Those who say bipartisanship is dead or hopeless should look to Texas. Yes, it’s a Republican-dominated state, but in its recently completed legislative session the GOP House speaker proudly took heat for working closely with Democrats and rebuking far-right groups that assailed him as too accommodating.
The results? A record of accomplishments and a roadmap for elected officials elsewhere who are brave enough to stare down extremists to serve their constituents.
Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen chalked up significant achievements in the latest session. They included an $11 billion program to change how schools are funded; a plan to slow the growth of property taxes; and $210 million to improve customer service and reduce wait times at state driver’s license centers.
The Texas news media took notice. “Both Republicans and Democrats seemed to agree that Bonnen had given every lawmaker a fair shake, that he let the chamber drive itself,” the Texas Tribune reported. The Dallas Morning News said Bonnen “received wide praise from his Republican and Democrat colleagues,” and “passed his ambitious priorities.”
And the Austin American-Statesman said Bonnen “has brought a hands-on bipartisanship born of the traditions of the House, where he has spent half his life, to help steer the Legislature past the rancor that marked the 2017 sessions and back to the basics of governance.”
Bonnen’s strategies are straightforward: Treat all lawmakers, from both parties, with respect. And stand up to hard-right and hard-left groups that abhor compromise and threaten to oust politicians who indulge in it.
The key, he told reporters, is “setting a clear tone and message that we will have issues that are divisive and contentious, but we will not let those issues divide us. We will do our work, we will do our job, and we will respect each other.”
Lawmakers in both parties gave him a standing ovation when he returned from a meeting with the governor with a package of spending deals to improve public schools and curb property taxes.
Some groups that take hard-line stands for gun rights and against abortion access were displeased. They heaped scorn and political threats on Bonnen and his allies. Bonnen didn’t flinch.
“They aren’t worth responding to,” he told reporters. “If we passed every pro-life bill filed in the history of the state, they would say we had not done enough. You will never please or appease those folks, and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying.”
He urged his fellow lawmakers to stand strong. “You are fooling yourself and you are not respecting your constituents — and you are not respecting this institution — if you are chasing their wants and their desires,” he said. Imagine Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. House and Senate taking such bold stands. How refreshing it would be. Congress could actually begin tackling some of our toughest issues – immigration, health care affordability, income inequality – instead of catering to the “never compromise” purists on the far right and left.
Impossible? Dennis Bonnen has proven otherwise, even in a state known for bare-knuckled politics. Please take note all you politicians in Washington and in state capitals beyond Austin.