When my daughter came home during a break in her first year in college in 1996, she drove up to Angleton one day to meet me at work and have lunch. We headed over to the Texas Rose, an establishment run by a British expat who made the best hamburger in Brazoria County at the time. As we left the Texas Rose, young Dennis Bonnen followed us out the door and stopped us on the sidewalk.
“Mr. Fowler, I sure would appreciate your vote in the runoff next month.”
Dennis was pretty fresh out of college with a political science degree, a boatload of energy, and presenting for public office for the first time. He had barely made it into the runoff by edging out Beaver Aplin (yes, that Beaver) by ten votes. I had to tell Dennis that I was not qualified to vote in his runoff since I had voted in the Democratic primary.
The rest is history, of course. Beaver Aplin invested his free time in his gas station business and went on to develop the regionally famous “Buc-ee’s” brand. Dennis, won the runoff, served the next twenty-two years in the Texas House and on January 8 of this year was elected Speaker by unanimous vote of the membership.
A few days ago, I received a text message from my daughter with a photo of her computer screen showing the new House Speaker Bonnen on one of her medical organization web sites.
“Did I meet this guy once?” she asked.
Yes, we were there when a little bit of Texas history was in the making.
This area has provided national leaders like the infamous Tom DeLay (former U.S. House Majority Leader) and the kinder, gentler presidential candidate Ron Paul. I have been represented by each of them during my 36 years in Lake Jackson. Well, sort of. I never voted for either of them and they never did much representing if by that we mean reflecting my views on politics and public policy.
Now I am represented by another powerful politician: Dennis Bonnen, the twenty-two year incumbent Texas House member from District 25. As Speaker, D.B. will be one of the three most powerful political leaders in Texas – some would argue THE most powerful. The person who sets the House agenda controls what manages to make it through the 140 day biennial session.
There is too much business to be done, too little time, too many interests to be balanced, and too many people trying to use the wrong bathroom for everything presented to get a full hearing in the legislature. So the agenda for all of Texas depends on the choices and priorities of Speaker Bonnen and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. The governor, as popular as he is, has relatively little power for setting priorities and making things happen.
The power of the two legislative leaders is well illustrated by the Lt. Gov.’s insistence on trying to force a bill through the last session that would have the state telling folks which bathroom to use. An enormous amount of time was wasted on the issue while school funding, Medicaid expansion, highways, hospitals, law enforcement issues and the like were bumped off the calendar to wait for the legislature’s return in 2019.
I was set to write a congratulatory and complimentary piece about Dennis simply because he behaves himself, especially when viewed alongside the lieutenant governor. Dennis often aligned himself with the former speaker, Joe Straus, against the clown act of Patrick. That has an endearing charm all its own.
However, I took a look back at his voting record and his 100% NRA rating and decided maybe he doesn’t deserve too much in the way of compliment, at least based on his votes. I can’t say that he represents me well in that regard.
But as a person, Dennis Bonnen is a sterling character from an outstanding family. I met Dennis’s parents, David and Tina, once at an Angleton Chamber of Commerce banquet, probably not long after his first election to the House. Tina Bonnen was seated across the table from me and I said something awkward like, “You must be very proud of your son.”
“Yes,” she said, “ he had to really apply himself to become a brain surgeon.”
I didn’t know Dennis’s brother Greg. He is older and was out making a career in medicine by the time I met Dennis. Greg is now a practicing neurosurgeon, medical school prof and also a member of the Texas House, representing a Pearland district where he lives and practices. Anyhow, I suspect Dennis’s mother used the line often just to make sure that people knew that Dennis was, in fact, not the only superstar in the Bonnen family.
Since then, I have also worked with yet another Doctor Bonnen, Mark, who is a radiation oncologist and served with me on the board at Brazosport Regional a few years ago. And, if I am not mistaken, there is also a Ph.D. daughter, whom I have never met. They are an outstanding family.
So, notwithstanding my different political stripes, I have to say that Dennis Bonnen has represented his district well. He reflects the majority’s values and priorities. Moreover, he has served with honor and integrity. There is a full report on Dennis, his career and his record in the Longview News-Journal.
I wrote Dennis a note the other day to congratulate him and to encourage him to use his coalition building skills to make life better for all Texans. I am sure he will — with a conservative skew, of course. But I would quickly tell any of my Democratic buddies that Texas could do much worse than having DB in the key leadership position in the House.
In my note to the new Speaker, I told him to let me know any time I could be of service. That was risky but I think he probably remembers being told that I voted in the wrong primary. Good politicians never forget those little facts, even about the people they knew only marginally twenty-something years ago.
That said, I just can’t help being a little proud of the youngster from Angleton who made it to the top in Texas politics. And I have a feeling he isn’t done yet.