The next speaker
As Texas lawmakers were headed into a special session in 2017, House Speaker Joe Straus was appalled that his Senate counterpart Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was planning to push once more for a controversial bill targeting transgender Texans’ access to restrooms.
“I’m not a lawyer, but I am a Texan,” Straus said. “I’m disgusted by all this. Tell the lieutenant governor I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”
It was a defining comment, and moment, for Straus, the longest-serving speaker in Texas history. It’s worth recalling, now that the smoke shrouding the identity of the member who will succeed him has begun to clear. It looks very likely that Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, will be the next speaker come January.
That’s no small matter. The Texas Constitution divides power in the Capitol far more evenly between the speaker, the lieutenant governor and governor than in most other states. As we saw last session, the three-way tussle over the direction our leaders would take Texas was intense, and at key points Speaker Straus played a decisive role.
Now that Bonnen’s path to leadership of the House grows more certain, the question left for the rest of us is changing, too. No longer so focused on who will be speaker, Texans are left asking what kind of leader the newly chosen member of the state’s triumvirate will be.
Bonnen has been a representative for 22 years, ever since winning his seat at age 24 in 1996. Throughout his long tenure, Bonnen has developed the reputation as a loudmouth and a bulldog — albeit one who grew to hone and leverage those skills in service of House leadership. More recently, he’s been a top Straus lieutenant and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He was the go-to attack dog for criticizing the most extreme measures promoted by Patrick in the 2015 and 2017 sessions.
That institutional loyalty has paid off, as his supporters now seem to hope that he’ll continue to stand up to Patrick and protect the House as an institution and what has been its far more pragmatic path.
Still, if he is indeed installed as speaker, the new role will thrust him into a statewide spotlight that until now he hasn’t confronted. For all his insider credentials, he’s not well known to Texans outside of Austin and at home in District 25.
But we’ll know all about him, soon enough. Power, as Robert Caro has observed in his study of Lyndon Johnson, doesn’t so much corrupt as it reveals. The pursuit of power tells us much, but the real test is how a leader uses it once he or she has it.
In that sense, we’re about to see the true nature of Bonnen revealed by the very power with which his colleagues are about to entrust him.
We see Straus as an exemplar. We certainly didn’t always agree with Straus, but his was a pragmatic yet principled leadership we admired.
It was pragmatism that caused him to initially recoil at hard-liners’ bid to pass a bill restricting which bathrooms transgender students and others could use. Nationwide, businesses had punished other states for similarly intolerant laws and he wanted none of that for Texas.
But the real leadership came later, when it dawned on him that making a purely economic case against the bill wasn’t enough. He decided he must stand against the bill in order to stand with the people in Texas — many of them young, many of them vulnerable — who would feel targeted should the bathroom bill pass. He knew that messages like the ones sent by legislation can be toxic and even fatal. He wouldn’t have it.
Bonnen’s backers apparently see in him the same kind of backbone that Straus demonstrated. We hope they are right. Texas is counting on it.