A gray fog descended on Austin Tuesday morning, but the scene inside the Texas Capitol was one of colorful festivities to mark the first day of the 86th biennial legislative session.
And perhaps the heartiest celebration took place in the Texas House, where lawmakers whooped and hollered after the unanimous election of state Rep. Dennis Bonnen as House speaker.
Bonnen’s election marks a new era of leadership in the lower chamber for the first time in a decade. An Angleton Republican, he replaced former House Speaker Joe Straus, who announced in October 2017 that he would not seek re-election to office. Straus, a San Antonio Republican who was elected in 2009, held a record-tying five terms in the House’s top seat.
Bonnen first announced he had the votes to become the next leader of the lower chamber in November. Since then, Bonnen worked behind the scenes to assemble a transition team and hire a staff to assume the speaker’s office. Lawmakers praised his leadership abilities in a series of speeches preceding the vote.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat with 45 years of experience serving in the House, drew a standing ovation for her remarks. Bonnen “has learned the ins and the outs of the Texas House as well as anyone I’ve ever served,” she said.
Bonnen pledged to keep the Texas Legislature from getting "caught up in things that don’t lead to real results." He named public school funding as his top priority, in addition to school safety, combating human trafficking and reforming property tax collection.
"I’ve never seen the point in sugar-coating things," he said. "I am direct and I am a problem solver."
In Bonnen’s closing remarks, after asking for unity among House members, he gave a tearful tribute to his father, recalling some advice from the elder Bonnen, who passed away in 2017.
"Let’s be sure when we adjourn sine die we leave this House and this state better than we found it," he said. "There’s a saying we have in Texas: as Texas goes, so goes the nation."
Meanwhile, the leader of the Texas Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, was conspicuously absent on opening day. “He was called by the White House to discuss some issues that are critical to Texas," said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who presided over the chamber in Patrick’s stead.
Before a crowd of doting spouses and toddling grandchildren, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht administered the oath of office to a slate of new and returning state senators. Among them were state Sen. Charles Schwertner, who gave up his powerful committee chairmanship last week after an inconclusive sexual harassment investigation, who came with his family, and incoming state Sen. Angela Paxton, who was accompanied by her husband, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Nelson joked that she was certainly the first grandmother of 11 to gavel in a session of the Texas Legislature.
Soon after, state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat and the former mayor of the capital city, was elected president pro tempore, a ceremonial role that puts him third in line for the governorship after Patrick.
Other visitors and guests of all stripes had gathered at the Capitol hours earlier, with palpable enthusiasm for another 140-day marathon of state government.
This massive pink granite structure is the site where, over the next six months, the two legislative bodies will make decisions that shape the daily lives of nearly 30 million people for the next two years. How crowded will student classrooms be? Where will new highways be built? Who deserves publicly funded health care?
But those debates will come later. On Tuesday, the mood was a mix of anticipation and nostalgia; for some the scene played out like the first day of school, for others a class reunion. Giddy celebration punctuated the pomp and circumstance.
The celebrations reached all corners of the building.
Huddled in the Capitol’s rotunda, a group dubbed the “resistance choir” gathered for a finger-snapping rendition of Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband.” The group’s left-leaning membership has steeled itself for another difficult session in the Republican-led Legislature, but today, a kind of truce held.
“We’re just excited to be here. Today, we’re not here to protest,” said Anne Withrow, one of group’s members.
Elsewhere, children clutched their parent’s hands and seemed eager to have their photos taken inside the historic building. Hustling around them, lobbyists sporting sharp business suits, phones pressed to their ears, shuffled upstairs to convene outside the House and Senate chambers. A few state lawmakers, too, shook hands with constituents and visitors before preparing to get sworn into office.
A hoard of people outside dressed in Rastafarian green, gold and red held flags with pro-marijuana messages plastered to them. Across the street, in front of the governor’s mansion, climate scientists and activists assembled at a podium to call on Gov. Greg Abbott to address global warming.
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