Texas House Leader-to-be Dennis Bonnen Is Aggressive, Colorful — and Has a Lot of Different People to Please

AUSTIN -- For more than a year after Joe Straus announced he would not seek re-election, seven candidates jostled for the chance to replace the five-term speaker of the Texas House.The group included conservative Republicans set on pushing the chamber more to the right and rectifying the oft-repeated criticism of Straus’ leadership as too lukewarm for their party’s base. It also included several moderate Republicans, Straus allies who pledged to continue leading the House down the path he had set out during his 10-year tenure as its leader. It even included one longshot Democrat.They all made their pitch, traveling the state and meeting with their fellow representatives to no avail. Then, in 14 days last fall, Dennis Bonnen -- who initially declined to run for speaker -- did what the others could not. After being drafted by dozens of Republicans in late October, the Angleton Republican secured enough votes to declare the race finished and began putting his team together for his first term as speaker, which will begin on Tuesday.Bonnen, who first was elected to the House in 1996 at the age of 24, will face daunting tasks as he takes the speaker’s gavel. For years, the state has struggled to fix its much-maligned school finance system. Local property taxes, which have eclipsed state contributions toward the funding of public schools, are skyrocketing for many Texans. And the Legislature will have to grapple, as usual, with demands for more spending than its wallet will allow.On top of that, Bonnen also will have to manage the inner workings of the 150-member House. The 109-member pledge list he presented in November is wide-ranging, including 31 Democrats and nearly all of the tea party-aligned Texas Freedom Caucus, whose interests are at opposite ends of the political spectrum.To lead effectively, he’ll have to walk a fine line between giving enough to keep political bases happy and giving too much, which could fracture his coalition. The challenge is significant. During Straus’ final session in 2017, both ends of Bonnen’s coalition felt done in -- Democrats, by leaders’ handling of controversial issues such as the sanctuary cities bill; and conservatives, by the constant rejection of their priorities. Tensions rose and a near brawl erupted on the regular session’s final day.Inside the Capitol, lawmakers say two things will help avoid a repeat of that level of discord: the moderating effect of the November elections, which narrowed the divide between Democrats and Republicans in the House, and Bonnen’s political savvy, acquired over more than two decades in the body. Bonnen declined to comment for this story.“If he runs the House like he ran his speaker’s race, I think everything is going to be fine because he did a masterful job,” said Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat. “If he replicates that this session, we’ll have a good session.”Bonnen's background Bonnen, 46, is an insurance agent turned banker from an exurb of Houston. He has dyslexia. Drawn to politics early, he majored in politics at Austin’s St. Edward’s University, worked in the House sergeant-at-arms’ office and spent a couple of years as a young Republican operative in Washington, D.C. In 1995, he came home to Brazoria County to run for and win an open state representative seat.Bonnen has served under three speakers. Though known for having an independent streak, he wound up playing his biggest roles under Straus -- speaker pro tem, head of the House’s tax-writing committee and the chamber’s unofficial envoy on some sensitive topics the past two sessions. His older brother, neurosurgeon Greg Bonnen of Friendswood, joined the House six years ago. He is seen as more staunchly conservative than Dennis. But the younger Bonnen has pugnaciously fought to curb business regulation, cut taxes and curtail abortion rights.That consistently conservative voting record helped him secure the needed pledges last fall, said Rep. Drew Springer, a Republican from Muenster who was part of the group that helped draft him to run for speaker. They wanted a leader who would let them bring their issues to the forefront if they felt they could muster the votes to pass, instead of relegating them to the back bench because they could be controversial.  Continue reading...

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