The main topic of discussion for the Texas House Republican Caucus on Friday at the Omni Barton Creek Resort in Austin probably wasn’t on the original agenda.
Heading into the annual festival of schmooze and strategizing, at least 15 caucus members — and a sprinkling of House Democrats — have called on House Speaker Dennis Bonnen to resign.
The chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, James Dickey, said this week he doesn’t think that’s necessary, but his challenger, former congressman Allen West, thinks Bonnen has “lost his credibility, honor, integrity and character.”
And a growing and bipartisan list of county and local elected officials agree that, given the disparaging and corrosive things Bonnen and former GOP caucus chair Dustin Burrows said to conservative political activist Michael Quinn Sullivan during a private meeting on June 12, Texas would be better off without Bonnen’s leadership.
Sullivan secretly recorded the meeting. He told the Texas Monitor he chose to release the full audio to the public on Tuesday for maximum impact at the caucus retreat. He wanted the public, and Bonnen’s colleagues in particular, to hear who they were really dealing with, when they lavished him with praise for his handling of the 86th Legislature.
To be sure, the number of House members on record demanding Bonnen’s resignation is a small minority of the 150-person membership. The absolute silence from potential defenders, however, has been deafening.
Should the House Republicans, assuming all are reelected, insist that Bonnen be replaced on the first day of the 2021 session, he could no longer count on defeating that challenge. The current majority of 83 Republicans who formed the core of his unanimous election to speaker in January clearly are no longer unified. And given some of the insulting and vulgar things he had to say about several Democratic members, Bonnen could assume he might lose those votes as well.
Among the first to call for Bonnen’s resignation were the incumbent House Republicans on a list Burrows gave to Sullivan as targets for his organization, Empower Texans, to “pop” in the next election for not being loyal enough to Bonnen or conservative enough.
The list included Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, and Tan Parker of Flower Mound, who announced their candidacies for House speaker before Bonnen entered the race and who stepped aside thinking that Bonnen had the experience and relationships to unify the party that had been split by previous speaker, Joe Straus.
“We need to restore confidence in leadership, and I believe Speaker Bonnen should resign in order for the House to heal and move forward,” Parker said in a statement he issued this week. “Honesty, accountability and sound judgment have been lost and instead replaced with finger-pointing to absolve responsibility.”
Darby, too, issued a statement denouncing Bonnen’s and Burrows’ “unethical behavior and their disparaging, offensive remarks towards my House colleagues.” He said it’s “time for the House to begin to heal and rebuild trust, and that can only be accomplished when Speaker Bonnen and Representative Burrows are no longer in leadership positions.”
Clardy, who is described by Burrows on Sullivan’s recording as “the ringleader of all opposition” among House Republicans, at first demurred on the issue of resignation. On Thursday, however, he told the Kilgore News Herald, “I can’t in good conscience support Dennis Bonnen any more as leader of the 86th Texas Legislature.”
Clardy told the Herald he looked forward to meeting face-to-face with the principals in what he termed “political corruption.” Up to now, he said, “What I’ve seen are denials and misstatements and attempts to cover up the truth and an absolute, abject failure to own up to their egregious error and do anything to set it straight.”
Also on the hit list was Rep. Phil Stephenson of Wharton, who Bonnen said on tape he wouldn’t support with funding for his reelection. “I don’t need his damned money,” Stephenson told The Dallas Morning News. “I want him to resign. That’s what he needs to do. Time to cut the head off the snake. Go home. You don’t need to be in the legislature.”
The Lufkin Daily News got calls for Bonnen’s resignation from two others on the hit list, Trent Ashby of Lufkin and Kyle Kacal of College Station.
“Speaker Bonnen’s hateful comments not only betray the trust of his fellow House members, but more importantly the 29 million Texans who expect their elected leaders to serve with integrity, high moral character, and humility,” Ashby said.
Kacal told the Daily News, “I believe it to be in the best interest of the Texas House to take action to regain the trust of the body, as well as that of our constituents, and do so under new leadership.”
Another hit list target, Steve Allison of San Antonio, issued a statement to Sullivan’s Texas Scorecard website. “The conduct of Speaker Bonnen and Representative Burrows is too self-evident and cannot be condoned. I would be horribly remiss if I did not speak out against such conduct. It is time for Speaker Bonnen and Representative Burrows to be held accountable for their actions.”
The calls to oust Bonnen also came from conservatives in the House who were critical of what they thought were Bonnen’s compromises with Democrats during the session on property tax and school finance reform. They include three members of the 10-member House Freedom Caucus — Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg, Tony Tinderholt of Arlington and Matt Schaefer of Tyler — as well as one former member, outgoing state Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford.
“The behavior we tolerate becomes the standard we set,” Schaefer told the Tyler Morning Telegraph this week. “Speaker Bonnen should resign. We do not need a legal and ethical cloud hanging over House Republicans as we ask Texans to trust us with their vote in 2020.”
Biedermann, who called for Bonnen’s resignation in August after being invited by Sullivan to hear the recording, said this week, “We must take swift action to replace the current leadership and restore the public trust in the Texas House and in the Republican caucus. All Texans now know that Dennis Bonnen created a double standard for all of his colleagues and lied repeatedly to each of us when he was caught.”
Although Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, had a quiet freshman term in the House, Bonnen referred to her as “vile,” and “heinous,” when speaking in private to Sullivan.
At a Denton Chamber of Commerce luncheon this week, Beckley asked Bonnen to resign, not for the personal attacks on her but because of the hostility he showed to officials for cities and counties, which have for the past two sessions been sparring with the legislature over local-control proposals.
“Any mayor, county judge that was dumb ass enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties,” Bonnen boasted to Sullivan on tape.
“What’s going on in Austin is the same as at the national level, and it’s not acceptable,” Beckley told the luncheon. “I’m happy to work with you no matter what side of the aisle you’re on.”
Rep. Chris Turner, D-Dallas, the chairman of the House’s Democratic caucus, this week called the revelations on the tape “incompatible” with Bonnen continuing as speaker.
Local officials who spoke out agreed with Beckley.
“All Texans, especially the mayors and county judges who Dennis Bonnen referred to as ‘dumbass enough to meet’ with him, now know what we are dealing with,” the Texas Municipal League said in a post on its website. “It is shocking to hear a state official express such animosity toward the cities and counties in his own state.”
Kevin Burns, chairman of the board of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, told The Dallas Morning News he was disappointed in Bonnen. Burns, who is also a Wise County commissioner, said, “Some propose to silence those expert opinions and make local government input at the Texas Capitol so burdensome as to be impossible for most. Texas is better than that. Our state officials should welcome the input of local officials.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].