Bonnen’s Downfall Proves Politicians Don’t Mind Dirty Laundry—So Long as It’s Never Aired

The Texas House Speaker announced his resignation, becoming another example of the trite adage: it’s the cover-up, not the crime.

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen waves to reporters after speaking at a news conference in January 2019 in Austin.
Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen waves to reporters after speaking at a news conference in January 2019 in Austin. Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP

The Texas House Speaker announced his resignation, becoming another example of the trite adage: it’s the cover-up, not the crime.

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen waves to reporters after speaking at a news conference in January 2019 in Austin.
Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen waves to reporters after speaking at a news conference in January 2019 in Austin. Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP

The political scandal known as Bonnghazi has, over the past couple months, slowly engulfed House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. After having outmaneuvered and marginalized right-wing provocateur Michael Quinn Sullivan and his group Empower Texans during his first term as speaker, Bonnen emerged from a successful 2019 legislative session as a dominant political force.

Then he made the confounding decision to meet with Sullivan in an attempt to turn his foe into an ally. It was a fateful—and eventually fatal—decision. 

It all unfurled faster than a furious presidential tweet thread. On Monday night, top GOP House committee members and staunch allies began calling for Bonnen to step down as speaker and resign from office. The floodgates had broken. By Tuesday morning, Bonnen got the hint and announced he would not seek reelection in 2020. 

This is an astounding denouement for Bonnen, who has spent nearly half his life in the Texas Legislature. He ended his own political career with an unforced error, a too-clever-by-half attempt to shore up his power and beat back advancing Democrats in 2020. Ironically, he caused the same sort of internal GOP chaos he was trying to prevent and emboldened the Democrats he was trying to defeat. 

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen in the Texas House during the 2019 legislative session.
Bonnen in the Texas House during the 2019 legislative session.  Kolten Parker

It all began in June, when Bonnen took an hourlong meeting with Sullivan shortly after the legislative session ended. During the meeting, Bonnen proposed that Empower Texans limit its involvement in GOP primaries (the group typically attacks from the right flank) and instead focus most of its firepower on helping Republicans hold the House in the general elections. There was a small group of Republican incumbents Bonnen didn’t mind Sullivan targeting, and for his trouble, Bonnen would give House press credentials to Empower Texans’ media arm during the next session. 

Like a mongoose and snake, Bonnen and Sullivan were natural enemies. The former is a political creature born of the Republican machine; the latter is an insurgent marauder who serves on behalf of ideological billionaires. But Bonnen, flying high on his political power, had the hubris to believe that he could overcome the laws of nature and tame a predator of the Republican establishment. The speaker clearly misjudged the sort of reptilian adversary he was dealing with. Unbeknownst to him, Sullivan had secretly recorded the deleterious meeting. 

For months, Sullivan has had Bonnen in his jaws, holding him there as he let Republican legislators and activists listen to the tape. The press wrote turn-of-the-screw stories about the conversation as details of its alleged quid pro quo offer trickled out. 

Bonnen tried to wriggle out from Sullivan’s hold and at times, it looked like he might just succeed. Most of his Republican allies in the House opted to keep their powder dry and quietly stuck behind their leader. 

Then Sullivan made the recorded conversation public last week, revealing the full, vulgar, and unsavory details of Bonnen’s unfiltered conversation. Even still, it wasn’t exactly clear how bad the fallout would be. Bonnen claimed the tape clearly absolved him of any allegations of criminal wrongdoing—and he seemed convinced that he had escaped from Sullivan’s grasp. 

In reality, Sullivan had opened his jaw wide and was consuming Bonnen’s political corpse. Republicans had been able to dance around the alleged contents and implications of the recorded conversation so long as it wasn’t made public, so long as it remained a matter of palace intrigue, confined within the realm of the political elite in Austin. 

But once Sullivan released the tape, the cynicism and vindictiveness of one of Texas’ most powerful politicians were on display in a uniquely raw form. It confirmed exactly how most Texans—and Americans—assume politics work when the doors are closed. People listening to the tape could practically hear the sausage-making machinery crank and whir.

Bonnen targeted a number of his Republican colleagues (and lied about it), attacked local elected officials and their governments, and insulted Democratic members. He exposed himself as a petty and untrustworthy leader. When it became clear that Bonnen was now a political albatross, Republicans jumped ship. 

Politics is a dirty game, one that Bonnen had succeeded at playing at the highest level. But like any disgraced politician, Bonnen wasn’t brought down because he played dirty. It’s because he got caught.

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Justin Miller is the politics reporter for the Observer. He previously covered politics and policy for The American Prospect in Washington, D.C., and has also written for The Intercept, The New Republic and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter or email him at [email protected].


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