A small but growing bipartisan group of Texas House members have called for Speaker Dennis Bonnen to resign after a secret recording of the GOP leader meeting with a conservative activist was released this week.
Just as notably, not a single member of the House has publicly expressed support for Bonnen, who said at that June meeting with Michael Quinn Sullivan that he has a list of Republican members “to go pop” in 2020 and that he finds one Democrat “vile” and another “a piece of shit.”
That recording and the silence among most members that followed its release Tuesday have stoked speculation about where exactly the speaker stands with his 149 colleagues — and whether the damage Bonnen did can be repaired.
Some House members have suggested that the relative quiet could be a specific strategy by the speaker’s team heading into a House GOP Caucus retreat Thursday and Friday, which will all but certainly be focused on the drama that has made headlines since July. Other members, though, have viewed the collective hush as a sign that the speaker is in more political danger than most think.
By Wednesday night, four Republicans aligned with the further right faction of the GOP had demanded Bonnen resign from his post as speaker. At least two Democrats had as well, while several others had suggested in statements they could not support the speaker moving forward. Several of the Republicans on the speaker’s political target list had also started weighing in, with at least three — Phil Stephenson of Wharton, Trent Ashby of Lufkin and Tan Parker of Flower Mound — also saying the speaker should step down.
“Honesty, accountability and sound judgment have been lost and instead replaced with finger pointing to absolve responsibility,” Parker said in a statement. “We need to restore the confidence in leadership, and I believe Speaker Bonnen should resign in order for the House to heal and move forward.”
Ashby said in a statement later Wednesday evening that he condemns Bonnen's actions, "and I believe he should step aside so that we can properly begin the healing process."
Another Republican on the target list, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, said that neither Bonnen nor state Rep. Dustin Burrows, who was also at the June meeting, has “shown regret or remorse for their cold and calculated corruption of the people’s government.”
“To target me is to attack the rural Republican values of the thousands of constituents within the three counties I represent,” Bailes said in his statement, “and I will not stand for it.”
A couple of higher-profile Republicans, such as John Smithee of Amarillo and Phil King of Weatherford, had also expressed disappointment with the speaker — with the former suggesting to a local TV station there has been a "forfeiture of the speaker's right to lead."
During the roughly hourlong recording, Bonnen referenced a list multiple times and told Sullivan “what I can do for you” if his conservative Empower Texans group goes after 10 GOP members in the 2020 primaries.
“I don’t need anything,” Sullivan said.
Bonnen responded, “We can make this work. I’ll put your guys on the floor next session,” a reference to his offer of media credentials for Sullivan’s group, which was critical of the speaker for most of the 2019 legislative session.
One of the most troubling aspects for members who have listened to the recording is that Bonnen’s offer to Sullivan is a vast departure from the warning the speaker issued to colleagues at the end of the legislative session in May: If an incumbent campaigns against another sitting lawmaker, there will be consequences.
The differences in Bonnen’s public and private postures about campaigning have prompted members to question whether they can trust the speaker ever again — or whether their trust has been shattered completely.
Beyond that, amid an ongoing Texas Rangers criminal investigation into Sullivan’s allegations against Bonnen, the speaker said Tuesday that the recording makes clear he did not break the law and that the “House can finally move on.”
Yet Bonnen’s statement did not address the political target list or the disparaging comments he made about multiple Democrats during the meeting. In one instance, the speaker said state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat, “makes my skin crawl” and referenced a suggestion Bonnen’s chief of staff made that the freshman lawmaker’s wife doesn’t know he is gay.
Democrats on Tuesday released a statement by state Rep. Chris Turner, the caucus chair, saying the latest “revelations are incompatible” with Bonnen serving another term.
And roughly half the caucus was in Austin on Wednesday evening for an already-scheduled meeting and dinner. The conversation at that meeting largely centered on whether further action from the group was needed, though no immediate decisions were made, according to those in attendance. However, the caucus is considering whether to call another meeting in the near future to discuss the issue as an agenda item.
“What I can tell you is that everybody present universally condemned what the speaker had said in that recording,” Turner told the Tribune after the caucus meeting. “No one in the room voiced any support or defense of the speaker today.”
To be clear, Republicans across the board have suggested they plan to withhold public comment until their caucus gathers later this week, which will mark the group’s first official gathering since Sullivan’s allegations against Bonnen surfaced. Members have suggested that a number of things could happen at that Friday meeting, though a concrete plan hasn’t yet emerged and may not ahead of it.
Skepticism about the speaker’s political future aside, Bonnen proved himself to be one of the chamber’s most savvy organizers during the 2018 speaker’s race — an ability that could come into play if questions about his viability as head of the House continue to linger.
The House GOP Caucus is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. Friday in Austin.