Last November, the race to replace Joe Straus as Speaker of the Texas House came to a swift and sudden close thanks to the support of some of the most powerful Democrats in the State of Texas.
They chose a Republican.
Nearly half of the House Democrats in the Texas Legislature — including some of its longest-serving veteran elected officials — signed on to a list of 109 names supporting Dennis Bonnen as Speaker of the Texas House, allowing him to far surpass the 76 votes necessary to take the gavel. Many of these Houston-area Democrats would later add their name to a Bonnen campaign fundraiser at billionaire Tilman Fertitta’s house. Representative Garnet Coleman even wrote a glowing editorial for the Houston Chronicle praising Bonnen, stating that he would “serve well as Texas Speaker.”
These Democrats made an enormous mistake. By folding so easily, they left Texans in the cold and entirely ignored the key lesson of Democratic electoral gains in 2018: When you fight you win, and when you compromise with hard right policies, you lose.
Lawmakers cannot plead ignorance to the risks with Bonnen. When Bonnen announced he had the votes, one former candidate and Democratic activist, Meghan Scoggins, warned of the issues with Bonnen in an editorial of her own, declaring that there were several better options on the table. She detailed how the Speaker-to-Be had authored one of the most racist voter ID laws in the country, no-showed to committee meetings in childish protest because he did not get the assignments he wanted, attempted to expand immunity for corporate polluters, and even used racist terminology to refer to child survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Like the rest of the House Republican Caucus, he signed on to SB4, AKA the Show-Me-Your-Papers Bill, the most anti-immigrant state law passed in the US since the notorious Arizona bill of the same name. Bonnen continued similarly extremist rhetoric and behavior as Speaker, telling the Texas Young Republicans earlier this year that “God led us to the Trump Presidency to defend the Supreme Court.”
This legislative session has featured Bonnen’s rubber stamp on some fairly heinous bills:
- House Bill 3172 enabled discrimination under the guise of “religious freedom.” The law would have allowed people to deny benefits, licensing, or servicer to others based on religious exemptions. Civil rights advocates referred to it as a “license to discriminate.”
- House Bill 3557 targeted pipeline protesters and other peaceful protesters of infrastructure projects with felony penalties, testing just how far anti-liberty oil barons can go in limiting the First Amendment.
- House Bill 1387 allowed an unlimited number of school staffers — including teachers — to carry handguns in schools.
- House Bill 2911, perhaps worst of all, cracked down on mobile polling places and used shifty methods to purge the voter rolls through questionable cross-checks with DPS data.
Some might say, “What’s the difference? Bonnen would have won anyway. He had the votes.”
Yet the point was not to stop him from becoming Speaker, but rather to make sure people know that the GOP are extreme so Texas knows them for who they truly are.
People need to KNOW that Dennis Bonnen ripped apart families (SB4) as much as anyone else.
People need to KNOW he’s an anti-choice extremist.
People need to KNOW he’s not as moderate as Joe Straus was (and Joe Straus wasn’t that moderate).
Taking a pass on fights and labeling that behavior “pragmatic” is a classic misstep on the part of the opposition to rabid conservatism.
Mitch McConnell “Couldn’t” just NOT fill a Supreme Court seat… but look at that, he did. He left it vacant.
Alabama “can’t just BAN abortion”… but look at that, they did it.
Trump couldn’t “win the nomination”… but look at that, he did, and then the presidency.
All of these rabid, right-wing attacks on democracy and the modern Bill of Rights came to life in spite of seeming nearly impossible in the not-so-distant past… and yet the Democrats continue to abandon their core policies in favor of compromise with a hard right wing agenda.
The job of the Democratic Party in the Era of Trump necessitates changing the way people think about these things so that we get better policy outcomes and a better world.
We can’t just play it up the middle and cross our fingers. We need to fight for our ideals and oppose right-wingers like Bonnen.
Grassroots Democrats fought hard to help even the playing field a little in the Texas House. Through hard work, they were able to pick up 12 House seats. Elected officials should have honored the amount of work it took to make that happen.
In this year’s session, they dropped the ball.
Daniel J. Cohen is a democratic activist and progressive organizer in Houston, Texas.