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If you’re looking at the Dennis Bonnen controversy through the lens of the U.S. Capitol, you can’t see the damage the speaker of the Texas House has done.
You should be looking through the lens of the Texas Capitol, which runs on bipartisan collegiality. The members of the Texas House and Senate aren’t always happy with their party opposites, but it’s never been a winner-take-all operation. Republican presiding officers give chairmanships of some committees (usually not the most important ones) to Democrats. It’s been a while since the Democrats had a presiding officer, but they followed the same practice.
It's important to fight without breaking any bones because the next battle will reorder the alliances and the opposition.
Congress in Washington, D.C., is the one most people know the most about. It’s run by partisans. The majority party gets the goodies. The minority party gets bupkis.
Bonnen’s party purity inclinations — he told conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan he wouldn’t mind replacing his more moderate Republican colleagues with “better Republicans” — would be everyday business in Washington.
The political and lobby crowd in Austin can try to discount such comments as a normal bump-and-grind political discussion, but Bonnen was trading on the fortunes of the people who elected him — the other 149 Republican and Democratic members of the Texas House.
With his insults for “liberal pieces of shit” in the House, he made it more difficult for moderate Democrats to side with him. To do so would mean taking up arms for a Republican against their own.
It puts Democrats in high places — people like Joe Moody of El Paso, the House speaker pro tempore; Oscar Longoria of Mission, vice chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee; or Senfronia Thompson of Houston, who chairs the House Committee on Public Health, among many others — in tight spots. Maybe everyone will settle down before the Legislature returns, but at the moment, they’re walking on eggshells, waiting to see how this all sorts out.
And the Democrats are in a competitive position for the first time in years, just nine votes short of a House majority, coming off a closer-than-expected 2018 election, seeing the promise of national political money being spent in Texas for once, and hoping that a controversial Republican president will put moderate Republican voters in doubt and push independent voters to support Democrats.
They’re not open to a deal at the moment.
Sure, the Republicans outnumber them. But the recording catches Bonnen talking openly about the difficulties of getting his agenda — and Sullivan’s agenda — past a Republican contingent that includes a number of moderates. And he set the stage for Sullivan to talk to state Rep. Dustin Burrows, the Lubbock Republican who served as his closer, about which 10 Republicans the speaker wanted to replace.
It might amount to nothing, but that’s interesting arithmetic: The Democrats are nine seats short of a majority, and the speaker wants to leave 10 Republicans out in the desert.
The basic plan Bonnen and Burrows were pursuing isn’t stupid, exactly. If you are a conservative Republican and you have a narrow partisan advantage — the House has 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats, assuming a couple of pending special elections leave the same parties in place — replacing moderates with hard-liners could strengthen your hand.
The three people in that meeting would have had to trust one another to pull that off, but the conversation obviously gave Sullivan the heebee-jeebees. Why wouldn’t it? Unless the guy with the proposal — Bonnen — is one of your besties, how would this play differently if he was trying to set you up, to entrap you?
For whatever reason, Sullivan outed Bonnen and Burrows, publicly accusing them of a quid pro quo swap — House floor media access for his help with those 10 GOP incumbents — and offering a recording of the meeting (itself a sign of the lack of trust here) to prove his point against powerful legislators with lots of friends and political dependents, both in the government and the lobby.
What’s left is disaster response.
Texas Democrats are going to talk about this for at least a year, and it’ll be of some use to them even after the elections, as everyone heads into a 2021 legislative session featuring congressional and legislative redistricting, a continued war against local governments and an intimidating set of old and new financial obligations — transportation, education, property tax “relief” for schools, etc. — that will stretch the swelling state budget.
Those 10 Republicans are in the umpteenth round of apologies from all concerned, and that could turn into unexpected financial help from the same parties who were conspiring against them. The intergovernmental declaration of war — “My goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties,” Bonnen told Sullivan — could encourage some local officials to run for legislative office in 2020. They’ve got two more months before the filing deadline to think about it.
And if all of that goes his way, all Bonnen has to do is convince the members of the House that he’s still their guy — that they should stick with him, and that he’ll have their backs when trouble comes.
Even when the trouble is Bonnen.