Sullivan’s claim about Bonnen meeting might backfire, Rice professor predicts

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Texas Capital

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen is likely to emerge the winner and conservative watchdog Michael Quinn Sullivan the loser in a fight over dueling accounts of their meeting June 12 in Austin, political science professor Mark Jones says.

Last Thursday Sullivan published his version, in which he said that Bonnen offered House press credentials for Sullivan’s organization, Empower Texans, in exchange for its work in defeating 10 targeted Republican House incumbents. 

Bonnen followed with a letter emailed to House members on July 26, offering a very different account of the meeting. The letter while not specifically denying that an offer had been made in exchange for campaigning, emphasized that Empower Texans needed to cease attacks on House Republicans.

On Monday, Sullivan called on Dustin Burrows, the chairman of the House GOP Caucus, who had attended the meeting at Bonnen’s request, to reveal what really happened.

Bonnen, in his only statement for the media so far, took a shot at Sullivan.

“Let me be clear,” he wrote to The Dallas Morning News, “at no point in our conversation was [Michael Quinn] Sullivan provided with a list of target members. I had one simple reason for taking the meeting — I saw it as an opportunity to protect my Republican colleagues and prevent us from having to waste millions of dollars defending ourselves against Empower Texans’ destructive primary attacks, as we have had to do the past several cycles.”

Barring some startling new evidence, the public might never know what happened. Other than these scripted messages, no one is talking. Emails and calls from The Texas Monitor to Bonnen, Sullivan and Burrows, R-Lubbock, were not returned.

And while the Morning News reached two of the 10 incumbents originally named by Sullivan — Ernest Bailes, R-Shepherd, and Phil Stephenson, R-Wharton — neither legislator speculated on who is telling the truth about the June 12th meeting. Repeated attempts by the Texas news media, including The Texas Monitor, to solicit comment from the others on the list have failed.

Jones, a political science fellow for Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, stopped short of saying who he thought was telling the truth. With no recorded account of the meeting and Bonnen having asked Burrows not to comment, the public is left to guess, he said.

“It’s clear someone is lying and someone is telling the truth about the meeting,” Jones told The Texas Monitor. “When you look over the whole thing, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It strikes me as very out of character for Dennis Bonnen. Nothing about this incident at all reminds me of Dennis Bonnen.”

The events of the last week seem to be part of the struggle that goes back to the race to replace Joe Straus as speaker of the Texas House and a legislative session that, in Jones’ opinion, was a marked success for Bonnen and far less so for Sullivan and Empower Texans.

Three of the House members on Sullivan’s list — Travis Clardy, Drew Darby and Tan Parker — got into last year’s speaker’s race early, but dropped out as soon as Bonnen filed and quickly got behind him. Bonnen was elected speaker unanimously at the start of the session.

By many accounts, Bonnen’s inaugural session was an unqualified success, emphasizing his commitment to work with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to achieve conservative goals without neglecting or punishing political opponents, Jones says.

“Bonnen came out of that session living up to his pledge to be a speaker for all of the House,” Jones said.

But not for all conservatives. Sullivan and other Empower Texans staffers wrote critically about Bonnen’s supposed failure to steer the House to the right on the big issues of the last session — property tax and school finance reform. Just after the session concluded, Sullivan’s group slammed Bonnen for telling House incumbents not to campaign directly for or against one another, interpreting it as a concession to Democrats, particularly in swing districts.

Bonnen responded to Empower Texans with a quote that has been much repeated: “You will never please or appease those folks, and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying.”

Less than two weeks later, Sullivan, Bonnen and Burrows met, following a brief exchange at Hobby Airport in Houston. According to Sullivan, the meeting was at Bonnen’s invitation and according to Bonnen, at Sullivan’s suggestion.

The gist of the meeting, Sullivan said, took him by surprise. At the start of the session, Senate officials granted Empower Texans media credentials to report from the Senate floor, access widely criticized by other news media because Empower Texans also actively campaigns for political candidates. The House, for those reasons, denied the credentials. Empower Texans sued, but a federal district court threw out their complaint in May. The group has appealed the action to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Sitting in his Capitol office on June 12, Speaker Bonnen was adamant he wanted to do something for me,” Sullivan wrote. “Bonnen insisted: He would ensure Texas Scorecard [the news site for Empower Texans] reporters received House floor access in 2021 if we would lay off our criticism of the legislative session, not spend money from our affiliated PACs against certain Republicans, and — most shockingly — go after a list of other Republicans in the 2020 primary elections.”

In his letter to House members, Bonnen does not directly address what the Quorum Report publication characterized as an accusation of  “bribery,” but he wrote that he made it clear to Sullivan he is unlikely to get his credentials as long as Empower Texans is a political activist group.

“At the end of the day, the House Rules — not the Speaker — determine who gets media credentials,” Bonnen wrote. “Frankly, I am agnostic as to whether the House ever grants them floor access or not.”

Sullivan did not use the term bribery in his account, nor has he made a formal accusation of a crime against Bonnen. And without the credentials having been granted, it’s Sullivan’s word against Bonnen’s as to what was and wasn’t offered, Jones said. 

Sullivan sent his letter to Bonnen on June 19. In a June 27 response to that, Bonnen said Sullivan was “mistaken” and that there was no deal for him to accept or reject. Bonnen’s statement to the Morning News Monday is a flat denial that a “hit list” of incumbent Republicans was part of the conversation.

“Having this meeting pivot on press credentials seems strange because it’s such a minor, mostly symbolic, thing,” Jones said. “Empower Texans had credentials in the Senate and I don’t think they did anything they would have done otherwise without them.” 

Jones stopped short of characterizing the argument as a post-session publicity stunt by Sullivan, but said press attention that Sullivan’s account received during the summer news doldrums had the desired effect.

Empower Texans rose to its greatest height of influence doing battle with former House Speaker Joe Straus who, along with a loyal group of eight or 10 House members, was characterized by Sullivan as too moderate and in league with Democrats, Jones said.

Bonnen’s conservative record and the perception of his leadership in the past session have eclipsed what Jones described as Empower Texans’ admirable record of government oversight, particularly in shining a light on crony capitalism and crony politics by both parties.

He suggested that Sullivan may just be looking for a way to keep Empower Texans in the game. “If you don’t stay in the public eye, you risk becoming more irrelevant,” Jones said.

Unless something happens to substantiate Sullivan’s account of the June 12 meeting, Jones said he thinks Republicans will rally around Bonnen, further strengthening his hold on the speaker’s seat. That will make it more difficult for Empower Texans to recruit further-right Republicans to run against more centrist incumbents in the 2020 primaries, he said.

“I could see this weakening MQS, with people distancing themselves from him,” Jones said. “I don’t think right now Bonnen could get much stronger.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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