86th LegislatureElections 2020IssuesState HouseStatewide NewsTaxes & SpendingLies, Cocaine, and Dropouts: Top Texas Political Stories of 2019

A quid pro quo, an envelope of cocaine, and Beto O'Rourke's presidential bust — Here's a look at the stories that rocked Texas politics this year.
December 31, 2019
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As 2019 comes to a close, here’s a look at a few of the biggest stories that reverberated through the world of Texas politics this year.

Bonnen’s Quid Pro Quo

In perhaps the most shocking bombshell of 2019, it was revealed that in a closed-door meeting, of which Rep. Dustin Burrows was also a key attendee, Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) offered a quid pro quo to grassroots leader Michael Quinn Sullivan.

Sullivan first came forward with an account of the meeting, detailing a list of ten specific House Republicans Bonnen wanted Sullivan to focus on targeting in the March primary elections. In exchange, Sullivan alleged Bonnen would grant Empower Texans, Sullivan’s organization, with Texas House media credentials. 

Bonnen emphatically denied these claims, going so far as to say, “Let me be clear. At no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members.”

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Weeks later, Sullivan released an audio recording of the meeting that verified the details of the account given by the grassroots leader, which left the embattled speaker to face the criticisms and consequences levied by the members of the chamber he’d been elected to lead.

After dozens of members either called for the speaker to step down or condemned his actions outright and an investigation was launched by the House General Investigating Committee, Bonnen announced he would not seek reelection.

Poncho Nevarez’s Envelope of Cocaine

After an affidavit was made public that revealed Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass) had dropped an envelope containing four baggies of cocaine at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the state representative was arrested and later released on bail.

Nevárez chairs the powerful Border Security and Public Safety Committee, which directly oversees the law enforcement agencies that were investigating him. However, since the incident, Nevárez has yet to be removed from his position of power by the speaker.

Approximately a week before the incident became public, Nevárez deleted his official Facebook page and announced he would not be seeking reelection to House District 74.

Texas House Special Elections

Texas House Districts 28, 100, 148 all saw the retirement of the sitting incumbents — Reps. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), Eric Johnson (D-Dallas), and Jessica Farrar (D-Houston), respectively. 

The retirements of these members sparked the need for three special elections, one of which has specifically become a hotbed of political activity as Democrats vie for control of the Texas House and Republicans seek to maintain their majority.

HD 28 has drawn the attention of national Democrats, as prominent figures like Beto O’Rourke and Wendy Davis have thrown their support behind Eliz Markowitz, the lone Democrat in the race. The Republican candidate, Gary Gates, has run for several other elected positions in the past and is largely self-funding his campaign.

In 2018, then-Rep. Zerwas won reelection with 54 percent of the vote.

Though HD 28 may be the hottest race in question, the November special elections resulted in a runoff for all three districts will be held on January 28th. 

Other Texas House Shake-Ups

The Texas House saw its fair share of drama this year, including comments made about race by a state representative and another legislator’s indecision regarding whether he’d run for his seat in 2020. 

Earlier this month, Rep. Rick Miller (R-Sugar Land) made disparaging comments to the Houston Chronicle regarding the race of his primary opponents, which resulted in Governor Abbott rescinding his endorsement of the legislator. Facing criticism from both sides of the political aisle, Miller announced he would not run for reelection.

Rep. Mike Lang (R-Granbury) shocked many when he announced he would not run for reelection for his seat in the Texas House, and would instead opt to run for Hood County Commissioner. Soon after, he announced he’d changed his mind and would be running for reelection to the Texas House. 

Then, on the filing deadline, Lang changed directions once again and is now, once again, running for commissioner in his home county.

Ironically, one of the candidates Lang will be facing in the race is Jack Wilson, the congregant credited with shooting and killing the gunman responsible for the White Settlement church shooting that took the lives of two churchgoers this week.

Beto’s Presidential Flop

Not only did the former congressman from El Paso fail to meet the soaring presidential expectations levied by Texas and national Democrats alike after his failed bid for U.S. Senate against Sen. Ted Cruz, he was outlasted in the presidential race by another Texan, Julian Castro, who entered the race as the much less prominent Texas candidate. 

Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, remains in the race and exceeded expectations while going toe-to-toe with O’Rourke in terms of polling and fundraising numbers.

“I’m confident I will see you down the road, and I look forward to that day,” said O’Rourke in the official statement announcing he would drop out of the Democratic presidential primary.

At the time the announcement was made, the presidential hopeful was polling at two percent according to a RealClearPolitics’ national average of Democratic presidential primary voters.

The 86th Legislative Session

In Texas, the legislative session happens every two years for the first five months of the year. This means that exempting a special session, the only window for legislation to be passed to address any number of financial, political, or regulatory issues facing the state is during those few months. 

This year’s 86th legislative session was marked by a cohesion from state leaders that was in stark contrast to previous legislative sessions, particularly during the 85th when Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) presided over the Texas House and waged war with Lt. Governor Dan Patrick.

The most noteworthy result of this cohesion was the passage of two mammoth pieces of legislation, Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 3, which aimed to address property tax reform and school finance, respectively. 

However, many grassroots conservatives were unhappy with the results of the session, citing the Republican legislature’s rampant spending and its failure to pass priority bills like the “Heartbeat Bill” while other states, like Ohio, with less of a conservative foothold, passed their own versions of the measure.

State Budget and Spending

For the first time in Texas history, the state budget exceeded a quarter-trillion dollars. 

Proponents of the budget argued the increase in spending was necessary to accommodate for the growth of the state, and the $11.6 billion included to buy down the cost of Texans’ property taxes and increase funding for Texas public schools was the best solution for the moment.

Critics argued the budget showcased a severe unwillingness to cut spending or address necessary, long-term changes for fear 2020 might not yield favorable results for state Republicans, and was far less conservative than the budgets passed in the previous two legislative sessions.

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McKenzie Taylor

McKenzie Taylor

McKenzie Taylor serves as Operations Manager and resident plate-spinner for The Texan. Previously, she worked as State Representative Kyle Biedermann’s Capitol Director during the 85th legislative session before moving to Fort Worth to manage Senator Konni Burton’s campaign. In her free time, you might find her enjoying dog memes, staring at mountains, or proctoring personality tests.