Symptoms of a Speaker Race

A flurry of announcements were made by candidates to preside over the Texas House in 2021, just days before control of the House will be decided in the election.

Note: This analysis was first published on The Quorum Report on October 19. Four days later, Chair Senfronia Thompson became the first declared candidate for Speaker for the 2021 session, followed by Representatives Trey Martinez Fischer, Oscar Longoria, Geanie Morrison, Trent Ashby, Chris Paddie, and John Cyrier, who dropped out within 24 hours and threw his support to Morrison. Join us for daily coverage of Texas politics and government at Quorum Report. Click “subscriptions” on the homepage to get signed up. 

The quiet mutterings about the coming speaker’s race are now rising to the level of a low hum. In the weeks to come, it’ll hit warp speed.

So, let’s talk about it now, shall we?

For months, members on both sides of the aisle have either kept their powder completely dry – largely avoiding the discussion altogether – or they have been whispering amongst themselves in very specific silos.

But coming up soon, some Texas House Republicans plan to gather to discuss it. Nothing official is slated and there are no declared candidates. But members have gathered in smaller groups already and there’s a sense among some that a broader discussion of what members want to see in a speaker, whether Republican or Democratic, should be had now so the body isn’t caught off guard as many were when retiring Rep. Dennis Bonnen ascended to the chair.

A few key things to remember about how that unfolded two years ago:

In October of 2018, anger was already growing among some Republican members because Bonnen, who had previously sworn he would never be a candidate for speaker, had worked to circumvent a caucus endorsement process that one of his own lieutenants pushed in the first place.

Remember, it was Rep. Dustin Burrows who originally made the motion in caucus to establish the process for endorsing a speaker candidate as called for in the Republican Party of Texas Platform. Then, after months of denying he was even interested, Bonnen entered the race. The week of November 12, Bonnen announced he had the votes to take the gavel before the caucus could even endorse him or any of the other candidates who thought that was the first step in the process after the general election.

Those candidates at the time included Representatives Four Price, Drew Darby, Tan Parker, Phil King, and Travis Clardy. Price told Quorum Report he will not be a candidate this time around.

On some level, there seemed to be an understanding among some candidates for speaker in ’18 that the way to win was to look to the Joe Straus model from the previous decade: Put together a coalition with a smaller number of Republicans and then gather the Democrats to be on the team.

That is an oversimplified version of the way Straus and company toppled then-Speaker Tom Craddick in 2009, but you get the idea.

As a House veteran, Bonnen understood it is just a race to 76 votes, making the head fake with the caucus a brilliant political move. In that context, the GOP Caucus process only mattered when convenient.

The choice of a presiding officer is deeply personal to the members. Outsiders have a tendency to overthink it or think about it in the wrong way. It is not so much about which part of the state the person is from, how much Republican vs Democratic support they can attain, or even their ideological persuasion.

No, the first standing order of a presiding officer is to protect the institution. Bonnen failed on that count, but not just in his dealings with Empower Texans spokesman Michael Quinn Sullivan.

Because of the personal nature of choosing a speaker, Bonnen’s fiery persona gave members some assurance he would look out for and vigorously defend the Texas House against Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott when necessary, just as Straus had personally taken the slings and arrows for the flameout of the bathroom bill in ‘17.

At that time, Lt. Gov. Patrick took some joy in holding news conferences alongside Republican senators where he would call Speaker Straus an obstructionist. Straus countered with a news conference where he stood alone as the opposition.

The optics told the tale: Patrick made the senators walk the plank with him while House members would never have to explain a vote about bathrooms in their primaries because the bill was already dead in then-State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook’s committee before it could hit the floor.

The political result? Bathrooms were never a serious issue in the ‘18 election cycle when Empower Texans candidates suffered losses in March and November. And even though the right-wing enforcement group was bleeding out on the political battlefield, Bonnen still felt the need to strike a deal with them ahead of competitive elections in 2020.

Bonnen, as Ways and Means Committee Chairman under Straus, had defended the House’s position against Lt. Gov. Patrick’s property tax caps/rollback rates. By the time he was speaker, Bonnen fully embraced them, agreed that the House was to blame for their previous failure, and helped put Senate Bill 2 on Abbott’s desk for his signature.

During the 2019 session and since, Bonnen has dutifully been at Gov. Abbott’s side working hand in hand on everything the governor wished to accomplish – whether legislatively or by executive order.

There will, of course, be continued pressure coming from outside groups to elect a speaker who adheres to a certain ideology. If a Democratic majority is in the cards after Election Day, what will progressive groups demand of their allied members? How many Republican members can cast a vote for a Democratic speaker who will be under pressure to deliver legislative results for groups and voters who helped deliver the majority?

Meantime, a governing coalition might be that much more difficult to find during a session that unfolds under pandemic restrictions, resistance growing to Abbott’s executive actions, a tight budget, and with the pitched partisan battle of redistricting on the horizon.

In that environment, a speaker who has the trust of the members as an honest broker will be that much more important.


Copyright October 19, 2020, Harvey Kronberg,, All rights are reserved. 

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