Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
For the second time in two years, the members of the Texas House have the chance — if they so desire — to elect the first woman to serve as speaker.
Two women — Miriam “Ma” Ferguson and Ann Richards — have served as governors of Texas. But no woman has served as speaker of the Texas House, nor as the state’s lieutenant governor.
Texas has had 43 lieutenant governors, from Albert Clinton Horton to Dan Patrick. And from William Crump to Dennis Bonnen, there have been 70 speakers.
But Bonnen, who’s been in the job for less than a year, says now, in the wake of a scandal, that he won’t seek a second term. The scandal, in brief: A political activist recorded a meeting with Bonnen and with state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, in which a list of potential Republicans to replace was offered, along with a proposal to give the activist’s organization media passes to the House floor. In the recording, Bonnen and Burrows bragged about giving cities and counties short shrift during the last session and promised more of the same. And between the meeting and the public airing of the recording, they denied saying a lot of the things that, as it turned out, they said.
Bonnen’s pending departure puts the House back where it was two years ago when Joe Straus said he wouldn’t seek a sixth term: looking among the 150 members of the House for a new boss.
Not that it has ever been a legislative priority in the Capitol, but putting a woman in the top job might be just the thing for a House looking for a change of tone and image. A bit less boys club, a bit more like the state of Texas.
If you look at either the House or the Senate, it’s not like looking at the state of Texas. The state has slightly more women than men. The Legislature has 181 members — 182 if you want to count the lieutenant governor, and only 43 are women.
Half the state’s population is represented by less than 24% of the Legislature, if gender is the measure.
That beats the historical norms in the state. Since 1846, 169 women have served in the House and the Senate, according to the state’s Legislative Reference Library. During the same period, 5,435 men have served. That’s not a typo.
In the state’s history, 3% of the state’s lawmakers have been women.
The current contingent includes six Republican women in the House and the same number in the Senate. During the session, the Democratic contingent included 28 female state representatives and three female state senators. (The list includes state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who resigned in September. A special election to replace her is now underway, and the field of 15 candidates includes both women and men.)
Run those numbers: Nine of the 31 senators, 29%, are women, as are 34 of the 150 House members, or about 23%.
It beats the historical numbers without being, in any way, impressive.
And the choices, if the House put a woman in charge for a change, are relatively slim — solely because the numbers are small. Republicans have the majority in the House right now, and a speaker elected to replace Bonnen today would likely be a Republican.
The six Republican women in the House represent most of the factions in the party, one way or another — probably about as well as the men do. And six candidates would be considered a robust race for speaker, so there’s that.
But Bonnen, at least for now, wants to serve through the 2020 election. The Democrats are hoping to build on the gains they made in 2018, when they flipped a dozen House seats that had been held by Republicans. If they can flip nine more, they’d have the majority. And even if they didn’t add to the number of women in their ranks, they’d have at least 27 to choose from — a huge field of candidates even if most of the female members opted out.
Putting a woman in charge of the Senate isn’t up to members — it’s up to voters. But the House has another bite at the apple, and they’re looking for something new, something different. The opposite of what they’re trying to disavow, maybe.
Maybe they’ll do something radical.