Gordon Johnson doesn’t want to go back to being just another lobbyist.
Perched above a kitchen table that serves as his desk in the Westgate Building, just a few hundred yards to the west of the Texas House Chamber, Johnson is struggling with how to hold on to power.
A year ago, his top client, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, quit the legislature without lining up a clear successor. Now, Johnson is struggling with how he can hook his marionette strings into the chamber’s next leader.
An attorney by training, Johnson works out of the Johnson & Johnson law firm with his brother, Robert Johnson, Jr. It’s an inside-outside operation, with Robert signing the clients and working the halls of the Capitol, and Gordon directing the operations of the speaker’s office to the duo’s collective benefit.
A Family Business
Gordon and Robert Johnson inherited the business from their father, Robert Johnson, Sr. One need only look one block north of the Capitol to see the elder Johnson’s legacy. The building that houses the Texas Legislative Council, the lawyers for the legislature, is named after him. Robert Johnson, Sr., served as a Democrat in the Texas House before going on to be its long-time parliamentarian and then leaving government employment to become a lobbyist.
Evidence of the Johnson family’s roots in Democrat politics is unmistakable. On the walls of the Johnson & Johnson law firm are campaign signs for Robert Johnson, Sr., declaring the elder’s campaign stance in support of racial segregation.
For the past ten years, Gordon Johnson has exercised effective control over the Texas House of Representatives. He picked the committee chairmen. He picked the committees. He directed which legislation would go where. And perhaps most chiefly, he decided which bills would live or die. It’s a power that led Austin political writer Mike Hailey to declare Johnson “the most powerful behind-the-scenes player in Texas politics today.”
A Crisis of Control
Straus’ abrupt departure from the legislature could jeopardize the Johnson family business.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Last October’s announcement from Straus that he would not seek re-election took everyone by surprise, including Gordon. According to Austin insiders, the plan was always to have a clean hand-off to a successor who could maintain Straus’ coalition of liberal Republicans and Democrats in control of the chamber, with Johnson manipulating the results behind the scenes.
But that plan was disrupted when the conservative Texas Freedom Caucus forced the House Republican Caucus to consider and subsequently approve a plan to unite in-caucus behind a speaker candidate in the coming legislative session.
Under Straus, the caucus had become a private meeting where the speaker’s lieutenants could whip Republican votes to fall in line behind Gordon’s chosen policies and tactics. Instead of advancing the Republican platform, the caucus was used as a tool to advance an agenda endorsed by Johnson and other Democrats.
Uniting the Republicans behind a single candidate for speaker without including the Democrats in the math would seriously undermine Johnson’s Republican-Democrat design. Even worse, with a session of fighting against Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a very public way, and abusing the House Rules in the process of obstruction, it wasn’t clear that Straus could win an up-or-down vote with only Republicans in the mix.
Rather than endure such a humiliating defeat, Straus headed for the exit. Now Gordon must find a way for the Republicans to keep him in control. It’s proving harder than he expected.
Gordon Johnson’s First Coup
Ten years ago, Gordon masterminded a plan to put Straus in the chair and himself in the driver’s seat. The two were connected through the racing industry. The Straus family had created Retama Park in San Antonio and Johnson was the lobbyist and a part owner of Gulf Greyhound Park in La Marque. Along with the LaMantia family in South Texas, the Johnson-Straus racing cartel invested millions in horse and dog racing — squatting on money-losing properties in the hopes of changing state law and bringing uber-profitable slot machines to the tracks.
In 2005, Joe Straus III ran in a special election for the Texas House. According to members who served with him, he introduced himself explaining that his mother had asked him to run in order to bring slot machines to the family racetrack. In the House, Straus quickly aligned himself with a liberal Republican insurgency aimed at deposing House Speaker Tom Craddick, the first Republican to hold the gavel in over a century. Craddick had chafed the liberals with his management style and his insistence on passing conservative legislation like electricity deregulation, redistricting, and tort reform.
After the Obama wave in 2008, the liberal Republicans made their move. Eleven in number, they aligned themselves with 65 Democrats to form a majority. Still, members of the legislature were shocked when Straus emerged as the group’s nominee; he had only served one and a half sessions. When members loyal to Craddick were informed by local media that Straus was the nominee, they answered that they would have to look into him because none of them knew him beyond his name.
So, what happened?
Some speculate that the other 10 insurgent Republicans saw in Straus a weakness that would allow them to all share control of the chamber. Indeed, despite declaring that he would deliver a “member-driven House,” Straus traded the Craddick monopoly for an oligopoly of control by his senior chairmen. But the reality is that Gordon Johnson was involved throughout, pulling strings and manipulating the 10 to ensure that his gambling business ally would emerge with the gavel.
Democrat Control of the Texas House
Over the past decade, Johnson and Straus have done their best to thwart conservative reforms and to empower Democrats. Despite Republican super-majorities, spending has continued to outpace economic growth, property taxes have spiraled out of control, and liberal local governments have created a patchwork of far-left policies.
In recent sessions, Democrats like State Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston have been the top bill passers in the Texas House. Democrats have maintained important posts on the rules and calendars committees and have held an outsized share of committee chairmanships and vice chairmanships.
Each successive session in power has been a coup for Gordon, as the state has gradually turned more and more Republican. When he helped propel Straus into the speaker’s chair, the House was split 76-74. Gordon often chuckles to himself at the idea that Republicans have continued to give him so much control over the chamber, year after year.
Can Gordon and the Democrats Do It Again?
But with Straus on his way out, will Gordon Johnson and the Democrats be able to hold on to their fiefdom in the lower chamber? Or will Texans be back in control of their government?
So far, a handful of candidates tied to Johnson have entered the race, each failing to gain traction. The Republican members have been forced to maintain their focus on the Republican caucus, and no candidate has shown that he can unite 76 Democrats and Republicans against the will of the Republican majority.
Each of the Johnson-connected candidates have fought each other, squabbling as more and more of the Republicans unite around the idea of a Republican speaker loyal only to the Republicans who elected him. Now State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, a Republican from Angleton who has served in the lower chamber since the 90s, is claiming he has the votes to win in the caucus and on the floor. Bonnen’s list is built on 78 Republican and a minority of Democrats. That’s a problem for Gordon.
As time grinds on, Gordon Johnson’s power is slipping away from him. Candidates for speaker are forced to concede that he will be cut out of the speaker’s office, and statewide leaders are making clear their demand that he be out of the picture in the coming session. Some legislators have claimed Bonnen has told them that he will cut Gordon out of the loop.
The Texas House Republican Caucus will meet on December 1. If Bonnen can hold his list together, he’ll likely sew-up a victory there by uniting all of the Republicans behind his candidacy. Johnson’s best hope was that his small group of liberal Republicans could repeat what they accomplished in 2008 — align with a united bulk of the Democrats to form a majority. With claims they have the votes necessary to win in January, they hoped to intimidate the rest of the Republicans into giving them cover by selecting Johnson and the Democrats’ choice as the Republican nominee. That hope seems to be slipping away.
The problem was that the Republicans in the caucus are wiser to such tactics than they were a decade ago. With an ability to select an official “Republican nominee,” they knew they could create tremendous pressure on the liberal minority to vote for that nominee on the floor over some candidate selected and endorsed by the Democrats. To defiantly join with the Democrats, in opposition to the Republicans, headed into President Trump’s re-election would be clear political suicide.
It appears to be the Republicans-first path that is bringing Bonnen to power. Will he use this opportunity to remove Gordon Johnson’s influence from the chamber? Or will he choose to let him continue to meddle in the chamber’s affairs?
If he loses power, Gordon Johnson can be expected to go back to being another lobbyist. He doesn’t want that. Only time will tell whether the Republicans will keep him in power or whether the people will take back control of their House of Representatives.