What seemed like a story that was starting to fizzle is now developing into one of the biggest political controversies in Texas in recent years. It involves the speaker of the Texas House, Dennis Bonnen, and the allegation that he offered press credentials to the head of activist group Empower Texans, if that group targeted certain fellow Republicans during the 2020 elections. The head of Empower Texans, Michael Quinn Sullivan, just released a secret recording he made during a conversation with Bonnen in June. Sullivan had been promising to release the tape for months.
“If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session,” Bonnen told Sullivan in the recording.
The Austin American-Statesman’s chief political writer, Jonathan Tilove, has been following the story, and says it was odd that Sullivan and Bonnen met in the first place.
“This was a meeting between people who shouldn’t have ever had a meeting, one would think, based on their public statements about each other. This is the speaker of the House and his severest critic,” Tilove says.
Tilove says Bonnen wants to maintain a Republican majority in the Texas House in 2020, and he “enlisted” Sullivan to help him. Bonnen had wanted him to go after certain Republicans who may not have a chance of winning in 2020.
Bonnen also involved the then-House GOP Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows in the meeting, having him give Sullivan a list of representatives to target with negative coverage on his website.
Tilove says Bonnen’s lawyer contends there was no quid pro quo between Bonnen and Sullivan because press credentials have no monetary value. Tilove says, as a reporter, that doesn’t ring true.
“Being on the [House] floor means something,” he says.
Bonnen’s actions may not have been illegal, but Tilove says they’re in sharp contrast to the values he seemed to promote after the recent legislative session. He told Tilove then that Texas House members “do not campaign against each other,” Tilove says. But Tilove says that statement was disingenuous.
“That was for public consumption,” he says.
Now, Bonnen will have to face the lawmakers he disparaged, and Tilove says it will be hard for him to stay speaker during the next legislative session in 2021.
“I don’t think he can enlist Democrats, and I think the Republican caucus is now fractured going into a crucial election,” Tilove says. “What he was attempting to accomplish here has been totally undone by the fact that it’s become public.”
Written by Caroline Covington.