In June, Empower Texans leader Michael Quinn Sullivan revealed that he had secretly recorded a meeting with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen during which, the right-wing hardliner alleged, the speaker presented him with a quid pro quo proposition: the Speaker would provide press passes to MQS’s staff in exchange for MQS directing the political spending of his PAC, Empower Texans, toward certain Republican targets. Since first mention of the tape, its specific contents have been an obsession of all who closely follow Texas politics.
After several weeks of speculation and a slow drip of leaks, MQS finally released the full recording—and it basically confirms everything that he had been saying all along: That Bonnen had indeed wanted MQS to dial down his heavy-handed enforcement of conservative discipline in GOP primaries and instead help Bonnen protect his Republican House majority against the advancing hordes of liberal Democrats. It also confirms that Bonnen proposed a potentially legally dubious political transaction, fueled by the hubris that he could convince Sullivan, the founder of a well-financed PAC that excels at funding right-wing challengers to GOP incumbents, to serve as his hired hand. The final confirmation is of the dog-bites-man variety: The Speaker is conniving, arrogant, and power-hungry, i.e., a politician, though one with little respect for his fellow members in the Legislature.
The recording depicts a more than hour-long meeting between MQS, Bonnen, and House Republican Caucus Chair Dustin Burrows in the Speaker’s office in June, shortly after the 2019 legislative session ended. The tape, an incredibly rare glimpse behind the curtain of power, illustrates—to almost farcical degrees—the cynicism, vindictiveness, and ugliness that sits at the heart of the Texas GOP’s political project. The group’s conversation also articulates the enemy that animates the politics of Texas’s political majority: an obsessive hatred of liberals and local governments—which to them are one and the same.
After several minutes of awkward small talk, Bonnen and MQS get down to business.
“So what’s going on?” Sullivan asked.
“I’m trying to win in 2020,” Bonnen responded matter-of-factly.
The Speaker then offered to give MQS’s staff press passes to the House floor with the “understanding” that Sullivan would focus Empower Texans’ considerable political firepower on a list of 10 moderate Republicans who crossed Bonnen by opposing a bill to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying.
As Bonnen put it, “Let’s not spend millions of dollars fighting in primaries, when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November.”
He went on. “If you need some primaries to fight in, I will leave and Dustin [Burrows] will tell you some that we would love it if you fought in them—not that you need our permission.” (Later in the recording, Burrows provides a list of 10 Republican House members who voted against a bill that would ban taxpayer-funded lobbying, a top priority for state conservatives that narrowly died in the House.)
“If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session,” Bonnen said. “I think it’s a value to have your guys out there, to be truthful.”
This confirms the quid pro quo allegation at the heart of the scandal. Bonnen wanted Sullivan to ensure that Empower Texans would direct its millions of dollars in political spending in a mutually beneficial way; in exchange, Bonnen would give employees of his right-wing conglomerate (PAC, lobbying firm, “media” outlet) long-coveted press access to the House floor. (Never mind that press passes are not the Speaker’s to give; they are given out by House administration.)
But the tape was also instructive in showing the depths of vitriol that Republicans have for local governments.
In an effort to peacock his conservative credentials to Sullivan, Bonnen boasted that “[a]ny mayor, county judge that was dumb ass enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity: My goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties.”
“I hope the next session’s even worse,” Burrows chimed in. “And I’m all for that,” Bonnen said.
Later on, Bonnen and Burrows gleefully recalled how simultaneously pushing for the taxpayer lobbying ban and property tax caps would wreak havoc on the GOP’s public enemy number one: Austin Mayor Steve Adler.
As Burrows recalled, State Affairs Committee Chair Dade Phelan asked him, “Hey, how much fun do you think it will be to have Mayor Adler run back and forth between trying to cover these two things.” Burrows had led the property tax cap push as Ways and Means Committee chair; Bonnen recalled that he had told Phelan, “I want you two texting each other … say, we’re calling Adler now, you call Adler now.”
(Adler and other city officials spent the legislative session worrying about how property tax caps could force Austin to cut down on basic services.)
In May, Bonnen prohibited legislators from actively campaigning against any of their fellow legislators, Democrat or Republican—a thinly veiled warning to Democrats, who are seeking to aggressively move against vulnerable Republicans in an attempt to take control of the state House. “If you campaign against another one of your colleagues, two things will happen to you,” Bonnen said at the time. “I will weigh in against you, and if I’m fortunate enough to continue as speaker, you will find yourself not well positioned in the next session.”
As the tape shows, this call for unity was calculating and deeply cynical. When Sullivan pressed Bonnen on it, claiming that it would allow complacent Republican legislators to sit back and allow potentially vulnerable Democrats to hold their seats, Bonnen insisted that Republican legislators would be free to engage against sitting Democrats “so long as they don’t go over the top.”
“When I said don’t campaign against each other … Trey Martinez Fischer [a top House Democrat from San Antonio] is totally turned in a knot ‘cause he isn’t sure what the hell to do ‘cause I blew his plans up … and so that’s what I was cutting off.”
Bonnen—who has garnered a reputation in his 20-plus years in the Legislature for being brash and vile—also lashed out at freshmen Democrats who defeated Republican incumbents in 2018. “We’ve got people who beat our Republicans, that are not·even trying to act like moderate Democrats, OK? Which is good for us because we ought to be able to take their 19 heads off.” He called Denton County state Representative Michelle Beckley “vile” and said that Houston state Representative Jon Rosenthal “makes [his] skin crawl. He’s a piece of shit.” Bonnen recalled a joke his chief of staff made that Rosenthal’s “wife is going to be really pissed when she learns he’s gay,” as Sullivan burst into laughter.
Toward the end of the meeting, Bonnen left the room with instructions for Burrows, his top lieutenant, to provide Sullivan with the list of moderate Republicans he was free to take out. But before he left, he wanted to make sure the message was clear. Together, they could take out some of the problematic Republicans, defeat some of “these liberal pieces of shit” freshman Democrats, and ideally gain back a few seats, enabling Bonnen to pursue a more conservative agenda during the 2022. But Sullivan would have to ensure that Empower Texans played ball. “So we’re clear, the money’s the issue. And just back down on the rhetoric. You follow me?” Bonnen said.
“Anything that we do with money, I’ll make sure an appropriate conversation is had,” Sullivan responded.
“Correct. And there are times you and I can talk too. I just want to be cautious because I don’t want to get you in trouble or get me in trouble,” Bonnen said. “It’s 5 p.m., I’m not in jail, it’s a good day,” Sullivan quipped. “Exactly,” Bonnen said as he walked out the door.
The Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit is currently conducting an investigation into whether Bonnen violated any state laws. If history is any indication, such a corruption probe may not yield much in the way of punishment for Bonnen.
But the unvarnished look at how Republican leaders talk behind closed doors will leave an indelible mark on the future of the Texas GOP.
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