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Bonilla: A ‘Quiet Giant’

When the GOP Conference announced a rules change this month that effectively ensures that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) will not be forced to step aside if he’s indicted in an ongoing Texas probe, the first person out of the Cannon Caucus Room to face the cameras was Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), the man who proposed the change and helped see it through to passage.

Two days later, when DeLay convened a press conference to highlight the House ethics committee’s rebuke of outgoing Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) for his ethics complaint against DeLay, Bonilla once again took the lead, trumpeting DeLay as “one of the greatest leaders that this nation has ever seen.”

Bonilla asserted in an interview that his out-front role in the DeLay matter wasn’t part of a concerted effort to raise his political profile.

But the “quiet giant,” as one GOP House leader dubbed him, has made no secret of his ambitions.

In the medium term, Bonilla is widely thought to be a prospective GOP candidate if Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) decides to run for governor in 2006. Though Bonilla had no credible challenger this past cycle, he recently wrapped up a string of fundraisers and is expected to report about $1.2 million on hand at the end of this quarter.

More immediately, House GOP leaders suggest that Bonilla is likely to see an expanded role in the 109th Congress.

“We’ll anticipate that he’ll be involved in our message and our work,” said GOP Conference Secretary John Doolittle (Calif.). “You are going to see a little more of his presence on the national scene, especially if he runs for Senate.”

One natural arena for Bonilla to step up his efforts is outreach to Hispanics — one of the nation’s fastest-growing minority groups, and a much sought-after voting bloc by both parties. Bonilla co-founded the all-Republican Congressional Hispanic Conference last year.

Historically, Democrats have done better than Republicans in courting Hispanics (except for Cuban-Americans), but the 2004 election may have shown some movement in the Republican direction.

Though statisticians and partisans dispute the extent of the change, exit polls taken on Nov. 2 suggested that President Bush made gains among Hispanic voters. And the GOP believes it can do even better.

Already, Bonilla said incoming Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has expressed an interest in working with him “to get out more with our message, to build on our Hispanic outreach.”

“We are going to talk about it, probably in the next few weeks,” Bonilla said in an interview the week before Thanksgiving.

Bonilla, traditionally a close ally of DeLay, said he decided on his own to initiate the rule change, out of a sense of injustice. (The plan that was ultimately approved, a variation of Bonilla’s proposal, allows party leaders or chairmen an opportunity to remain in their posts if indicted on a felony.)

“No one who’s in leadership — I don’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat — should have … the threat looming over you that if some local district attorney in any state in the nation decides to take action with a grand jury that might be rigged that they could determine your future,” he said.

While most GOP Members interviewed praised Bonilla’s efforts to connect with the Hispanic community, not everyone was so sure about his impact with the group.

“Henry damn nearly lost his race to a Hispanic,” said one Republican House Member, referring to Bonilla’s 2002 narrower-than-expected, 52 percent to 47 percent victory over Democrat Henry Cuellar. “I don’t know if Henry is going to go out and get us votes.”

Indeed, the DeLay-devised Texas re-redistricting of 2003 actually shored up Bonilla’s sweeping Southwest Texas district by reducing the number of Hispanics and adding white-majority counties. This year, under those more favorable lines, Bonilla bested a lesser-known opponent 69 percent to 29 percent.

Moreover, Bonilla’s American Dream PAC, aimed at increasing financial assistance to minority GOP candidates, has come under scrutiny this year for failing to distribute much money to actual minority office-seekers. (Among its other disbursements are thousands of dollars for DeLay’s legal defense fund.)

Henry Flores, a professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio who has tracked Hispanic support for Bonilla in each of his seven Congressional bids, said that Bonilla has “never been a favorite of the Latino community in his Congressional district, or in San Antonio for that matter.”

Indeed, Bonilla has little or no relationship to Hispanic interest groups, which traditionally have strong ties to Democrats.

“He works with some Hispanics, [but] other Hispanics for some reason just don’t like him,” said Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas), who co-chairs the Congressional Border Caucus with Bonilla.

Bonilla said he isn’t bothered by the strained ties to the Latino establishment. He said that when he looks “in the mirror in the morning, I’m American first. I would venture to say that 99 percent of average Hispanic Americans out there have no affiliation with any of these groups.”

The attention now being focused on Bonilla is merely an extension of that which he’s received ever since winning a House seat in 1992.

Early on in his Congressional career, Bonilla’s media savvy style — he is a former TV reporter and producer — made him a favorite of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who relied on him heavily for public relations efforts.

He was immediately awarded a coveted slot on the Appropriations Committee, and in January 2001, when one of the Appropriations subcommittee chairmanships came open, Bonilla was “leapfrogged,” in an unprecedented move, over two more senior House Members — Reps. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) and Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) — for the Agriculture subcommittee chairmanship, said one senior House Republican aide.

The aide praised Bonilla as a “good conservative” who “can sit down and cut a deal.”

As an Assistant Majority Whip, Bonilla is also charged with advancing the GOP floor agenda.

Bonilla is close to Bush, who campaigned for him during his first run for Congress in 1992. Later, Bonilla served on Bush’s presidential exploratory committee, and was asked by Bush adviser Karen Hughes to “spend time” with Bush to work on his media skills toward the end of the 2000 presidential campaign.

Bonilla has also been a co-chairman of the past two Republican National Conventions, and served on the GOP rapid response team during the Democratic National Convention this past summer in Boston. He is close to outgoing RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie.

Bonilla, whose name has been floated for RNC chairman in the past, considered a run for retiring Sen. Phil Gramm’s (R-Texas) seat in 2002, but ultimately decided against it. “The time wasn’t right,” he said, citing his son’s age at the time. “This is a different time.”

If the Senate seat opens up, “he would be a Washington and Texas favorite,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), the GOP Conference vice chairman.

But Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) cautioned against any premature awarding of the GOP mantle to Bonilla. “I might be interested in that myself,” he said, before quickly adding that if he decided against a run, Bonilla “will be someone I would want to support.”

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