Adios, Speaker Bonnen

On Oct. 22, Bonnen announced he would not seek re-election to the House in 2020, but would continue as speaker until his term ends in January of 2021.  (Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune photo)

Adios, Speaker Bonnen

Lesson from the last several weeks in the Texas Capitol: an elected official’s public words ought to be reflected in their private actions.

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has learned that the hard way.

Bonnen, 47. ((DOB 3/3/72) R-Lake Jackson, was elected to the House from the coastal District 25 in 1996, at the age of 24. He had served as House Sergeant-at-Arms in 1993.

After 22 years in the House, including three terms as Speaker Pro Tem under his predecessor as speaker, Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, Bonnen was considered to know well the ropes of the House, but also something of a hot-headed, bullying, grudge-carrying legislator.

Last fall, he soft-pedaled his explosive and combative approach, but was still considered able to stand up to the lieutenant governor and governor.

After a late entry into the speaker’s race, Bonnen unveiled endorsements from 109 of the 150 members of the House – well over the 76 needed to win.

On the session’s opening day, he was elected unanimously – not uncommon when the result seems inevitable.

He led the House in a cooperative, bipartisan effort to add money for schools, and limit local property tax growth by requiring an automatic voter referendum if a tax increase exceeded a certain percentage.

On May 27, the final day of his first 140-day regular session as speaker, Bonnen told reporters he wanted to see that bipartisan cooperation among House members continue into the 2020 elections.

“What makes the Texas House better than other institutions of governance is we do not campaign against each other,” Bonnen said. “And so then, we’re able to come here and work together and solve the problems that face our state.”

For any House member failing to honor his wish, “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,” Bonnen continued, “you will find yourself not well positioned in the next session.”

Bonnen told reporters that day he had no use for the irritating right-wing group Empower Texans, headed by Michael Quinn Sullivan.

“You will never please or appease those folks, and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying,” Bonnen said.

“I am incredibly comfortable with my conservative record,” Bonnen added. “But . . . you are fooling yourself and you are not respecting your constituents, (or) this institution, if you are chasing their wants and their desires, because you will never meet their wants and their desires.

“They are a group that is based on attacks and disrespect to raise money,” Bonnen said. “They are not based on issue ideology.”

In the days and weeks following, Bonnen demonstrated that what he said publicly was at sharp odds with what he did behind closed doors.

The day after the session, Bonnen ran into Sullivan at the Houston airport.

Bonnen and Sullivan arranged a meeting in the speaker’s office for June 12 – just 16 days after the session ended.

Bonnen displayed in the private meeting with Sullivan a starkly different attitude than he had expressed to reporters earlier.

Later in June, Sullivan sent Bonnen a letter saying he was turning down the deal that Bonnen had offered – to trade House floor press credentials for some of Sullivan’s employees, in return for Sullivan agreeing to have his group lay off campaigning in Republican primaries against incumbents – with the exception of a list of 10.

Those 10 had voted against Bonnen’s pet effort to outlaw spending tax money to lobby the legislature – aimed at killing off groups like the Texas Municipal League, and Texas Association of Counties.

The bill had failed to get a House majority, and Bonnen hadn’t forgotten.

Bonnen publicly denied that he had struck a deal with Sullivan.

But on July 25, Sullivan revealed that he had secretly recorded the meeting. Over the next few weeks, he had the tape played for several Republican House members, and selected other Republicans.

They agreed Sullivan’s report was borne out by the tape.

Bonnen admitted he had said some “really terrible” things about some members, and apologized. But he demanded the tape be made public.

So did several Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The Texas Democratic Party filed suit to have it released.

It was, on Oct. 12. The House Republican Caucus met Oct. 18, condemned Bonnen’s actions, and made it clear he couldn’t be re-elected as speaker.

On Oct. 22, he announced he would not seek re-election to the House in 2020, but would continue as speaker until his term ends in January of 2021.

But if the governor calls the legislature into special session before then, Bonnen’s tenure as speaker will probably be over.

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