Recording Transcript Shows Speaker Bonnen To Be Both Hypocrite and Political Dunce

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Stephen Spillman / Freelance

A meeting with the head of a right-wing political action committee is endangering Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen's job.

The hypocritical perfidy came in Bonnen’s sordid request that Sullivan use Empower Texans – his deep-pocketed, dark-money political action committee – to fund primary challengers to 10 moderate Republican House members. This was just days after the speaker drew statewide plaudits for pledging to punish any House member who supported or gave money to a primary challenger to any House incumbent in next year’s election.

The tactical stupidity is demonstrated by Bonnen’s belief that he could trust Sullivan not to weaponize anything he said to him. Sullivan started the session with some acerbic remarks but by the end was virtually singing “Kumbaya” with Bonnen and his sidekick, Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock). Then Sullivan dropped a bomb on them.

First, he told the world about the meeting, including the fact that Bonnen had offered him inducements if he would fund candidates against the Moderate 10. 

Then Sullivan waited until Bonnen had time to call all 10 and swear to them that Sullivan was lying – something most if not all of them would be inclined to believe. Then Sullivan announced that he had secretly recorded the meeting – and invited the 10 to come listen to it. Bonnen had to confess that at least some of what Sullivan said was true. It turned out all of it was true.

The recording, of course, confirms that Bonnen did do the deed. He and Burrows also threw in a bit of sleazy anti-gay “humor” and defamed a female Democratic member. 

That should be proof enough that Bonnen was a dope for falling into Sullivan’s trap, something that cost Bonnen, who announced Tuesday he wouldn’t run for reelection in 2020, his speakership and political career. But consider the more serious strategic stupidity Bonnen demonstrated during the meeting. 

Early on in the transcript, after considerable small talk, the men begin discussing next year’s election. Bonnen expresses concern.

“I just think we’ve got to get through 2020, guarantee, if we try and hold this majority – which, with all due respect to Trump, who I love, by the way – he’s killing us in urban-suburban districts,” he said. 

It was a reference to last year’s midterm election in which Democrats – with significant help from suburban women – picked up 12 seats in the Texas House. If they pick up just nine more next year, Democrats would control the House. 

It’s not out of the question. More Democratic voters tend to vote in presidential election years than in gubernatorial election years. In addition, during the meeting Sullivan worried about a bill pushed by what Burrows described as “the governor’s office and others who swore it was the best thing since sliced bread” two years ago. The law, meant to hurt Democrats, eliminates straight-ticket voting next year. Burrows and Sullivan worried that it would hurt Republicans more, as irregular voters brought out by President Donald Trump won’t bother to wander down the ballot.

“The fact that they wanted it pushed to a year in which they weren’t on the ballot is what sent up my first red flag,” Sullivan said. 

The impact if Democrats won the House of Representatives would be huge, not only on the conservative Republican agenda, but also on the Republican ability to continue gerrymandering legislative and congressional districts. The governor and state Senate would have to compromise with the Democratic House.

So what does Bonnen propose to Sullivan? That the Prince of the Far Right use his treasure chest to fund primary challengers to oust 10 moderate Republicans, whom Bonnen describes as “horrible.” 

Who were the “horribles” he was talking about? Well, the first one mentioned was Steve Allison, the respected attorney and former Alamo Heights school board member who replaced Joe Straus last year. House District 121, which covers part of North San Antonio, is not exactly a right-wing district.

Last year, Allison defeated Matt Beebe, who was backed by Sullivan’s Empower Texans PAC as he had been before, by 15 points in the GOP primary. Then in the general election, Allison beat little-known Democrat Celina Montoya by only 8.5 points. It’s not at all difficult to imagine a moderate Democrat in that district defeating someone like Matt Beebe, especially in a presidential year in which Trump seems to be working hard to avoid appealing to voters outside the Republican base. 

I don’t know well the districts the other nine “horribles” were elected from, but I do know this: The voters elected them, and in many cases re-elected them. In a highly combustible political year, it is stupid for a Republican leader to attack them – at least as stupid as it was for Bonnen to hold that secret meeting with Sullivan.

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