Bonnen drops out; won’t run for re-election to the House

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One week after the release of a secret recording that turned the Texas House against him, Speaker Dennis Bonnen said Tuesday he will not run for re-election to his House seat, effectively ruling out a bid for a second term as speaker.

It was not clear if or how that decision will affect an investigation by the Texas Rangers into possible criminal wrongdoing by Bonnen in a June 12 meeting captured secretly on tape by Empower Texans’ CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan. 

On the tape, Bonnen is heard to offer Sullivan press credentials for Empower Texans, to put them on the House floor in the next session in exchange for working to defeat incumbent Republicans whom Bonnen deemed not conservative enough. 

Bonnen, a Republican from Angleton, made the announcement he would not run for reelection the day after the chairmen of five powerful House committees, all appointed by Bonnen, joined a chorus of fellow Republicans in condemning his actions.

“It is clear that trust and confidence in the Speaker has significantly eroded among our membership, and the matter has both damaged the reputation of the House and relationships among individual members,” they said in a joint statement.

Since Monday, Bonnen said, nearly four dozen House Republicans have contacted him to suggest he give up the speaker’s chair. Those conversations, “with members who care deeply about the Texas House,” Bonnen said in a prepared statement, convinced him to leave the House after 22 years. 

“After much prayer, consultation, and thoughtful consideration with my family, it is clear that I can no longer seek re-election as state representative of District 25, and subsequently, as speaker of the house,” Bonnen said in the statement. “I care deeply about this body and the work we have accomplished over the years, namely, the outstanding success we achieved in the 86th Legislature. My fellow colleagues have made clear that it is in the best interest of both myself and the House to move on, and I thank them for the respectful and thoughtful way in which they have convinced me to do so.”

Bonnen mentioned nothing about possibly stepping down, either as representative or as speaker, before both those terms end in January 2021, prior to the start of the next legislative session. A message left with the speaker’s office by The Texas Monitor for comment was not returned before this story posted.

State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, the third person present at the June 12 meeting, stepped down as caucus chairman about two weeks after Sullivan revealed the meeting had been taped. He has been silent on Bonnen’s status as speaker.

Sullivan, whose announcement in July that he had taped his meeting touched off months of political speculation, tweeted Tuesday morning, just after Bonnen’s announcement, “Sad day for Texas. A good day for Texas.”

Sullivan posted on Facebook later in the morning that Bonnen brought this moment on himself by failing to take responsibility or show contrition for things the public heard on Sullivan’s recording last week.

“Dennis Bonnen could have behaved ethically from the start in his dealings with his fellow lawmakers, with me, and with the Texas public,” Sullivan wrote. “He could have recanted his unethical offer privately when given the opportunity. He instead chose lies, deceit, dishonor, and – ultimately – ruin. He has gone from the third-ranking constitutional officer in Texas to a cautionary tale about the dangers of political hubris.”

Sullivan also called on Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to order a special legislative session to address conservative legislation he said had been “bottled up” by Bonnen in the regular session that ended in May. Unlike most House Republicans, who hailed Bonnen’s handling of the session, Sullivan was sharply critical of what he said were compromises with Democrats that blunted property tax and school finance reform.

Bonnen’s announcement also prompted the Texas Democratic Party and state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, on Tuesday to drop their lawsuit against Sullivan. The suit alleged that Sullivan’s meeting with Bonnen and Burrows constituted a political campaign committee that violated state election laws.

In a statement posted on the party website, Chad Dunn, the party’s general counsel, said Bonnen’s decision not to run for reelection accomplished one of the goals of the lawsuit: to halt the speaker’s violation of campaign laws. The other was to compel the release of the secret recording, which Sullivan did last week. 

“We have fully succeeded in what we set out to do,” Dunn said in his statement. “Texans are fed up with backroom deals, cover-ups, and unaccountable politicians who put the pursuit of power over everything. Speaker Bonnen not seeking re-election is just the beginning.

“Case dismissed.”

Sullivan shot back on Twitter, “In which the @TexasDemocrats admit they used a frivolous lawsuit against me for their political #TxLege purposes. Someone needs to be sanctioned, AND they owe us for attorneys fees. Disgusting and corrupt slimeballs.”

As news of Bonnen’s decision settled in on Tuesday, there was little discussion on social media of how Bonnen would serve out the rest of his term as speaker or of who might succeed him.

Until Tuesday, the focus was on a growing number of Republicans who said the House could not move forward until Bonnen resigned. Last Friday night after a retreat in Austin, the House Republican Caucus condemned Bonnen for his duplicitous and cutting remarks during his meeting with Sullivan. Members, however, stopped short of calling for Bonnen to resign.

In the days following the release of the secret tape, incumbent House Republicans whom Bonnen had indicated he would target in the next election because they weren’t conservative enough renounced their support for him.

On Monday, John Frullo, of Lubbock, Dan Huberty of Humble, Lyle Larson of San Antonio, Chris Paddie of Marshall and Four Price of Amarillo — rewarded by Bonnen with committee chairs or co-chair posts in the last session — also broke with him. 

“Without a change in House leadership, the existing damage will continue to metastasize, and our efforts will be overshadowed and become increasingly difficult,” the legislative leaders said in the statement. “This issue is larger than any one individual, office, meeting or statement. Speaker Bonnen is our colleague and our friend, but we believe an expedient, deliberate and well-planned transition is needed for the House and best for Texas.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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