Skip to main content

Analysis: Texas House speaker accused of scheming against fellow Republicans. Where's the evidence?

A political activist who accused Texas House leaders of offering government favors for political help still hasn't offered any evidence. At least two reputations hang in the balance.

Speaker Dennis Bonnen in the House Chamber on March 27, 2019, the day the House will take up HB1, the 2020-21 budget plan.

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

The ending will be the only way to judge what’s going on in the Texas House right now, after a political operative with a well-supported political action committee made an unsubstantiated claim that the Republican speaker offered House floor access in return for attacking 10 named Republicans in the 2020 primaries.

At the end of this escapade, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will either have the confidence of the members of the House or not, and the judgment of people outside the Capitol will probably flow from that.

He’s got time to get there — and is probably already wondering why anyone is taking the accusation seriously. But his House has been restive over still-unanswered questions and because the accusation created some opportunities for political mischief inside and outside the Republican membership of the House.

For the better part of a week, it’s been a bumpy ride.

Last Thursday, Michael Quinn Sullivan recounted a June meeting in which, he said, Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, offered up House media credentials for Sullivan’s organization in return for help defeating 10 incumbent Republicans. Sullivan is a conservative/libertarian political activist who heads Empower Texans, sometimes writes for its Texas Scorecard website, and is persistently critical of Bonnen and other Republicans in state government. He has offered no evidence to support his story. Bonnen has strongly denied the allegation, in a letter to Sullivan in June, an email to Republican members last week and a news release this week. Burrows has burrowed, making no public comment. At least one Democrat, Trey Martinez Fischer, wrote to his colleagues asking for financial campaign support for two Democrats mentioned in Sullivan’s letter.

It’s not their first rodeo, and Bonnen’s reputation isn’t the only one on the line here. When the legislative session ended, Bonnen called on members of the House to stay out of one another’s races — even in those involving incumbents from the other party. And he dismissed criticism of the results from Sullivan and others in the political peanut gallery.

“You will never please or appease those folks, and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying,” Bonnen said at the time.

“I am incredibly comfortable with my conservative record. But more significantly, they are a group that you are fooling yourself and you are not respecting your constituents, you are not respecting this institution, if you are chasing their wants and their desires because you will never meet their wants and their desires. They are a group that is based on attacks and disrespect to raise money. They are not based on issue ideology.”

As you might imagine, the chatter among members has been high for the past week. Burrows’ silence has raised some eyebrows, especially because Bonnen said he included the chairman of the Republican caucus as a witness to his meeting with Sullivan. One might think the job of a witness is to testify. That hasn’t happened.

Bonnen, in his news release, put part of the blame on the news media — a way of blaming those paying attention to this for giving it their attention. If that’s the problem, he should have included the members of the House who are giving it their attention. It’s not everybody, but it’s not nobody, either. At least 10 of them are watching every move.

The speaker has managed to point the attention back to his accuser. It’s Sullivan’s move.

So far, Sullivan hasn’t followed up with an official complaint, or with any evidence to back his allegations that the speaker offered to trade House media credentials for election help against 10 fellow Republicans. If his was a journalistic endeavor, as he has sometimes claimed, it would publish what it’s got — everything from his original letter to Bonnen (he included Bonnen’s in his first blog post, but not his own letter) to any other evidence that might support his writings.

Whatever the labels, it’s unfolding like a political campaign: attack, parry, attack, etc.

Dripping things out as he has is not untypical for a political campaign, and unless there’s a criminal charge to support at the bottom of this — Sullivan’s original contention was that he was offered a government favor for political work — then this is all about the politics of the Texas House. The latest catnip he offered was in a second blog post that attempts to lure Burrows into the spotlight to back Bonnen’s story.

It would be interesting to hear from Burrows, but it’s not essential at this point. Sullivan himself has to put up, or shut up — to bring the evidence.

To quote former Texas Speaker Gib Lewis’ challenge to accusers who, at the time, were throwing charges at him without proof: “Chirp or get off the perch.”

Sullivan thinks Bonnen’s reputation is at stake. Maybe so. But so is Sullivan’s — and that of his organization.

Quality journalism doesn't come free

Yes, I'll donate today