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Texas House Names Dennis Bonnen New Speaker On Celebratory Opening Day

The Texas State Capitol on the first day of the 86th legislative session. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

By Cassandra Pollock, Edgar Walters, and Alex Samuels
A gray fog descended on Austin Tuesday morning, but the scene inside the Texas Capitol was one of colorful festivities to mark the first day of the 86th biennial legislative session.

And perhaps the heartiest celebration took place in the Texas House, where lawmakers whooped and hollered after the unanimous election of state Rep. Dennis Bonnen as House speaker.

Bonnen’s election marks a new era of leadership in the lower chamber for the first time in a decade. An Angleton Republican, he replaced former House Speaker Joe Straus, who announced in October 2017 that he would not seek re-election to office. Straus, a San Antonio Republican who was elected in 2009, held a record-tying five terms in the House’s top seat.

Bonnen first announced he had the votes to become the next leader of the lower chamber in November. Since then, Bonnen worked behind the scenes to assemble a transition team and hire a staff to assume the speaker’s office. Lawmakers praised his leadership abilities in a series of speeches preceding the vote.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat with 45 years of experience serving in the House, drew a standing ovation for her remarks. Bonnen “has learned the ins and the outs of the Texas House as well as anyone I’ve ever served,” she said.

Bonnen pledged to keep the Texas Legislature from getting "caught up in things that don't lead to real results."

"I've never seen the point in sugar-coating things," he said. "I am direct and I am a problem solver."

Meanwhile, the leader of the Texas Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, was conspicuously  absent on opening day. “He was called by the White House to discuss some issues that are critical to Texas," said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who presided over the chamber in Patrick’s stead.

State lawmakers, their families, visitors and guests of all stripes had gathered at the Capitol hours earlier, with palpable enthusiasm for another 140-day marathon of state government.

This massive pink granite structure is the site where, over the next six months, 181 lawmakers will make decisions that shape the daily lives of nearly 30 million people for the next two years. How crowded will student classrooms be? Where will new highways be built? Who deserves publicly funded health care?

But those debates will come later. On Tuesday, the mood was a mix of anticipation and nostalgia; for some the scene played out like the first day of school, for others a class reunion. Giddy celebration punctuated the pomp and circumstance.

The celebrations reached all corners of the building.

Huddled in the Capitol’s center rotunda, a group dubbed the “resistance choir” gathered for a finger-snapping rendition of Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband.” The group’s left-leaning membership has steeled itself for another difficult session in the Republican-led Legislature, but today, a kind of truce held.

“We’re just excited to be here. Today, we’re not here to protest,” said Anne Withrow, one of group’s members.

Elsewhere, children clutched their parent’s hands and seemed eager to have their photos taken inside the historic building. Hustling around them, lobbyists sporting sharp business suits, phones pressed to their ears, shuffled upstairs to convene outside the House and Senate chambers. A few state lawmakers, too, shook hands with constituents and visitors before preparing to get sworn into office.

A hoard of people outside dressed in Rastafarian green, gold and red held flags with pro-marijuana messages plastered to them. Across the street, in front of the governor’s mansion, climate scientists and activists assembled at a podium to call on Gov. Greg Abbott to address global warming.