By Meghan Scoggins
If the November elections showed us anything, it’s that Texas is no longer a state of politics as usual. It seems that Austin got that memo but decided to throw it away. The race for Speaker of the Texas State House is always a dog and pony show where the winner is predetermined. With Ron Simmons losing his seat to an underdog Democrat with no big backers, the Republican House members are scrambling. The contenders for the seat vary by the hour and determining front runners in this perpetual derby is near impossible.
It was about a week ago that Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond) withdrew his name form contention, despite being the first to jump up the heels of Strauss’ pending retirement. He threw his support behind Dennis Bonnen of Angleton. On Sunday, Rep. Four Price (R- Flower Mound) and Rep. Phil King (R- Weatherford) both withdrew and followed the line of endorsements for Bonnen.
As Speaker Pro Tempore since 2013, Rep. Dennis Bonnen is the likely choice to step up. Less than 6 months ago, he didn’t want the job. With years of climbing the ranks within the Texas House behind him, Bonnen has the political clout to get the nod, and the war chest to purchase it. During the 2017 special session, he showed his coziness with Gov. Abbott by sponsoring one of his talking point pet project bills for imaginary property tax reform.
2014 brought out the worst in him. During an official legislative hearing of a committee Bonnen chaired, he made the ethnic slur heard round the state, calling children of Katrina refugees “coonasses.” While I’ve seen many legislators make nonsensical statements, finding a way to disparage Hurricane Katrina refugees while discussing the educational needs of immigrant children takes the cake. Uncouth behavior is not uncommon in Austin hallways or behind closed doors, but racially charged antagonism towards children from the lectern is never to be brushed over or forgotten.
In 2011, he championed the voter ID law (Senate Bill 14) later shot down by the courts for discriminatory intent and violating The Voting Rights Act. That bill was such a disaster that it put Texas back on the list of states needing outside approval before changing election laws, not to mention the $3.5 M and climbing costs to tax payers to defend it in court.
The 2011 legislative session reeked of accusations that Bonnen acted like a petulant child when not given the committee assignments he wanted. There were reports he was a frequent no-show in the Higher-Education committee and neglected his duties on the Sunset committee, leaving the work to his Texas Senate counterpart.
During the closing days of 2011, he tried to amend a pollution bill that would provide immunity for industrial facilities that damage personal property, putting corporations over citizens and corporate responsibility. The amendment was so bad that the bill’s own backers were forced to disavow it. That same year, as the clock ticked to closing, he made a motion to suspend the midnight deadline for passing bills and consider every bill remaining on the calendar. Procedurally allowable, but highly frowned upon and rarely used. Bonnen took a respected career and squabbled it away in a matter of months.
In the wake of continued national controversy regarding racism, Bonnen seems a very poor choice to be a preeminent face of the Republican party. He may have paid his dues and waited his turn as instructed under the rules of the boys’ club and of yesterday. He may have done Abbott’s bidding and capitalized on being mid-right while working with Strauss and appeasing Empower Texans loyalists. While the last few years have seemed like a lifetime, it can not have been long enough for his fellow state representatives to forget that intolerant faux paus and blatant disrespect for the educational needs of innocent children.
This election cycle has shown it’s a new dawn on a new day in a new Texas. The old way of following the pecking order has been broken. The Republican stronghold on the Legislature is fading. The public is watching more than ever, and the vote that occurs on the first day of legislative session will set the tone for its entirety. Republicans have already decided they will choose the Speaker without giving credence to input from Democrats, who picked up 12 valuable Texas House seats. Yet, for the sake of images and to quell the brewing storms fueled by divisive national sentiments, it’s clear that we can do better than Bonnen.