Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Dennis Bonnen Tweeted himself back onto the radar screens of the Texas political class today with an 11-part thread attacking “our largest home improvement superstores.” There’s no payoff in paraphrasing just how sharp his attack on esteemed institutions in GOP strongholds across the state was today; only direct quotes will do.
While these behemoth retailers continue to reap profits with little to no regard for their employees’ and customers’ safety — ensuring the continued spread of COVID-19 — our local small businesses are the ones who suffer. 4/
— Speaker Dennis Bonnen (@RepDennisBonnen) May 4, 2020
He even named names:
I’m tired of navigating a germ pool in an overcrowded Lowe’s, Home Depot, and WalMart. They haven’t dealt with the devastation of having to turn customers away and yet their behavior might be what keeps hair salons and gyms closed and restaurants at restricted capacity. 8/
— Speaker Dennis Bonnen (@RepDennisBonnen) May 4, 2020
Before anyone puts the Speaker’s righteous takedown of big box neglect of average folk alongside famous crusading revelations of the horrors of the early 20th century meat packing industry and the cruelties of the conditions of the working class in 19th century England, some context. Intrepid reporting to come may reveal just what kind of personal experience may have triggered this Tweetstorm from Speaker, who is, as described by one fellow Republican in the run-up to his speakership, “not afraid to get aggressive,” one of several similar characterizations of him by interviewees in a 2018 Texas Tribune table-setter of his speakership. (And with three bylines [Svitek, Samuels, Pollock], they got a lot of quotes.)
In addition to possible personality factors at play here – there’s always some steam to blow off – Bonnen’s broadside against big box indifference to public health comes as Lt. Governor Dan Patrick rallies to the cause of protecting retail businesses from another of the historical horrors plaguing humanity during these dark times, the threat of lawsuits. As Ross Ramsey recently wrote, Lt. Gov. Patrick has joined other like-minded crusaders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in calling for “blanket liability protection for companies that reopen in the face of the pandemic.” Weaving nicely from the Ramsey lexicon of homespun, he asked, “If opening a business is irresponsibly dangerous, shouldn’t employees and customers be allowed to go after the boneheads who opened the doors?” Even if it was a rhetorical question, maybe he’ll get an answer to that question next Weekley, I mean, next week. In the meantime, the Speaker has telegraphed a position decidedly in conflict with the Lt. Governor’s embrace of “blanket immunity.”
The broadest and perhaps most important context here is that Speaker Bonnen is a lame duck, having decided not to run for re-election to his house seat and, therefore, not to seek another term as speaker. If you’ve gotten this far, you don’t need a summary of the ill-advised meeting he took last summer with a dissident lobbyist associated with a conservative splinter group, and the intemperate plotting and potty language revealed in a secret recording of the meeting. Bonnen lost the faith of the electorate necessary to hold the speakership -- the members of the House, particularly the GOP caucus. It was a rapid fall after a seemingly successful session. On the other hand, he can expect savings on the cost of Christmas cards come the holidays.
If the speaker’s Twitter tirade is the leading edge of resisting the protection of corporate retailers from litigation, Bonnen is an unlikely torch bearer given both his track record and, as with most speakers of the Texas house, his lack of profile among the general public. Even when the tape recording scandal was on the front page of every Texas paper and making the local newscasts that many Texans still get their news from, not many people were familiar either with Bonnen or the scandal, as the data presented in the graphics below illustrate. The conventional wisdom has always been that not being widely known is good for Texas Speakers, since they run for election in their home districts. Who needs the headache of a statewide audience that mostly doesn’t have a chance to vote for you?
Bonnen’s lack of statewide profile may bode well for the big boxes the Speaker seems to think aren’t helping contain the coronavirus. The speaker’s tweets may agitate the tiny share of political junkies who actually trust Twitter for information, but he’s unlikely to set the woods afire. On the other hand, these data also affirm that the Speaker – liberate from the need for re-election support from reflexively business-friendly and litigation-hostile Republican members and their allies and supporters in the Capitol – may just feel free to speak his mind after a bad trip to the plumbing section of his local hardware megastore. It’s a little late to plug those leaks anyway, but maybe there are other repairs to be made here.
Some data: Dennis Bonnen job approval
Speaker Bonnen’s overall job approval went from 25% approval and 23% disapproval in June 2019, just after the legislative session in which he served as speaker, to 20% approval and 24% disapproval in April 2020. A clear majority in both polls either didn’t know whether they approved, or took a neutral “neither” stance toward him. Right after the session, 59% didn’t express a view of him; a little less than a year later, 56% didn’t have a view. Among those who had an opinion, the most significant decline was a 10-point drop in his positive rating among Republicans.
|Neither approve nor disapprove||28%|
|Neither approve nor disapprove||27%|
|Category||Lean Republican||Not very strong Republican||Strong Republican|
|Medical and health professionals||88%||91%||85%|
|The Centers for Disease Control (CDC)||58%||74%||62%|
|Your friends and family||61%||56%||78%|
|Your local elected officials||48%||61%||62%|
|Religious leaders and clergy||47%||48%||63%|
|The news media||13%||30%||11%|
|Social media and online sources||8%||22%||12%|
|Neither approve nor disapprove||25%||27%||29%|
A bit more data: Awareness of the meeting
Half of Texans polled as Bonnen’s support was unraveling in October 2019 reported having heard nothing at all about “the controversy over a June 2019 meeting between the Speaker of the Texas House and the head of a political action committee?" Another 18% said they had heard a little. There was no partisan difference in responses.
|Nothing at all||50%|
|Nothing at all||50%||63%||48%|
If you’re still here: visit all of Dennis Bonnen's job approval ratings and other crosstabs on awareness of the Bonnen meeting and the fallout.