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How A Secretly Recorded Bonnen-Sullivan Meeting Could Raise The Stakes For The 2020 Elections

Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
The Texas Tribune
House Speaker Dennis Bonnen presiding over his first votes as speaker of the house. Jan. 9, 2019.

Whatever members of the Texas House think of the recent headlines involving Speaker Dennis Bonnen, the drama curdling the lower chamber has raised the stakes for Republicans and Democrats ahead of an already crucial election cycle — and it could undermine a recent warning the speaker issued about incumbents campaigning against colleagues in 2020.

In July, allegations surfaced that Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, offered a hardline conservative group House media credentials if its well-funded political action committee targeted 10 Republicans in the 2020 primaries. Perhaps more surprisingly, Bonnen allegedly made disparaging comments about colleagues in the process.

The allegations have been largely met with silence among House members who are waiting to see how the situation shakes out. Still, it’s prompted some Republican officials to acknowledge that the issue, should it linger, could distract a party that needs to focus on winning races this election cycle. A number of Democrats, meanwhile, have seized on the chaos, using it as fuel to charge an already energetic group hopeful about coming close or perhaps even flipping the 150-member House in 2020.

If Democrats hold onto the dozen seats they picked up in 2018 and flip an additional nine in 2020, the party would regain control of the lower chamber. Republicans, aware of that possibility, have made clear they’re pushing to take back some of the seats the party lost last cycle.

“The Texas House, you know, we don’t have to lose many seats to lose the House to Democrats,” Lt. Gov.Dan Patrick said in a radio interview this week. And the allegations against Bonnen, he added, “could play a part of that.”

Patrick, like Bonnen and a number of other House members, has called for the entire recording of a June 12 meeting between Bonnen, one of the speaker’s top deputies and Michael Quinn Sullivan to be released. Sullivan, CEO of the insurgent conservative group Empower Texans, revealed he secretly recorded the meeting, which is where his allegations against Bonnen stem from. But Sullivan has not yet released the audio to the public — and may never do so.

“The sooner it’s behind us — however it turns out — is the better,” Patrick told radio host Mark Davis on Monday, after noting that Bonnen had been instrumental in the successes of the 86th legislative session that ended in May.

Last week during a town hall in Tyler, Gov. Greg Abbottgave a similar response, characterizing the Texas Rangers’ investigation into the allegations as “the best thing that could happen” — and emphasized that “we need to get to the bottom of this quickly.” Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey also weighed in, saying in a statement to The Texas Tribune that “we’re 100% focused on 2020 and not letting anything else distract us.”

To be clear, the 2020 general election is still more than a year away and the drama surrounding Bonnen so far has been mostly felt by the 150 members and nearby political observers with a vested interest in what happens inside the House. Bonnen ultimately has to convince his fellow members — not Texas voters — to continue to support his tenure as speaker, which he was unanimously elected to in January.

Some Democrats, though, have tried to cast the allegations as the latest problem inside a party that’s roiling with corruption.

“With backroom deals and Texas Rangers investigations into two of the most prominent Republicans in our state, the modern-day Texas Republican Party has been defined by its corruption and is in shambles,” Abhi Rahman, the communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement to the Tribune.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a national group that was already honing in on Texas this cycle, has also waded into the drama.

Last week, when state Rep. Dustin Burrows, who was at that June 12 meeting with Bonnen and Sullivan, resigned as chair of the House GOP Caucus, the DLCC said in a statement that House Republicans are “spiraling” — and that the group “is capitalizing off their chaos.” (Burrows has not publicly commented on the matter since the allegations first surfaced.)

For now, the matter has reached a holding pattern. The Texas Rangers could submit a report of their findings — and whether the allegations should be passed off to a prosecuting attorney — in as soon as a couple of weeks, some House members have suggested. And Sullivan, who has allowed certain Republicans to listen to the recording privately, could still make the audio public at any time.

Bonnen, for his part, has been carrying out typical duties as speaker while also trying to mend fences with certain members who think they were implicated in the allegations. Bonnen also recently apologized to members for saying “terrible things” during that June 12 meeting, though he has not explicitly addressed Sullivan’s other accusations.

Meanwhile, there’s also the question of whether the drama has caused even more confusion about a line in the sand Bonnen drew in May.

“The consequence is simple,” Bonnen told reporters on the last day of the 86th legislative session. “If you campaign against another one of your colleagues, two things will happen to you — if there is the opportunity, I will weigh in against you.” And, he added, “if I am fortunate enough to continue to be speaker, you will find yourself not well positioned in the next session.”

Bonnen’s remarks, which came as a surprise to some House members, were seen largely as an attempt to keep the peace that had been on full display for the past 140 days at the Texas Capitol, and, perhaps more subtly, a move to avoid GOP infighting ahead of a competitive general election cycle.

A number of members said the speaker was simply trying to preserve the unity built by both Republicans and Democrats this year to pass sweeping reforms to the state’s property tax and school finance systems — a point Bonnen himself made to reporters.

“You saw this session,” Bonnen said, “We accomplished unprecedented things. … If members of the Legislature are out campaigning against each other, you then don’t accomplish things like that. … What makes the Texas House, I think, the most dynamic legislative body in the country is that we do not politicize our process. That foundationally starts by not campaigning against each other in the elections.”

Others, though, including Sullivan, openly questioned or even criticized the speaker for his comments, arguing that the goal for both parties in 2020 is to play ball in every competitive district, regardless of whether there is already an incumbent.

In June, Bonnen announced he was launching a political action committee, which he had infused with $3 million from his campaign account, to specifically support GOP incumbents running for re-election.

Bonnen also doled out $50,000 to Associated Republicans of Texas, a group that’s made clear its priority is to keep the House red. That donation, some suggested, was evidence that Bonnen had no problem with House members giving money to groups that planned to aggressively campaign for certain candidates — so long as that incumbent wasn’t donating directly to a challenger or campaigning for them in the district.

Some Democrats also appear to be operating under that framework.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said there was a “difference between getting directly involved in someone’s race versus supporting your party.”

“It’s no secret that Democrats want to help elect more Democrats and strengthen their party, just as Republicans want to elect additional Republicans,” Turner told the Tribune. “I intend to actively support organizations and the Democratic Party — and the [House Democratic Campaign Committee] — in what’s going to be a very important election year.”

To that end, state Rep. César Blanco, an El Paso Democrat who heads the House Democratic Campaign Committee, has made clear the group’s priority this election cycle is to flip the 150-member lower chamber back in his party’s favor.

“Texas is a battleground state,” Blanco said in a news release announcing that the group had just received a $100,000 infusion from the DLCC, the national organization.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Cassandra Pollock is an engagement reporter for The Texas Tribune, which she joined in June 2017 after a stint as a fellow during the 85th Texas Legislature. She graduated in 2017 from The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism. Cassi has previously reported for The Daily Texan, the university’s official student newspaper, and The Washington Examiner in Washington, D.C.