After a steady rise, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen's fall came fast

The leader of the Capitol's lower chamber kept fighting until the end, to the frustration of some of his members.

Speaker Dennis Bonnen has spent roughly half of his life in the Texas House.

By Monday afternoon, Dennis Bonnen had seen the signs that the end was likely in sight.

The Republican House speaker had just finished a two-hour conversation at the Texas Capitol with some of the chamber’s most influential members — and the news they had delivered was bleak: Bonnen had lost their support.

In just a few hours, Bonnen knew, a joint statement by those five Republicans — four of them powerful committee chairmen — would be released to the public, solidifying the harsh reality that the first-term speaker who had spent roughly half his life in the House would not be back for another round. The statement would say that after the speaker had been secretly recorded suggesting a hardline conservative activist enlist his group to politically target fellow Republicans and bragging about making life hard at the Capitol for local leaders, “trust and confidence in the Speaker has significantly eroded.”

Still, Bonnen kept fighting. His Twitter account soon unleashed a 12-part thread defending the harsh remarks Bonnen and one of his top allies made about local officials during that June meeting with Michael Quinn Sullivan.

“I am NOT anti local govt, but I AM a pro-taxpayer conservative,” Bonnen wrote. “It is the large, progressive, urban local govts that have been working against TX taxpayers for years.”

Perhaps without Bonnen even realizing it, that explanation resembled almost every other response that had come from his team since the political fallout — it was heavy on the excuses and light on the apologies.

That defiant posture is what defined Bonnen throughout a monthslong scandal that many say was of the speaker’s own making. And it’s what ultimately pushed more than 30 House Republicans to say they could no longer support the speaker to continue leading their chamber. The five Republicans' statement went out soon after Bonnen's tweets, making it clear Bonnen wasn't likely to survive. He announced the next morning that he wouldn't run for reelection.

Before his rapid ascent to the speaker’s gavel in 2018, Bonnen, who did not return a request for comment Tuesday, was known largely as a savvy fighter who, at times, let his pugnacious tendencies get the better of him. But after winning unanimous election as speaker in January, Bonnen had appeared to polish his sharper edges.

Bonnen’s fierce loyalty to the chamber he practically grew up in seemed to overshadow his typical dramatics. Bonnen’s determination to unify Republicans and Democrats to pass comprehensive reforms to the state’s school finance and property tax systems seemed to outweigh his sometimes sharp tongue. And Bonnen’s insistence that the members — not the speaker — drove the business of the House seemed to come before his personal, sometimes petty, preferences.

Because of that, Bonnen closed out the 2019 session of the Legislature, members said at the time, with much of the same widespread support that had swept him into office in the first place. And as members were readying to pack up their offices and head home to loved ones, the speaker took a stance on the upcoming elections in, perhaps, an effort to continue that camaraderie.

“The consequence is simple,” Bonnen told reporters on the last day of the 86th session in May. “If you choose to campaign against any of your sitting colleagues, I will weigh in against you. And if I am fortunate enough to continue to be speaker, you will find yourself not well positioned in the next session.”

The speaker’s comments seemed simple enough. And although some members had questions about the exact rules of engagement — how would Democrats, fresh off a dozen-seat pickup in 2018, go about trying to flip another nine to gain control of the lower chamber? could Republicans fight back in an effort to maintain their party’s grip on the House? — answers to those, they were sure, would come sooner rather than later.

But first, they said, it was time for vacation. And while the lawmakers were heading out to begin recovering from their 140 days in the Capitol, the combative Bonnen seemed to return.

“Let me tell you what I’ll do for you”

One day after Bonnen issued his warning, he and Sullivan, the hardline conservative activist who heads the take-no-prisoners political group Empower Texans, ran into one another at the Houston airport.

The two longtime figures in Texas politics weren’t exactly friends. Sullivan and his group had spent much of the past several months criticizing the new speaker over his leadership style, blaming Bonnen in part for what they called a “purple session.” And Bonnen, in response, had told reporters the day before that neither Sullivan nor his organization could ever be appeased — and that Bonnen “sure as hell” would not spend time trying. A meeting between the two was suggested at that airport run-in, and it was soon set for June 12 at the Texas Capitol.

Both sides came into the meeting wary. Sullivan later wrote that he was worried about past "lies and malicious attacks" from Bonnen, prompting him to secretly record the meeting. Bonnen, meanwhile, asked a top lieutenant, state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who at the time chaired the House GOP Caucus, to join — a move the speaker later described as asking for help to explain to Sullivan “the need for Empower Texans to not engage in Republican primaries this election cycle.” The three started by chatting about Sullivan’s recent travels to Europe. Then they turned to politics.

“I’m trying to win in 2020,” Bonnen said. “Let’s not spend millions of dollars fighting in primaries when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November.”

The speaker continued, “If you need some primaries to fight in, I will leave and Dustin will tell you some that we would love it if you fought in them.”

That idea — seemingly a direct violation of the rules Bonnen gave the House — might have been enough to sow outrage among members. But then came the insults. State Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat, “makes my skin crawl,” Bonnen said before mentioning a joke his chief of staff had previously made about the freshman’s sexuality. The room erupted in laughter before Bonnen resumed speaking.

“We’ve got Michelle Beckley, who’s vile, OK?” he told Sullivan, describing another freshman Democrat.

Bonnen then shifted his focus. “I need you firing harder that way than these ways,” he told Sullivan. “And let me tell you what I’ll do for you — real quick, you need to hear what I want to do for you.”

“I don’t need anything,” Sullivan replied.

“Well, no you do,” Bonnen insisted before making his offer: long-denied media credentials that would allow certain Empower Texans employees access to the House floor.

“If we can make this work,” Bonnen said, “I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”

Before long, Bonnen left the room, suggesting multiple times that Burrows had “a list” of members to give to Sullivan for the purposes of politically targeting them in the 2020 primaries. Burrows eventually listed off some of the House members who had voted against a measure to ban cities and counties from using taxpayer dollars to lobby the Legislature — a measure he said would be the “benchmark for next session.”

Burrows mentioned 10 House Republicans that Sullivan’s group could politically target: Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Steve Allison of San Antonio, Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Kyle Kacal of College Station, Stan Lambert of Abilene, John Raney of College Station and Phil Stephenson of Wharton.

Sullivan later wrote that he left the meeting that day with immediate calls out to his lawyers — gathering advice and plotting his next steps.

“You would know better”

Sullivan went public with his blow-by-blow account of the meeting July 25 by publishing a post on one of Empower Texans’ websites under the headline “Bonnen’s Backroom Offer.”

The story sent a shockwave through the political sphere as members wondered whether any of it was true. Was this just another attempt by Sullivan to remain relevant? Could Bonnen have really said that? And, perhaps most importantly: Was there a recording of it?

To that last question, the speaker and his team appeared to gamble that the answer was no.

“Hopefully, you know better than to believe anything Michael Quinn Sullivan would bother to say,” Bonnen said to a House member in a voicemail shortly after the news broke. “I did meet with him to tell him he should not campaign against any Republican in the primary — um, obviously the opposite of what he’s trying to present.”

Bonnen or people from his office dispatched several calls along those lines, assuring members that they were not on a political target list of any sort and reminding them that Sullivan’s credibility could not be trusted. Others, meanwhile, never heard from the speaker.

On Friday evening, over 24 hours after Sullivan’s allegations first went public, Bonnen emailed House Republicans with the subject line “Setting the record straight.” Missing from that email was Sullivan’s explicit allegation about a 10-member political target list. Bonnen ended by saying he looked “forward to vigorously campaigning and supporting every one of you” in the 2020 elections.

But by then, too many questions still hadn’t been answered — and unrest among members in pursuit of the truth seemed to be growing.

The following Monday, Bonnen released a public statement on the matter. That, too, was carefully worded. “Let me be clear,” Bonnen said. “At no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target members.” Some began to ask why the speaker wasn’t just explicitly denying the allegations.

“He’ll deny, deny, deny, a little more will come out, then he will dial back his denial and get a little more technical about it,” one person who works closely with multiple Republicans on the alleged target list told The Texas Tribune amid the fallout. “It’s a constant walking back of previous details.”

A few days later, Bonnen’s gamble that there was no audio of the meeting proved to be a mistake. Sullivan revealed he had secretly recorded the meeting and announced he would begin allowing certain Republicans to listen to the audio in his attorney’s office. And later that night, the first Republicans to do so went public with what they heard, which they said largely confirmed Sullivan’s allegations.

“Bonnen was not truthful about a list not being provided,” state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said after listening to the recording.

Bonnen, along with various other Republicans and Democrats, called on Sullivan over the next several days to release his entire recording of the meeting. Meanwhile, Burrows, the House GOP Caucus chair, stayed silent — to the frustration of some members who wanted answers.

By the first week of August, with rumors swirling and frustration mounting, Bonnen was ready to apologize.

“I was stupid to take a meeting with an individual who has worked hard to divide our House,” Bonnen wrote to House members in an Aug. 6 email. “I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally.” The subject line of the email was “I’m sorry.”

Rosenthal, the Houston Democrat, issued a joint statement with the speaker saying he forgave Bonnen for his comments during the meeting. And roughly a dozen Republicans — most of them close Bonnen allies — took to Twitter with carefully worded sentiments suggesting the House could now begin to heal and move on.

But for many members, the apology, which didn’t mention the 10-member target list, rang hollow. Why had it taken so long for an apology that only addressed part of Sullivan’s allegations? A majority of members — Republicans and Democrats — opted to remain silent, either unsure of how to proceed or certain that the other shoe was bound to drop at some point.

Things kept happening. The next day, on Aug. 7, the House General Investigating Committee signaled it would move to launch an investigation into the matter — the first official sign that Bonnen’s troubles could have legal implications. The day after that, on Aug. 8, the Texas Democratic Party sued Sullivan in hopes of obtaining the recording. The next week, the House committee unanimously voted to ask the Texas Rangers, the state’s top law enforcement agency, to investigate the allegations. And a few days later, Burrows made his first move after weeks of silence and resigned as chair of the GOP caucus, aiming to alleviate some pressure that had built up among frustrated Republicans.

A series of political victories

By early September, the scandal had appeared to lose steam. Two mass shootings in the state had happened within weeks of each other, prompting the media and lawmakers to turn their focus in that direction. The investigation by the Rangers was — and remained as of Tuesday — ongoing. Sullivan was refusing to release his recording to the public, despite a growing number of lawmakers calling on him to do so.

Meanwhile, Bonnen was pulling off a series of smaller perceived victories, prompting those around him — and perhaps even the speaker himself — to think the situation could be turned around.

Inside the chamber, Burrows’ resignation had set off a vice chair election within the caucus. The two candidates in the race, some members suggested, represented the two fractures among Republicans — those who were still with Bonnen and those who were not. Jim Murphy of Houston, who was perceived to be the speaker’s preferred candidate for the job, won.

Days before Murphy’s victory, Bonnen’s hometown county GOP voted down overwhelmingly a motion calling for the speaker to resign immediately. The measure was similar to what several other county parties had already passed in the weeks since the drama took shape. The Brazoria County Republican Party voted 23-9 against the resolution, indicating that the speaker still had support among a majority of his local precinct chairs.

That weekend, Bonnen’s political standing was again tested among the Texas GOP’s State Republican Executive Committee at an already-scheduled meeting. A resolution calling for the House GOP Caucus to consider “selecting a new Endorsed Republican Speaker Candidate” was ultimately watered down, though the vote on whether to add stronger language back in narrowly failed by two votes. The 64-member body passed language that simply demanded “both truth and transparency by all parties involved.”

Bonnen appeared to be on somewhat of a winning streak — until a month later, when Sullivan announced he would finally release the audio.

“The caucus needs to get control of this”

The recording was made public Oct. 15, unleashing a tide of opposition to Bonnen that couldn’t be overcome.

The audio largely confirmed what Sullivan had first alleged in late July. But Bonnen again dismissed the matter, casting what happened during that meeting as “nothing more than a political discussion.”

“The problem is that I had it with that guy,” Bonnen said in a statement. “With clear evidence now disproving allegations of criminal wrongdoing, the House can finally move on.”

The House did not move on.

As the reality of the recording continued to sink in, a small but growing number of members began re-upping their disapproval, with some calling for Bonnen to resign immediately and others suggesting they could not support the speaker moving forward. The calls came from hardline conservatives aligned with Empower Texans and members of the alleged 10-person target list. Most of Bonnen’s allies, meanwhile, remained conspicuously silent.

On Thursday morning, a signal came from an unexpected place. State Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, received a call from U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a former governor of Texas who was visiting his home state with President Donald Trump.

Trump had been mentioned on the recording. Bonnen told Sullivan that the president was “killing us in the urban-suburban districts” as the GOP tried to hold on to control of the state House. Now Trump’s camp had a message.

“I don’t know if it was so much Trump as the Trump campaign,” Smithee said, when asked who prodded Perry to call him. “They felt like the whole [Bonnen] thing was a distraction.”

“You all need to get it resolved,” he said Perry told him. “The caucus needs to get control of this.”

The discontent continued to solidify into Friday, when the House GOP Caucus met officially for the first time since the drama began.

What was supposed to be a 45-minute, closed-door discussion among members turned into a roughly four-hour one. And as members emerged from the meeting, the caucus released a statement condemning both the speaker’s and Burrows’ remarks at the June 12 meeting.

Bonnen, according to those in the room, had started the meeting with an offer for the caucus to vote on a resolution calling for his resignation. The move, which some said was unexpected, showcased a tactful Bonnen who thought he knew the levers of power and the institution of the House well enough to save himself. Bonnen withdrew that motion — no vote on such a measure was taken — and after hours of debate, which at times got testy among members, the caucus adjourned, some members felt, even more divided than when it started the meeting.

On Monday, calls for Bonnen to step aside resumed, and the blow that opened the floodgates happened that night when the five influential members — Four Price of Amarillo, Dan Huberty of Houston, Lyle Larson of San Antonio, Chris Paddie of Marshall and John Frullo of Lubbock — issued a joint statement saying they could no longer support the speaker.

By Tuesday morning, as some members who had been on the bubble were eagerly issuing their statements, it happened: Bonnen, dogged by the monthslong fallout, declared he would not seek reelection to his House seat — and, consequently, to the speakership.

In his statement announcing his decision, the student of the lower chamber described how he “care[s] deeply about this body and the work we have accomplished over the years.” He thanked the members who went to him directly and encouraged him not to run again. He did not, however, apologize for anything in the recording.

In the end, even some of Bonnen’s closest allies personally acknowledged that the speaker’s political fate could have been saved with a better game plan when Sullivan’s bombshell dropped in late July. Had Bonnen admitted guilt and avoided the repeated covering up his missteps, some suggested, the speaker might have survived. Had Bonnen worked harder to repair relationships and regain key pools of trust, some suggested, the pressure might not have forced him to retire.

@RepDennisBonnen could have behaved ethical[ly],” Sullivan tweeted after Tuesday’s announcement. “He could have recanted privately. He instead chose lies, deceit, dishonor, and ruin. He has gone from 3rd constitutional officer in Texas to a cautionary tale.”

Ross Ramsey contributed to this report.