Analysis: Bonnen repairing hurt feelings, but the political damage is real

If the members of the Texas House are still on Speaker Dennis Bonnen's side after they know just what he said to a political activist in a secretly recorded meeting, he'll keep his job. It comes down to trust.

Speaker Dennis Bonnen on the House floor during the House School Finance plan deliberation on April 3, 2019.

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Forgiveness is one thing. Trust is another.

And you won’t know whether either one is misplaced if you don’t have all the evidence.

This is the big hole in the current drip-drip-drip attack on Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, accused by a political antagonist of offering media credentials to the House floor in return for help defeating 10 House incumbents. The accuser, Michael Quinn Sullivan, recorded their conversation. He has refused to make it available to the public, but is playing it, in dribs and drabs, for members of the Texas House and a few players outside the Capitol, including the chairman of the Texas Republican Party and several activists.

Most of those who are willing to talk about it have said what was played back for them matches Sullivan’s version — that Bonnen, a Republican, and House Republican Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows listed 10 fellow Republicans they hope to beat in the 2020 elections. But it’s fair to say that most of the people who have heard it were either predisposed to side with Sullivan, or against Bonnen — either because of Sullivan’s past political support or because of sore feelings after last year’s race for speaker of the House.

Bonnen has met that with a blend of denial, apology and a demand for the public release of the full recording. That call for evidence would be a baffling request if Sullivan’s recording is sufficient to knock him out of the speaker’s office.

Bonnen isn’t the only one making it. The Texas Democratic Party, which on some level has to be enjoying a political food fight that pits Republicans against Republicans, filed a lawsuit this week that, among other things, “seeks production of this recording.” Some of the people who’ve heard the recording have said it should be brought into the open, though a couple think it ought to remain closely held.

That’s part of the slow attack on the speaker, one that keeps the story alive in the halls of the House and beyond, and that has kept Bonnen in a defensive posture: accused by someone who hasn’t offered any public evidence of the charges he’s making.

A number of House members have taken to social media with notes of forgiveness for a leader who has admitted to and apologized for unspecified mistakes. Without the evidence that Sullivan has shared only sparingly, they’re siding with a speaker who, in case you forgot, is still in power.

Bonnen himself admitted to legislators he said “terrible things” in the meeting; some lawmakers who’ve heard it think the transgressions should disqualify him.

And that’s where it comes down to forgiveness and trust. They trusted Bonnen in January, when they elected him speaker. And he’s hoping for another term in January 2021, if Republicans are in the majority and he’s still their leader.

Jason Villalba, a Republican former member who listened to the recording this week, broke down what he heard.

“Was there a serious breach of protocol? Unquestionably. Was there a lapse of ethical or legal standards? That is for [the] commission or committee to determine. As a member, the question is simple,” he said. “In a fight for my future, in a primary or otherwise, can I trust the speaker to have my back? If, after hearing the tape, the answer is ‘no,’ then the speaker cannot survive.”

That determination doesn’t hinge on whether the members of the House still like the speaker, forgive him for whatever he actually said, or any of that. It will hinge on whether they think he’s capable of stabbing friends in the back.

Bonnen put this on himself. Twice.

At the end of the legislative session, he and the other two members of the “big three” — the governor and the lieutenant governor — were taking victory laps for delivering what they had promised at the beginning of the session. School finance, limits on property tax growth, a robust response to Hurricane Harvey, mental health legislation and so on. Sullivan and other conservatives chafed at the growth in state spending lawmakers approved, that big property tax cuts weren’t part of the package and at the failure to enact other legislation they wanted — like a prohibition on lobbyists paid out of taxpayer funds.

Bonnen blew them off. “You will never please or appease those folks, and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying,” he told reporters. He said Empower Texans “is a group that is based on attacks and disrespect to raise money. They are not based on issue ideology.”

Having named the opponent, he tossed down this gauntlet: “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.”

And here he is, with Sullivan accusing the self-styled protector of the House of calling in a political assault on 10 of his own members. A complete and unaltered recording is the best way to find out what was actually said, and whether any of this deserves the attention it’s been getting from the members and the media and the circle of interested parties who work within a mile or two of the Texas Capitol.

The House’s own General Investigating Committee will meet on Monday to open an investigation into Sullivan’s allegations. Maybe they’ll get the recording. Maybe Sullivan will let it out, or perhaps the courts will. And then it’ll be down to legislators to decide what to decide: whether forgiveness and trust are the order of the day.