Stephen Spillman / Freelance
If you are like me, you miss Joe Straus.
That’s an odd statement of sorts for a San Antonio journalist who now sees Straus more than ever since he left elected office and his work at the Texas Legislature in Austin.
Since then, Straus has been quite visible in San Antonio, especially since he generously agreed to co-chair the Early Matters San Antonio initiative with Peter J. Holt, CEO of Holt Caterpillar and chairman of the San Antonio Spurs. Most people who leave public office welcome a breather, but less than one year later, Straus is helping lead an important citywide early childhood education initiative.
Straus will be on a panel about building more statewide bipartisanship, Friday, Nov. 8 at San Antonio CityFest.
What I mean to say is that I miss Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus. Elected officials guided by a true sense of public service, especially after they accrue real power, are to be revered. They stand in sharp contrast to those at the top who engage in backroom deals and put self ahead of state.
Straus was an exemplary leader who acted out of principle, reaching across party lines to act in the best interest of citizens. That doesn’t mean he made every voter or Rivard Report reader happy, as we might read in the comments section of this column.
That’s why Dennis Bonnen is no Joe Straus. Less than one year into his new role as the GOP’s head of the lower chamber, the Gulf Coast legislator from Angleton is engulfed in a scandal of his own making.
Bonnen’s future as House leader could be imperiled after the Oct. 15 release of a 64-minute-recording secretly made by Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, in a June meeting with the Speaker and then-GOP caucus chair Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) in the speaker’s offices.
Empower Texas is a Tea Party-rooted political hydra: a deeply-financed political action committee, a right-wing watchdog that sets upon moderates, and a partisan news outlet that seeks to influence the very game in which it plays.
Bonnen mistakenly believed he could bend Sullivan to his will behind closed doors. Sullivan must have entered the meeting with his own plan.
No wonder Straus came home.
In the recording, Bonnen offers Empower Texans staffers coveted group press credentials to the House floor in return for targeting 10 fellow House Republicans deemed too moderate. The list included freshman Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) who succeeded Straus in his north San Antonio district.
Quid pro quo. Those can get you in trouble, regardless of how powerful an office you hold.
Bonnen’s defense in the wake of the released recording: He broke no criminal laws, so Texans should just move on. It’s clear he improperly used his office to target political adversaries and offer favors in return. It will be interesting to see how many GOP House members find the courage to condemn Bonner and his conduct, and how how many turn a blind eye.
Burrows, who engaged Sullivan in an extended conversation about targeting the 10 named moderate Republicans after Bonnen left the room, resigned as the GOP caucus chair in August. Bonnen will not do the same as speaker unless he is presented with an ultimatum from his own party. Most in the Texas GOP seem to be watching and waiting, making their own political calculations.
Bonnen is bad news for San Antonio and Texas’ other big cities. He represents a Gulf Coast district that lies south of Houston and east of Victoria, an area of the state that bears no resemblance to urban Texas. Palacios, Freeport, Angleton, Bay City – these are towns with populations of 10,000-20,000 people.
“Any mayor, county judge that was dumb ass enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties,” Bonnen said in the recording, adding the 2021 session would be even worse if he has his way.
The disproportionate power that non-urban legislators continue to wield in the Legislature is becoming an ever-greater challenge for the state’s major cities, where most Texans live and work. Home rule, enshrined in the Texas Constitution, is being undermined one law at a time.
Like many, I credit Bonnen with presiding over a successful legislative session earlier this year when he, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Gov. Greg Abbott were blessed with a strong economy, and an ample budget and rainy day fund. They were guided in no small part by expediency and the loss of legislative seats, realizing the time had come to focus on real issues like public school finance rather than another bathroom bill.
It’s a shame that the person we want Bonnen to be is not the person he really is. I don’t really know who he is, but I do know that Dennis Bonnen is no Joe Straus, and never will be.