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Dennis Bonnen Has Spent Half His Life in the Texas House. Is He Ready to Run It?

Dennis Bonnen Has Spent Half His Life in the Texas House. Is He Ready to Run It?

Ten votes.

That’s the razor-thin margin by which a younger Dennis Bonnen – two years out of school – made it into the 1996 Republican main runoff for Home District 25.

These votes separated him and third-place finisher Arch “Beaver” Aplin III, the person behind the Buc-ee’s comfort retailer chain. The 24-year-old Bonnen went on to win the runoff and basic election, turning into the youngest member of the Home on the time.

Twenty-two years later, he’s weeks away from taking it over.

Bonnen’s ascent to presumptive Home speaker caught many abruptly. However those that know him have discovered to not rely out the child who virtually missed that 1996 runoff.

From his childhood in Angleton to his emergence as a key participant within the Home, they are saying, Bonnen has confirmed to be hard-charging and, at occasions, frenetic in pursuit of his objectives, even when it means ruffling some feathers alongside the best way.

“By no means underestimate him,” stated Linda Winder, one among Bonnen’s highschool academics. “He’s gonna come by way of with it.”

The next account of Bonnen’s rise to energy is predicated on interviews with greater than a dozen of Bonnen’s buddies, associates, and colleagues and native press reviews. Bonnen declined to be interviewed for the story.

‘Hit him once more!’

Bonnen was born on March three, 1972, in Houston. On the time, his household lived about 45 minutes south of Angleton, which might be the backdrop of his youth till he left for school 18 years later.

His father was a well-respected lawyer on the town, whereas his mom was a homemaker lively locally, notably with the native libraries.

Bonnen’s household – he was the youngest of 4 – was “very, very strict” and “very, very demanding,” recalled Winder, who was additionally a neighbor and would later work in his district workplace. She stated Bonnen was the one scholar she ever hit, putting him on the hand as he got here in late to a category “popping off.” After the category, Winder referred to as Bonnen’s mother to inform her concerning the incident.

“She instantly stated, ‘Hit him once more!’” Winder stated.

Nonetheless, again then, Bonnen exhibited a definite industriousness. He mowed lawns and had a paper route, performed baseball when he was youthful, then soccer in highschool.

He bought promoting for the scholar newspaper, memorably profitable an award for an advert he had swiftly composed on the final minute. Bonnen had put a tiny emblem on the backside and left the remainder of the advert clean. That was a lot to the dissatisfaction of Winder and one other instructor.

“They swore that I used to be all the time being lazy … they usually have been half proper – I assumed it was an ideal imaginative and prescient, however I used to be additionally being lazy,” Bonnen recalled at a current occasion. “However I gained greatest in state for that advert.”

In class, Bonnen needed to work additional exhausting as a result of he had dyslexia. He made up for it, Winder stated, by creating a robust reminiscence and having a “mind like a pc.”

On the Legislature, Bonnen has talked little about his dyslexia. However as a part of a 2012 deposition in Texas’ long-winding voter ID case, he acknowledged he suffers from the dysfunction, preferring to speak with employees verbally as an alternative of over e-mail.

A recent face

After graduating from Angleton Excessive Faculty in 1990, Bonnen went to St. Edward’s College in Austin, the place he studied political science. His professors keep in mind him as outgoing and intense. Richard Daly, who taught Bonnen in a category concerning the legislative course of and lobbying, stated he was “a part of a really, very energetic group” of scholars on the time.

Neal Sensible, who had Bonnen in quite a few programs, stated he couldn’t keep in mind Bonnen lacking a single class. The now-retired professor stated Bonnen was notably spectacular in his political principle class.

“He’d all the time have robust views [about] what the theorists have been saying, however he understood that different individuals might see issues slightly in a different way as properly,” Clever stated. “I assumed that was a reasonably exceptional trait for anyone that younger.”

A couple of years later, when Bonnen was first operating for the Texas Home, Sensible took his college students to the district to stroll precincts.

It was throughout Bonnen’s time at St. Edward’s that he obtained his first actual expertise on the Texas Legislature. In 1993, he received a job as a Home sergeant-at-arms, which made him answerable for serving to maintain order within the decrease chamber.

After graduating the subsequent yr with a political science diploma, he set his sights on the nation’s capitol. He spent the summer time of 1994 interning for a congressman who represented his a part of the state, Greg Laughlin, a conservative Democrat who would change to the GOP the subsequent yr. Following the internship, Bonnen went to work for the Can Producers Institute, the nationwide commerce group representing producers and suppliers of metallic cans. And in 1995, he joined Bob Dole’s presidential marketing campaign as a member of the advance workforce.

By the latter a part of the yr, although, Bonnen was starting to consider politics nearer to house. The longtime state consultant, Republican Jack Harris, had introduced he was not in search of re-election to Texas Home District 25, as an alternative operating for a seat on the Brazoria County Commissioners’ Courtroom. Bonnen left the presidential marketing campaign, returned to Angleton, and on the weekend earlier than Thanksgiving, launched his marketing campaign.

Bonnen’s first election turned out to be a memorable one, together with his slender defeat of Aplin within the four-way main – and a subsequent recount that Bonnen survived.

Within the runoff, Bonnen simply defeated the first-place finisher from the first, a contract author from Alvin named Dianne Hensley. He went on to rout Democrat David Miller within the basic election. At 24, Bonnen turned the youngest member of the Legislature on the time.

“In all probability the most important factor from that race is that Dennis labored a lot more durable than any of the opposite people,” recalled Brazoria County Decide Matt Sebesta, who was an Angleton Metropolis Council member on the time. Bonnen benefited from his mother and father’ sterling reputations locally, Sebesta added, however Bonnen didn’t depend on them, “busting his tail off” to show his personal mettle.

Bonnen has not forgotten about that first election. In his workplace, he retains a pair of footwear with weathered soles that he used to dam stroll in the course of the race.

Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for the Texas Tribune

The footwear Dennis Bonnen wore throughout his first bid for a Home seat in 1996.

He campaigned as a recent face for the district, with one newspaper advert touting him because the “one candidate on this race with the power and relentless dedication to battle for our values and considerations in Austin.” But the 24-year-old Bonnen additionally confronted questions on whether or not he was prepared for the job – questions the previous Home sergeant-at-arms characteristically dismissed.

“I do know precisely the place the toilet is in Austin,” Bonnen informed an area newspaper, The Brazosport Information, after profitable the runoff. “I gained’t have an issue getting round.”

Bonnen arrived in Austin for the 1997 session wanting to study the ropes, and he shortly discovered a mentor in Brazoria County’s different – rather more senior – consultant, Tom Uher. On the time, the Bay Metropolis Democrat was on his 16th session and serving as speaker professional tem – a place Bonnen would earn 16 years later.

“Like all new members, there’s an enormous studying curve, and Dennis was a type of that may ask the appropriate questions, and if he couldn’t get the fitting reply, nicely, he’d come again and ask some extra,” Uher recalled. “Very inquisitive. He’d ask good questions. He didn’t waste the members’ time.”

It was not simply Bonnen’s Brazoria County colleague who took discover of the freshman. The Democratic Home speaker on the time, Pete Laney, recalled it being “very evident that [Bonnen] wasn’t going to be a shrinking violet.”

“From his freshman yr, his actions indicated that he was going to be part of the method,” Laney stated, “and never anyone simply sitting again and going with the movement.”

Throughout his first few periods, Bonnen constructed expertise serving on an array of committees: County Affairs, Insurance coverage, Methods and Means, Pensions and Investments, and Environmental Regulation. On the polls, he confronted little to no opposition as voters rewarded him with time period after time period.

‘He’s not afraid to get aggressive.’

However as he gained seniority within the Home, Bonnen additionally developed a status as a brawler. Whereas he chaired the Home Environmental Regulation Committee from 2003 via 2008, environmental teams accused him of slow-walking laws they supported and for having a deaf ear for payments seen as unfriendly to polluting industries in his district. They used phrases like “combative” and “impolite” when requested to recount how Bonnen handled them.

It was “a really unwelcoming setting,” stated Luke Metzger, the chief director of Surroundings Texas who remembers testifying earlier than Bonnen in 2007. “In the midst of a citizen’s testimony he would say issues sarcastically, like ‘wow’ or ‘fascinating,’ or simply accuse witnesses of being ignorant.”

In 2009, San Antonio Republican Joe Straus kicked off a decade-long run as Texas Home Speaker that coincided with a pivotal interval in Bonnen’s political profession. That point included a number of stepping stones that might finally solidify Bonnen’s position as a pacesetter for the decrease chamber, in accordance with lots of his colleagues.

He turned vice-chair after which chair of the influential Sundown Advisory Fee which is charged with periodically assessing and renewing the charters of state businesses.

And when then-speaker professional tem Beverly Woolley of Houston introduced she wouldn’t search re-election in 2012, there was a gap to be Straus’ second in command.

Bonnen was that man, getting into a task that may set him as much as be a mouthpiece for the Texas Home and, ultimately, probably the most seen lawmaker charged with navigating the murky waters between the Home and the more and more conservative State Senate.

State Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat from Houston who remembers when Bonnen “had a full head of hair,” stated Bonnen’s ascension to speaker professional tem in 2013 was “the most important factor that occurred to him.”

“Joe was the man with the scalpel and Dennis was the man with the hammer,” Dutton stated. “They complimented one another in that respect, and so it labored out rather well.”

That yr was additionally notable in one other means for Bonnen. He was joined within the Home by his oldest brother, Greg Bonnen. A neurosurgeon from Friendswood, Greg Bonnen gained the race to exchange outgoing State Rep. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), who had efficiently run for Texas Senate that yr.

Within the 2015 session, Bonnen’s profile continued to rise. He not solely remained speaker professional tem, however was chosen to chair the tax-writing Methods & Means Committee. He additionally turned the go-to lawmaker for carrying high-priority payments by means of the chamber.

He carried the Home’s tax-cut proposal, a $four.9-billion aid plan that may have lowered gross sales taxes and served because the chamber’s response to a Senate-backed plan targeted on property taxes. He additionally authored a sweeping border safety measure that beefed up staffing for the Texas Division of Public Security.

It was throughout that very same legislative session, lawmakers say, that Dennis Bonnen gained a fame because the Home’s prime advocate – somebody who was unafraid to talk boldly concerning the chamber’s place even when he ruffled the feathers of these on the east aspect of the Capitol.

“He’s not afraid to interact, he’s not afraid to get aggressive and get robust when he needs to be,” stated State Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Value), a co-author of Bonnen’s 2015 gross sales tax proposal. “He’s received that popularity of being this bulldog as a result of they’re fiercely loyal and candy, however should you mess them up or mess with their house owners, they get very protecting and hard.”

Marjorie Kamys Cotera for the Texas Tribune

Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) and Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) in Might 2017.

Chamber tensions and self-inflicted wounds

Final yr, some lawmakers say Dennis Bonnen added one other sudden position to his legislative obligations: mediator.

Dutton recounted an occasion throughout final yr’s common legislative session when tensions between the 2 chambers have been excessive. Home lawmakers have been annoyed with the Senate’s inaction on a number of payments authored by Home members. And Dutton delivered a rousing speech expressing the chamber’s frustration that included the road, “When the Senate gained’t respect us, they should anticipate us!” Bonnen shortly tried to deal with the difficulty with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate.

“He shared what was the temper of the Home, which is that we have been all upset that some Home payments over within the Senate hadn’t even gotten a listening to and, in some instances, hadn’t been appointed to committees,” Dutton stated.

Bonnen, he added, “was a pivotal individual in getting the waters calmed.”

Bonnen additionally helped arbitrate escalating battles between Straus and Patrick, who have been deadlocked over a slew of points together with how a lot to restrict cities and different native entities’ talents to gather property tax income – and, most controversially, a “toilet invoice” that may have restricted using sure public amenities for transgender Texans.

The variations between the extra average Home and extra conservative Senate have been emblematic of a bigger struggle inside the Texas GOP over how far proper to take the celebration. And Bonnen was the Home member who championed the decrease chamber’s model of property tax laws. Regardless of battles inside the chamber, he efficiently received a property tax invoice via the Home.

By the top of two periods final yr, the Home had fought off Patrick’s hopes for legislating transgender Texans’ toilet utilization and constraining how a lot property taxes native entities might gather. And Patrick, too, typically discovered himself in Bonnen’s crosshairs. The Home member publicly pushed again after Patrick claimed that the Senate’s property tax laws can be the “strongest tax reform and tax aid invoice ever handed.” He additionally publicly referred to as out numerous native leaders and state officers lively on the difficulty for spinning narratives about property tax laws that he stated merely weren’t true.

The 2 chambers by no means ironed out their variations, and a property tax measure by no means handed – teeing the difficulty as much as as soon as once more be a serious level of rivalry between the Home and Senate come January.

Regardless of gaining a status because the Home’s defender, Bonnen has additionally angered a few of his colleagues within the decrease chamber. Through the flooring debate over an already-controversial invoice banning “sanctuary” jurisdictions that prohibit native police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities, State Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) proposed a divisive modification permitting native police to ask individuals they legally detain about their immigration standing. Democrats blamed Bonnen for pulling the plug on a last-minute deal to kill the modification. The invoice – with the modification tacked on – ultimately handed with Bonnen’s help, and was quickly signed into regulation.

Whereas 30 Democrats ultimately got here round to again Bonnen’s speaker bid, many – even some on Bonnen’s preliminary listing of supporters – stated that episode nonetheless leaves a bitter style of their mouths.

“I used to be not on the listing [of Bonnen’s pledges] to honor the considerations of a giant proportion of Mexican-American Legislative Caucus members concerning the anti-Hispanic tone of current periods,” State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) beforehand advised the Texas Tribune.

To make certain, Bonnen has had different self-inflicted wounds. In 2009, he drew criticism when he stated throughout a Home flooring debate that Hispanic ladies weren’t historically inspired to go away residence after highschool. Years later, he informed the Tribune that a Latina member of the 81st Legislature on the time had agreed together with his evaluation and advised him as a lot.

“I wasn’t making an attempt to be confrontational once I stated that,” he stated in 2015. “I used to be frankly type of offended and shocked on the response.”

In a 2014 Home committee listening to, he used the derogatory time period “coonass” whereas discussing youngsters coming to Texas within the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He later apologized for utilizing the slur.

‘You need to go house and have an actual job.’

On the similar time he was climbing the ranks of Home management, Bonnen was constructing his profession again residence in Angleton. When he was first elected to the Texas Home in 1996, the 24-year previous was working for an area knowledge methods firm. Over the subsequent few years, Bonnen discovered work within the insurance coverage business and in gross sales, in line with monetary statements he filed with the Texas Ethics Fee.

Roughly 15 years in the past, Bonnen converted to a profession in banking, becoming a member of First Group Financial institution in Houston as senior vice chairman in enterprise improvement. He went on to work for different banks within the space earlier than turning into president, CEO, and chairman of Heritage Financial institution in 2008 – titles he nonetheless holds at the moment. As Bonnen described in a 2012 difficulty of his alma mater’s journal, it’s been essential for him to maintain his “day job” whereas serving as an elected official.

“Lots of people assume we receives a commission like anyone in Washington, D.C.,” Bonnen wrote in a bit outlining his recommendation for aspiring politicians. “We get $600 per 30 days to be legislators. However that’s a superb factor: It’s a must to go house and have an actual job … and you need to reside and work and take part in your group.”

Beneath Bonnen’s management, quite a few state lawmakers and lobbyists have held investments or management roles in Heritage Financial institution, together with two who nonetheless do: Rusty Kelley, a high-profile, Austin-based lobbyist, and State Rep. Dan Flynn, a Canton Republican. Each personal inventory within the financial institution, based on filings for the 2016 fiscal yr; Kelley is a former member of the financial institution’s board, whereas Flynn nonetheless sits on it.

Although the State’s ethics legal guidelines are obscure and filled with loopholes, Bonnen’s enterprise ties might draw extra consideration as home speaker. The Texas Structure requires members who’ve a direct “private or personal curiosity” in a invoice to each disclose that reality after which not vote on it. However how “curiosity” is outlined varies amongst lawmakers. That provision additionally doesn’t typically immediately influence audio system of the home, who not often vote on measures however can nonetheless be enormously influential on whether or not any invoice makes it to the Home flooring for a vote.

“If lawmakers are involved about potential conflicts of curiosity, or in the event that they need to guarantee the general public that no such conflicts exist, then they need to strengthen state ethics legal guidelines to offer extra info to the general public,” stated Adrian Shelley, the director of Public Citizen Texas, a nonprofit shopper advocacy group. (Bonnen, for his half, agreed in 2012 that such guidelines have been “solely too ambiguous,” notably relating to “stating the widespread pursuits.”)

Jason Cordoba is a longtime good friend of the Bonnen household who sits on the board of Heritage Financial institution. When requested about Bonnen’s potential conflicts of curiosity with the financial institution in his position within the Legislature, Cordoba didn’t immediately tackle the difficulty, as an alternative saying the financial institution “has grown at an unimaginable fee” and itemizing off qualities about Bonnen that “will serve him properly as speaker.”

“The issues that impress me probably the most about Dennis aren’t concerning the accolades I’ve examine within the paper; It’s concerning the issues I’ve seen him do to assist individuals, by which he had nothing to realize,” stated Cordoba, an lawyer and regent of Brazosport School in Lake Jackson. “I’ve seen Dennis and his household take deprived highschool youngsters to soccer video games at Texas A&M College. None of these issues get publicized.”

That sentiment – that Bonnen’s work locally stretches far past his work in state authorities – rings very true for Jessica Phillips. She and her husband, Chaney, each went to highschool with Bonnen. The three maintained a friendship because the couple acquired married and had three youngsters.

Brooke, the couple’s center youngster, died when she 5 after being recognized with leukemia.

“Dennis – I imply, consultant Bonnen,” Jessica Phillips stated, ”was trustworthy to serving to us by means of her two years of remedy. When she handed away, Bonnen had the Senate and the Home cross a decision in reminiscence of our daughter.”

Courtesy / Jessica Phillips

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton with the Phillips household on the Home Flooring in 2007.

In 2007, the couple co-founded B.I.G. Love Most cancers Care Providers, a nonprofit that helps youngsters with most cancers and their households. Jessica Phillips stated Bonnen was “instrumental” in serving to her and her husband get their nonprofit off the bottom. He additionally served on its board of administrators for its first eight years. He now works in an advisory position, Jessica Phillips stated, however continues to donate to the group recurrently.

“He’s not a silent member of the group simply because he’s within the Legislature,” Ro’vin Garrett, the Brazoria County Tax Assessor-Collector who has labored with Bonnen for greater than 18 years, stated of the lawmaker. “That’s simply the best way he’s. He was introduced up that approach, and he’s lively in our group. He’s not a figurehead.”

The consensus candidate

When Straus introduced his retirement in October 2017, Bonnen’s identify instantly floated up as a possible successor. However earlier this yr, he denied rumors that he was within the job – each publicly to reporters and privately to his Home colleagues – and his historical past of butting heads with others led some to query whether or not he had the temperament to steer.

After a number of others formally jumped into the race, a gaggle of roughly 40 Home Republicans met in October in hopes of discovering a consensus speaker candidate. Nobody appeared to attract as a lot curiosity as Bonnen – who wasn’t even a candidate. Two days after that assembly, Bonnen was in. About two weeks later, the speaker’s race was over, as Bonnen introduced he had the help of greater than 100 Home members to again his bid to be Straus’ successor.

State lawmakers and politicos throughout the ideological spectrum are cautiously optimistic about Bonnen’s speakership, regardless of prior variations they could have had with him. Amongst them: Damon Rambo, a pastor who unsuccessfully challenged Bonnen on this yr’s Republican main, deeming him insufficiently conservative.

“Dennis is, you realize, for all of his faults, a strategic individual,” Rambo stated. “Now that he’s out from underneath Joe Straus, I hope he surprises me.”

Bonnen’s tentative coalition was on full show Monday morning, when he paid a go to to Tyler on the invitation of Schaefer, chairman of the Home Freedom Caucus – a gaggle that has been a thorn within the aspect of management final session. However Schaefer – in addition to different Freedom Caucus members – have lined up behind Dennis Bonnen for speaker, and on Monday morning, the temper was jovial and hopeful as Schaefer and one other space lawmaker, State Rep. Cole Hefner, launched Bonnen to their constituents.

Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Speaker Professional Tem Dennis Bonnen on the dais within the state Home on Might 26, 2015.

Repeatedly describing Bonnen as “within the weeds on coverage,” Schaefer knowledgeable the gang of Bonnen’s high-energy strategy to lawmaking: “He’ll come as much as you at your desk and say, ‘Why the heck did you vote simply the best way you probably did as a result of X, Y and Z?’ And perhaps he’ll inform you, ‘Don’t you already know, Matt? That in all probability violated your personal rules or one thing.'”

When it was his flip behind the rostrum, Bonnen spoke at size about what he noticed because the position of the speaker. All members, he stated, ought to have a “truthful enjoying subject to be heard” – to not all the time get their method, however at the least to be heard.

“It’s the speaker’s job to maintain the members within the room and within the dialogue,” Bonnen stated. “It isn’t the speaker’s job to inform them the reply to the query. You may determine the query, however you don’t present the reply. You present the management to make sure that we get to an answer.”

Earlier than he spoke, Bonnen took some teasing from Hefner, who jokingly stated he “did not also have a driver’s license” when Bonnen was first elected to the Legislature in 1996. Bonnen, now 46, famous he was 24 again then and had his license for a couple of years.

“I am nonetheless younger,” he stated, “comparatively talking.”

This text initially appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media group that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public coverage, politics, authorities and statewide points.

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