A gray fog descended on Austin Tuesday morning, but the scene inside the Texas Capitol was all colorful and festive to mark the first day of the 86th biennial legislative session.
And perhaps the loudest 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 unanimous election marks a new era of leadership for the first time in a decade. An Angleton Republican and longtime fixture in the lower chamber, he replaced former House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican who announced in October 2017 that he would not seek re-election to office. Straus, who was elected in 2009, held a record-tying five terms in the House’s top slot.
In November, around two weeks after formally entering an already-crowded field of speaker candidates, Bonnen announced he had the votes to become the next leader of the lower chamber. Since then, and in the months leading up to the 86th Texas Legislature, Bonnen worked behind the scenes to assemble a transition team and hire a staff to assume the speaker’s office. Before the vote, lawmakers gave speeches praising his leadership abilities.
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.
State lawmakers, their families, visitors and guests of all stripes gathered at the Capitol 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, 181 lawmakers 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 center 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.