A race for Speaker of the Texas House? Not so fast

By Ross Ramsey

After the 2008 elections, there was a moment of confusion in Texas politics. Voters had elected 75 Republicans to the Texas House and 74 Democrats. The 150th seat, held before the election by a Republican, was a nail-biter subject to a recount.

If state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown won her North Texas race, Republicans would have a two-vote majority in the state House. But if Bob Romano was declared the winner, the parties would have the same number of members.

Then-Speaker Tom Craddick’s chances at a third term were already shaky. Most of the Democratic state representatives weren’t happy with him, and enough of the Republicans — something between a dozen and a dozen-and-a-half — were ready to make a change. At least two Democrats were preparing to run for speaker in the case of a tie. And those restive Republicans were whispering about replacing Craddick in the case of a Republican majority.

Harper-Brown prevailed in the recount — barely: she won by 19 votes out of 40,756 cast — and the Republicans maintained their majority. Eleven of the ABC Republicans (Anybody But Craddick) met to decide who should be their new standard-bearer, and picked one of their own: Joe Straus, who had only been in the Legislature for four years.

His majority came together in a matter of days, but in an almost equally divided House, it took a coalition — most of the Democrats and some of the Republicans — to give the challenger the votes he needed.

Keep that arithmetic in mind as the race to replace House Speaker Dennis Bonnen unfolds. The current party mix is 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats. Republicans hope to hold their advantage after the 2020 elections, while Democrats, encouraged by their 12-seat gain in 2018, hope to win back the majority they lost in 2002.

The next race for speaker, a certainty with Bonnen’s announcement that he won’t seek reelection, probably won’t happen quickly — unless Bonnen can be persuaded to leave office earlier than January 2021 to allow a faster switch to new management.

Why? If the House majority isn’t overwhelming — in either party’s favor — it will probably take a coalition to replace Bonnen. A Republican speaker will need some Democratic votes to win; a Democrat, some Republicans. And until they know what the mix will be, uncertainty will prevent most state representatives from committing to any speaker candidate.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Bonnen came out of the session in great political shape, telling reporters that he wanted to keep House members from campaigning or working against colleagues in the coming political year and threatening to punish those who didn’t. Everyone was on their way to a contentious presidential election year, followed by a session where drawing new political maps would be a top chore.

Voting for a speaker was something they wouldn’t have to worry about. But Bonnen stepped, figuratively speaking, into an open manhole, trashing fellow members in conversation with a political activist who was not an ally. And when a recording of that hour-long conversation became public, it only took a week for Bonnen’s support in the House to fade out.

The list of people who might succeed Bonnen probably starts with the list of people he beat last time in a race that started slow, percolated for about a year, and then sprinted to a close. Straus announced in October 2017 that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term. A couple of aspirants announced quickly, and more trickled in as the year went on — especially after the primary elections were over.

But nobody could put together 76 votes. Bonnen, who had demurred when he was first mentioned as a candidate, became a late entry. Within a matter of days after the 2018 general election, he had the votes he needed.

And a year later, the House is back where it was two years ago, looking for new leadership with a tough election ahead, doing the preparatory work for a redistricting session with high political stakes, a huge budget to write and other big issues to confront.

And no strong incentive to hurry.

This article originally appeared at the Texas Tribune.

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