Stickland warns Tea Party leaders about fierce general election challenges
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland has a new goal for the upcoming legislative session.
The Republican firebrand — known for yelling from the back microphone, vocally opposing House leadership and derailing bills with parliamentary moves — no longer wants to be the political bomb-thrower he has been in recent years.
“I am not changing what I believe,” said Stickland, R-Bedford. “But I am changing the way I do it.
“I’m still willing to fight. But I think I’m going to try a little more honey than vinegar this time.”
This change of heart follows a midterm election that saw several Republicans, including state Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville, lose seats in the Texas Legislature.
But it also comes as new leadership — likely state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican who said he has the support needed to be the next Texas House Speaker — is gearing up to guide the lower chamber.
Stickland often found himself challenging the leadership of retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, who was criticized by some for being more moderate and for first being elected by Democrats and a handful of Republicans. Bonnen is considered much more conservative.
“As a result, Stickland will have less reason to throw bombs, since the policy agenda pursued by Speaker Bonnen will both be more conservative than that pursued by Straus as well as more legitimate because of Bonnen’s strong mandate from House Republicans,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.
Stickland believes he will find a new, inclusive role under Bonnen.
So, he said, it’s time for him to turn over a new leaf.
“I want to work and get stuff done,” Stickland said.
That may be a challenge for the 35-year-old who has been described by Texas Monthly as someone who seems to be “at war with the world.” The magazine included Stickland on its biennial list of worst lawmakers.
“No lawmaker causes more eye-rolls than Jonathan Stickland,” the monthly stated. “He doesn’t hesitate to kill other members’ bills but throws tantrums when they kill his.”
Since first being elected in 2012, Stickland, a staunch Tea Party conservative, has drawn headlines for everything from wearing his concealed handgun nearly every day at the Texas Capitol to being part of an investigation about whether witness cards for a legislative committee hearing were falsified.
He has filed high-profile bills, including one to allow “Constitutional Carry,” and used his time at the back microphone in the House to argue with Republican leadership.
“We don’t begrudge Stickland his ideology,” Texas Monthly stated last year. “We do, however, mind his bullying and ineffectiveness.”
Stickland said he often felt the need to fight in the Legislature — such as when he and others killed dozens of bills in 2017 during what is now known as the Mother’s Day Massacre — because he couldn’t make much progress under Straus.
“I’ve had to do what I had to do to fight for liberty,” he said. “In my personal life, I’m not combative. I’m kind of a normal guy.”
Political observers wonder if Stickland will be successful with his change of attitude.
“Reputations are quick to be made and long remembered in the Legislature,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It is not out of the question that members can change their ways and pursue new legislative tactics.”
This change in attitude comes after the 2018 midterm, which saw casualties for conservatives, such as Burton’s loss to Democrat Beverly Powell in the Senate District 10 race.
State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, lost to Democrat Nathan Johnson; a dozen state House seats flipped to Democrats; and Tarrant County turned blue in the U.S. Senate race for Beto O’Rourke, even though Republican Ted Cruz won the state.
Stickland won re-election with 1,446 votes, less than 50 percent of the vote, in the narrowest margin of victory he has had.
“One lesson that emerged from this close race was that Stickland’s bad boy image was more of a liability than an asset,” said Jones, the Rice professor. “Stickland believes that one of his mandates is to hold the powerful accountable, which sometimes requires the throwing of a few bombs.
“If he is true to his word, these bombs (now) will be well directed and justifiable, not scattershot and gratuitous as was often the case in prior sessions.”
Stickland said there are a lot of factors leading to his tight election results, including that he “didn’t really even campaign.” And he said he used about $300,000 in campaign money, much received from Empower Texans, a conservative group that has worked for years to move the Legislature to the right, to help nearly two dozen conservative political newcomers.
Even so, Stickland admits the election was somewhat of a wake-up call.
“I need to get back to my people and focus on House District 92,” he said.
State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said he believes Stickland is capable of changing his attitude — and being effective — in the Texas House next session.
“I think Jonathan has always been somebody who is doing the best job to represent his district,” he said. “The best way he could do it in recent sessions was by being a bomb-thrower.”
But now, under new House leadership, there may be a different way.
“He’s very smart, very strategic, very savvy,” Krause said. “He’s not abandoning his principles. He’s just going about them a different way.”
Some aren’t sure if he can really change, though.
“Stickland has been such a flashpoint of controversy that it is hard to picture him now being a broker between differing perspectives,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “He has a chance to moderate, but to do so would belie the old adage that ‘a leopard can’t change its spots.’”
Stickland found controversy earlier this year — outside the Texas Legislature — when he weighed in on a local election.
He posted messages about the Euless City Council race, pointing out that candidate Salman Bhojani was a Muslim and a “lifelong Democrat.” Bhojani ending up beating Molly Maddux, the candidate Stickland supported in the race, by 37 votes.
“The bar is already low for Stickland, given his frequent antics,” said Emily Farris, an assistant political science professor at TCU. “As recently as May, Stickland was back at his game of being ridiculous and offensive online again — with xenophobic, racist comments against Bhojani, and he continues to maintain a Facebook page where his supporters spew racist violence against immigrants.
“You would think Stickland might be forced to grow up, as he watched his fellow Tea Party conservative colleagues lose their battles in the Texas House, which saw 12 Democrats pick up seats in the Nov. 6 election,” she said. “He almost lost himself. ... But I won’t believe he’s changing until I see it.”
Stickland said it’s time to focus on how he can help his constituents in his district that includes Hurst, Euless, Bedford and parts of Arlington, Fort Worth and Grand Prairie.
He’s reaching out on social media — and in real life — to many who didn’t support him in the past.
Recently, he posted on Facebook, he was “purposeful about meeting with constituents who opposed my re-election. Sitting down, listening and talking with them taught me a lot and has led to some unexpected friendships!”
Stickland said he plans to hold more town hall meetings, including at least one for Democrats only, “to try to find some common ground.”
He asks supporters to pray for politicians every day and praises those who give their time to help others.
Beverly Powell, the Democrat who unseated Burton, said she received a call from Stickland after the election.
“Jonathan Stickland did call me to congratulate me after the election and to say he was committed to developing a more civil tone in the next session,” Powell said.
Stickland last session gained a greater voice through the Texas Freedom Caucus, which was created to fight for conservative causes.
Members of the right-leaning group often butted heads with Straus, as some members felt their voices weren’t being heard.
That type of frustration, some say, is what led to such incidents as the Mother’s Day Massacre, when caucus members upset about their proposals being overlooked used procedural moves to kill more than 100 bills.
Many say the atmosphere in the House will change if Bonnen takes the reins as expected.
Bonnen himself seemed inclusive when he announced he had the support to guide the Texas House.
“All 149 members are going to be part of this House,” Bonnen said at a news conference where he made the announcement. “Whether their name is on the list (of supporters) today or not is unimportant.”
Stickland said he wonders about the future role of the Freedom Caucus if members don’t have to fight to push legislation through the lower chamber.
“A lot is up in the air with the new leadership,” he said. “A lot of us would prefer to work within the Republican Party. If we have roles and are put to work and utilized, there will be less time for things like” the Mother’s Day Massacre.
Tea Party groups have said they are optimistic that their members will find room to work under Bonnen.
“Things are going to be different,” Stickland said. “I’m not convinced I’m needed to be the bomb thrower.
“There might be a different strategy available to me than there has been in the past.”