What the Money Says About Presumptive Speaker Dennis Bonnen
*This article, originally published November 13, was updated on November 16, 2018, to correct a mistake about presumptive Speaker Bonnen’s expenditures.
Yesterday afternoon, State Representative Dennis Bonnen strode to a microphone in the Texas Capitol to announce, “The Speaker’s race is over.” Bonnen had collected 109 pledges of support — far more than needed — to practically guarantee he will be the new Speaker of the House when lawmakers convene in January. But what kind of Speaker will he be? His voting record and his political alliances send a mixed signal.
Bonnen’s voting record suggests he is among the more conservative lawmakers. Dr. Mark Jones of Rice University ranks all members of the Texas House and Senate from most liberal to most conservative. According to Jones, Bonnen ranks as the 24th most conservative member of the House (out of 150), and the most conservative member of the eight representatives who had thrown their hat into the ring to be Speaker. This ideological position likely explains how Bonnen was able to secure the support of all but one of the members of the Texas Freedom Caucus, a coalition of the most conservative members of the House.
His political alliances, on the other hand, suggest Bonnen may govern the House as a moderate-liberal. Bonnen was seen as an ally of former liberal Republican Speaker Joe Straus, who came to power and maintained control by governing with a coalition of liberal Republicans and Democrats. Bonnen even served as Speaker Pro-Tempore when Straus was absent. The association with Straus likely explains how Bonnen was able to secure the support of many of the most liberal Republicans as well as a number of Democrats.
This unique mixture of ideology and positioning allowed Bonnen to gain support from every corner of the political spectrum, but it also raises questions about how he will lead and which positions he will champion.
At Transparency Texas we believe, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The best way to predict how Bonnen will govern the House is to follow his money.
Notable Contributions to Bonnen’s Campaign:
- Top Contributors are Moderate and Liberal Republican PACs. The top two contributors to Bonnen’s campaign account this election season are the Texas Association of Realtors PAC with donations of $30,472.31 and Texans for Lawsuit Reform with donations of $17,500.00. The bulk of the Realtors’ political largess lands in the accounts of liberal Republicans and Democrats, which cements their position as the leader of Texas’ liberal Republican tribe. Since Texans for Lawsuit Reform’s giving spans the ideological spectrum from liberal to conservative Republicans, they are considered the premier PAC in the moderate Republican tribe.
- Bonnen has strong ties in his district and in Austin. An analysis of the contributions to his campaign this election season shows that 35% of Bonnen’s donations come from within his district, 65% from without. Broken down another way, more than a quarter, 27%, of his donations are from inside Austin. Bonnen has been the representative from House District 25 (Angleton, Freeport, and Brazoria County) for more than two decades, so his relationships in the district are strong. Likewise, as Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, it is no surprise he garnered support from the Austin lobby class.
- Top Individual Donor is Charles Butt. Over the last two election cycles, Bonnen’s top individual donor, at $27,500.00, has been Charles Butt, the Texas billionaire who inherited the HEB grocery store chain. While Mr. Butt has voted in both parties’ primaries in the last handful of election cycles, he chose to vote in the Democrat primary in 2016. Butt’s top political priority is increased funding for public schools. At Bonnen’s press conference yesterday, he declared that reforming school finance will be the top priority of the Texas House.
Notable Expenditures by Bonnen’s Campaign:
- Bonnen’s Political Consultants are Liberal Republicans. Bonnen’s top expenditure in the 2018 election cycle has been $380,430.51 to the political consulting firm Murphy Nasica, the go-to consulting firm for liberal Republicans. Their client list includes Texas Senator Kel Seliger, State Representative Charlie Geren, State Representative-elect Steve Allison, and former State Representative Cindy Burkett, to name a few.
- He Throws a Good Party? If you find yourself in Freeport, Texas, you should check out On the River Restaurant. Bonnen likes it so much he managed to spend $16,125.00 of his campaign cash there.
What to Watch Going Forward:
Now that Bonnen is slated to become the third most powerful politician in Texas, behind only Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, it will be interesting to watch which lobbyists and donors chip in to his account between now and January 8, the start of the next legislative session. (In order to avoid the appearance, or reality, of being bribed, lawmakers are not allowed to accept donations during the session.)
You can count on Transparency Texas to keep you informed about what’s going on with presumptive Speaker Bonnen and all the money in Texas politics.
Our Capitol Crowd series investigates the money behind the politicians, advocacy groups, and donors who have the biggest impact in Austin.