June 5, 2019
Martinez Fischer Could Be Early 2021 Frontrunner
Despite Moody Pitch if Democrats Claim Majority
Bonnen Praise for Moody Could Be Shot at TMF
By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor
A potential competition among Democrats for the Texas House's top leadership post could be shaping us a replay in many respects of the speaker's race that Midland Republican Tom Craddick ended up winning 18 years ago.
Democratic State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio has appeared to be taking a page from the Craddick playbook with an eye on the job that GOP Speaker Dennis Bonnen won last fall with the Alamo City lawmaker's help and could expect to relinquish if Democrats take the lower chamber back in 2020.
Martinez Fischer has a considerable head start in a possible quest for a speaker's job that would be up for grabs if the Democrats reclaim the majority next year as a goal that could be well within their reach with controversial President Donald Trump planning to lead the GOP ticket again in a bid for re-election.
But Martinez Fischer probably couldn't expect to have the wheel of the House turned over to him without a fight in a chamber where Democrats like State Reps. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, Joe Moody of El Paso and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie could all be viable contenders if a second consecutive wave sweeps Bonnen and the Republicans out of power in an election that's still 17 months away.
Bonnen appeared to be acknowledging the GOP majority's fragile nature when he gave Moody a surprise plug last week - predicting that the Democrat from the border city on the state's western tip would do an excellent job as the next speaker in the event of a Democratic takeover that culminated in his elevation to the top job in the House. But the hypothetical endorsement prompted speculation under the pink granite dome that it could have been served up in an attempt to plant seeds of doubt on Martinez Fischer as potential leadership material as a way to send a message to him and other aspiring Democrats on Bonnen's hopes of preserving unity beyond the harmonious session this year.
Bonnen can empathize in the meantime with Pete Laney - a Hale Center Democrat who'd served for 10 years at the helm of the House before he fell victim to the partisan winds that Craddick rode into the speaker's office in 2003 with a massive assist from GOP statewide leaders who'd redrawn the House map in a way that all but guaranteed the first Republican majority in more than a century.
Laney had hopes of hanging on to the job even if the House flipped from blue to red like it did when the GOP scored a net gain of 16 seats in the 2002 election. But Laney's fate was sealed by circumstances that he could do little to control just like Bonnen's would be if the Democrats who wrestled a dozen seats away from the GOP in November cap that off next year with a net gain of nine or more in the general election.
Craddick, who's in the midst of his 50th year in the Legislature's lower chamber, had spent a half-dozen years positioning himself for a shot at the gavel during Laney's last three terms as the presiding officer in the Capitol's west wing. Craddick knew that the Republicans would elect one of their own to lead the House when they captured the majority that had eluded the GOP since the end of the Reconstruction period in the Civil War's wake.
But Craddick had paid a sizeable price as a longtime lawmaker who'd been a Laney ally before blatantly defying the conservative Democratic leader's attempts to protect incumbents with campaigns that he orchestrated to chip away at the rival party's majority by picking off House Democrats in the late 1990s. After serving for three terms as the chairman of the tax-writing Ways & Means Committee on the Laney leadership team, Craddick got the boot from the panel post for conspiring openly against the speaker who'd made him one of the chamber's most influential Republican members.
Martinez Fischer - in no shortage of irony - had appeared to jockeying for a potential speaker bid in 2021 long before the regular session ground to an end last week. This would run counter to the bipartisan atmosphere that Bonnen sought to cultivate in his debut in the dais this year because it would require the elimination of Republicans from the House roster despite the incumbent protection strategy that Bonnen has been hoping to pursue as a way to minimize the GOP majority's vulnerability.
Bonnen realizes that the next election has the potential to be as disastrous for the ruling Republicans in Texas with Trump on the ballot as the 2001 redistricting effort had been for Laney and the Democrats in the early stages of the current century. Bonnen fully understands that the spoils will go to the victorious party.
But Bonnen could see the timing of Martinez Fischer's jockeying for the powerful leadership position as a sign of disrespect and ingratitude in light of the close association that they'd appeared to have heading into the session and the speaker's subsequent appointment of the SA Democrat to his first ever committee chairmanship.
Martinez Fischer had been working behind the scenes to recruit Democratic support for Bonnen when he emerged in October as a belated contender for speaker in a field that already had a half-dozen GOP colleagues vying for the right to replace outgoing Republican Joe Straus in the dais. Straus didn't seek re-election in his hometown district in San Antonio last year. Bonnen claimed victory after Democrats who'd been planning to vote as a bloc in the leadership contest started to splinter with a significant number of them joining the eventual winner's camp.
Bonnen subsequently selected Martinez Fischer to lead the Business & Industry Committee - the first standing panel chairmanship that he's had in a House career that's spanned more than 16 years. won an appointment from the new speaker. Martinez Fischer landed a coveted seat on the tax-writing Ways & Means Committee as well.
After serving as the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee chairman in 2017, Moody was appointed by Bonnen as the vice-chairman of the Calendars Committee that would ostensibly have added muscle in the new speaker's House. Bonnen also chose Moody to be the speaker pro tem while naming him to the Business & Industry Committee, the Redistricting Committee and the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee that he'd led for two years as well.
Turner and Anchia already have significant clout as the chairmen of the House Democratic Caucus and the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus respectively. Anchia has been leading the International Relations and Economic Development Committee since 2013 while Turner landed his first chairmanship this year when Bonnen selected him to be the Higher Education Committee chief.
If the Democrats take the majority back they could follow the lead of the lawmakers who'd rallied behind Straus in his first speaker campaign in 2009 when he'd been a relatively inexperienced member with only two regular sessions on his legislative resume. Fresh blood could trump experience if the Democrats turned to a rising star like freshman State Rep. John Turner of Dallas to lead the chamber if they were running the show for the first time since Craddick replaced Laney in 2003.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston might have a shot at the speaker's job if she wanted it as the House's longest-serving Democrat who's been one of the chamber's most effective members in history. Thompson, an African-American who joined the lower chamber in 1973, is the current chair of the Public Health Committee.
State Rep. Cesar Blanco of El Paso could be a speaker possibility as the lawmaker who ran the House Democratic Campaign Committee in the runup to the blue wave election that swept Democrats to victories last fall in a dozen districts that the GOP had been defending in a development that put them nine short of the majority with 67 seats on the current roster.
While Democrats like State Reps. Celia Israel of Austin and Mary González of Clint would be long shots at best in a potential Democratic competition for speaker, they would make history on multiple fronts if either won the leadership post as the most prominent members of a new LGBTQ Caucus that emerged as a force in the recent session.
Despite the praise that Bonnen has lavished on Moody, the Lake Jackson Republican who's been the speaker for less than six months wants to keep the job and probably doesn't like the thought of a battle across the aisle for a possible replacement. But Bonnen had served three terms under Laney after entering the lower chamber in 1997 - and he's appeared to mold his leadership style with the goal of bipartisan unity like the House's last Democratic speaker had done for five terms.
Bonnen has surrounded himself with former Laney staff members, associates and former allies - and that added twist of irony is probably no coincidence. The biggest difference now is that Bonnen and the Republicans have must better majority protection odds than Laney and the Democrats did in the aftermath of the Legislative Redistricting Board's House map redesign that culminated in the election of 88 Republicans in a chamber where there had only been 72 GOP members before the wheel switched hands.