Amazing LOSER #Txlege session.”

But Bonnen didn’t seem worried about the frustration. The hardline group, he told reporters Monday, could never be appeased — “and I sure as hell am not going to waste my time trying.”

Some members have suggested that Bonnen’s bipartisan leadership style was built on an awareness that the 2018 elections could repeat themselves in 2020 if the GOP-controlled Legislature didn’t deliver on issues like school finance and property taxes this time around.

Bonnen told reporters he hoped Republicans would keep a majority rule in the House when the Legislature reconvenes in 2021, but “that’s not why we did what we did.” Instead, Bonnen said, the successes this session would help re-elect every member of the House.

To that end, the speaker made clear he wants to keep the peace even as another election season approaches. Bonnen said he would not tolerate incumbents — Republicans or Democrats — campaigning against colleagues in future elections. In recent cycles, members have waded into races to campaign against fellow incumbents running for re-election, often with little to no consequence once they return to the pink dome. Ahead of the 2020 elections, and with Democrats bullish on flipping enough seats to gain control of the House, a number of races are already high on target lists for both parties.

“The consequence is simple,” Bonnen said. “If you choose to campaign against any of your sitting colleagues, I will weigh in against you. And if I am fortunate enough to continue to be speaker, you will find yourself not well positioned in the next session.”

For now though, Bonnen is not bothered, at least publicly, by what’s already shaping up to be a competitive 2020 election cycle.

“We’ll worry about elections,” he said, “when we all take a little vacation.”

Emma Platoff contributed to this report.

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