Texas Legislature 2019

As presumptive House speaker, Dennis Bonnen raised $4 million in a month

In July, Bonnen was a House member with $707,000 in his war chest. After he announced for House Speaker and became the favorite to succeed Joe Straus, he was getting more than $150,000 in donations per day.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, speaks after being elected Speaker of the House on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, speaks after being elected Speaker of the House on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.  Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Lobbyists, billionaires and special interest groups eagerly jumped on the “late train” for Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, who pulled in nearly $4 million in campaign contributions after announcing he had the votes to become the next speaker of the Texas House on Nov. 12.

The latest filing with the Texas Ethics Commission shows Bonnen’s war chest grew nearly sevenfold in the last six months, with most of his donations coming between his announcement claiming the House gavel and the start of a state-imposed fundraising blackout on Dec. 9. During those weeks, the Angleton Republican raised an average of $153,000 per day — largely from people with business interests before the Texas Legislature.

Bonnen’s cash on hand — which he can use to help re-elect the members who voted to make him speaker — now sits at $4.6 million. In July, before jumping into the speaker’s race, Bonnen had $707,000 on hand.

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“The Austin lobby, by and large, gives for influence and access, it doesn’t give due to ideological affinities,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist. “When it was clear that Dennis Bonnen would become speaker, Dennis Bonnen became one of the three most powerful politicians in Texas and therefore someone that every lobbyist — from the left to the right, from clean energy to oil and coal, from beer distributors to craft breweries — everyone wants to be on his good side.”

Case in point: The Border Health PAC, closely tied to McAllen multi-millionaire Alonzo Cantu — a major fundraiser for former Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton — was Bonnen’s top donor for the period, giving him $100,000 in two separate contributions.

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The second highest donor was Charles Butt, chief executive officer of the H-E-B supermarket chain, and a billionaire who has poured money into the fight against taxpayer-funded voucher-like programs, a priority issue for top Republicans last session.

Butt gave Bonnen $75,000 after he sewed up the speaker’s race. He also gave $25,000 to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and $250,000 to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in early December, as the three officials began coalescing behind a goal of reforming school finance during the 2019 session.

“This is how the Austin lobby works,” said Jones, the political scientist. “The Austin lobby is not giving the money to Dennis Bonnen, they're giving the money to the Speaker of the Texas House. From the Austin lobby's perspective, they really don't care — that Speaker could be Dennis Bonnen, it could be Eric Johnson, it could be Joe Straus.”

Other individuals who gave at least $50,000 after Bonnen became the presumptive House leader were billionaire developer Ross Perot Jr., Walmart heir Alice Walton, billionaire restaurateur and Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, and beer distributing magnate John Nau.

The contribution from Nau, Abbott’s campaign treasurer, represented one of several contributions Bonnen got from alcohol interests, who are facing potentially major reforms this year. A sweeping alcohol regulation measure that will test the power of wealthy distributors and liquor store owners is expected to land in Bonnen’s House some time before the summer.

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The fundraising arms of two beer distribution groups — the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas and the Beer Alliance of Texas PACs — gave Bonnen a combined $30,000 between Nov. 12 and Dec. 8. The Texas Craft Brewers Guild PAC, or Craft PAC — a group generally at odds with distributors over beer policy — gave Bonnen $2,000; a group representing liquor stores chipped in at least $10,000.

But Bonnen also got cash from lobbyists and political action committees dedicated to almost every conceivable industry with interests before the Legislature. The A&M PAC, dedicated to boosting state-run Texas A&M University, contributed $50,000, as did the Friends of UT Southwestern Medical Center and AT&T’s political action committee.

The fundraising arm of the Austin lobbying firm HillCo gave at least $60,000, while Rusty Kelley, who heads the lobbying firm Blackridge, gave $20,000. Gulf States Toyota Inc. State PAC, connected to auto distribution billionaire Dan Friedkin, gave Bonnen more than $35,000.

“It's business as usual for people to direct campaign funds in the speaker's direction,” said Jim Henson, a Texas Tribune pollster and the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “Unless you are in a state with extremely strict campaign finance rules, you'll see this pattern replicating itself over and over again in state legislatures and in Congress.”

Bonnen raised a total of $4.1 million between July and December, the six months covered in the most recent campaign finance filing. Patrick, the presiding officer of the Texas Senate, raised $4.89 million during the same period; Abbott, a prodigious fundraiser, raked in $11.65 million.

Disclosure: Rice University, Charles Butt, John Nau, Ross Perot Jr., Alonzo Cantu, the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, the Beer Alliance of Texas, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Texas A&M University, Gulf States Toyota, HillCo Partners, Blackridge and AT&T have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.