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Dozens of Dems Poised to Back Republican for Texas House Speaker, Sparking Backlash

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen speaks about border security at a news conference at the Capitol in Austin, Texas on Jan. 11, 2017. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Warning “choices have consequences,” Julieta Garibay, co-founder and Texas director of the immigrant-rights group United We Stand, notified Texas House Democrats they’ll be committing political suicide by supporting Rep. Dennis Bonnen in the Republican’s campaign to become the next speaker of the Texas House in January.

Cary Cheshire, the vice president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a project of the right-wing Empower Texans group, is just as adamant as he demanded conservative Republicans stick to their principles and elect one of their own to lead the state House.

“In a solidly Republican state like Texas,” Cheshire wrote, “the speaker ought to be elected by Republicans, not the Democrats and a group of turncoats.”

But here’s some common ground on which he and Garibay can stand: Cheshire doesn’t much like Bonnen, either.

Soon after House Speaker Joe Straus announced he wouldn’t seek re-election in the November midterm, six Republicans and one Democrat announced they’d run to replace him in January.

Rep. Bonnen, one of Straus’ closest allies in the Texas House, has emerged as the favorite, which displeases Cheshire and Garibay.

“This is a man who has filed bills to kill protections for immigrants,” said Garibay, “wants English-only laws, and who is against state tuition for undocumented youth and LGBTQIA rights.”

She added that “since President Trump was elected, the immigrant community in Texas has been living a worsening nightmare,” with the Texas Legislature supporting the bill proposed by Bonnen to ban sanctuary cities.

Adding to Garibay’s furor: more than 30 Texas House Democrats say they’ll support Bonnen.

Garibay promised those Democrats are going to find out voters will make sure they pay the price for their decision.

“On November 6, 2018, the electorate sent a mandate. Texas Democrats who support Bonnen have lost sight of what the immigrant community and people of color who supported them need and want,” Garibay said. “Across Texas and the nation, voters made it clear — we are against Trump’s racist agenda and any politician who would support it. We need politicians who will not apologize for our existence, who will stand with our values.”

But state Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said the Dems had no other practical choice.

“It was clear that the choice for any legislator — Democrats included — was to sign on with Mr. Bonnen or to remain unaligned for the time being,” Turner said. “Democratic members were free to make that decision.”

Cheshire and Empower Texans aren’t any happier than Turner or Garibay. Christopher Hooks at the Texas Observer noted Bonnen is “someone who always seemed to delight in making fun of Empower guys on the (House) floor.”

So what’s a conservative Texas Republican to do? Cheshire told Hooks, “All I can do is point you to our mission statement. We’ve been doing that since we were started and intend to keep doing it.”

When Bonnen, known as “Dennis the Menace” in the Legislature, was able to announce he had 109 pledges of support – from nearly three dozen Democrats along with his fellow GOPers – he declared victory Nov. 12.

“We’re gonna be the House,” Bonnen told reporters during a press conference. “When the House stands together, it does great things. And this Texas House is going to do great things.”

Democrats who make up the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which dislikes Bonnen for the same reasons — and as much as Julieta Garibay — immediately said they would work the Republican. But the lawmakers also served notice they would not put up with the “anti-Latino initiatives and rhetoric that have defined recent legislative sessions.”

Ross Ramsey, executive editor and co-founder of the Texas Tribune, anticipates Bonnen’s election as speaker of the House. Ramsey also said it’s time for a fresh start in the Texas Legislature. Along with that, no matter what Cary Cheshire wants, will be a more moderate GOP caucus.

“After a narrow election victory,” Ramsey wrote, “the noisiest conservative in the Texas House, Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, is telling his local journalists it’s time for him to use more honey and less vinegar.”

State Rep. Donna Howard (D) said Bonnen might not be so bad. She noted Bonnen “has made efforts to be less temperamental… and I think that’s a positive because I think many within his own party indicated that was of concern.”

But it could be that “Dennis the Menace’s” attitude won’t make any difference. At least that’s what Christopher Hooks forecast.

“Who wins with Bonnen’s imminent election to speaker? The people who always win — that great ancient order of the Texas Legislature, the lobby,” wrote Hooks. “They’ve been winning since before any of us were born and they’ll keep doing it long after we’re gone. Things, in other words, are getting back to normal.”