Does Tuesday’s Tape Doom Dennis Bonnen as Texas House Speaker?

It's just an idea, Mr. Speaker.
It's just an idea, Mr. Speaker. Maskot/Getty
The bomb, such as it was, has been detonated. Now comes the time to figure out the size of the fallout and, more important, its half-life.

Tuesday, everyone who'd been waiting for months to hear Chekov's smartphone recording — otherwise known as Texas conservative gadfly Michael Quinn Sullivan's record of a meeting with Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — got their wish. Ahead of a court hearing that could have forced the tape's disclosure, Sullivan posted it, along with a handy certified transcript, to his Texas Scorecard website.

On first glance listen Sullivan's masterwork doesn't seem great for the speaker. He disparages several members of the House, calling one a "piece of shit" while questioning his sexuality and referring to another as "vile." As Sullivan has claimed since July, Bonnen also offers Sullivan a deal: Hold your fire during the 2020 primary against everyone but the members on a list approved by me, and you'll get that House floor press pass you've wanted for years. Bonnen pushed Sullivan — whose group, Empower Texans, frequently raises money to launch primary challenges against Republicans deemed insufficiently conservative — to limit his 2020 primary attacks to a group of about 10 Republicans, all of whom reside in deep-red districts.

Reactions to the tape ran the gamut. Carrollton Democrat Michelle Beckley, the representative Bonnen called "vile," said that the speaker's decision to mention her a half-dozen or so times on the tape is proof that she's got Republicans running scared.

"They are afraid because I flipped HD 65 with no traditional help. I’ve already opened my reelection office and am campaigning even harder this time,” Beckley said in statement. "This recent scandal is yet another example of how money corrupts politics; representatives are more concerned with saving their seats and appealing to special interest groups than serving their constituents."

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has repeatedly called for the tape to be made public, celebrated its release but didn't address its substance.

“I welcome the release of the tape. I previously asked for the tape to be released so everyone could hear it. The issue remains in the hands of the Texas Rangers and the Brazoria County District Attorney’s Office,” Patrick said, referring to the dueling investigations over the tape that have started at the state level and in Bonnen's home district.

At least two House Republicans, Houston-area Rep. Steve Toth and Tyler Rep. Matt Schaefer, called for Bonnen's resignation as speaker.

"The behavior we tolerate becomes the standard we set," Schaefer said in a statement to the Tyler Morning Telegraph. "The transcript released today confirms that a serious breach of integrity has been committed on multiple levels. ... Speaker Bonnen should resign."

Clearly, Bonnen would rather the recording didn't exist, but Rice University political science professor Mark Jones says the speaker is unlikely to lose his job.

"The good thing for Bonnen is that now, at least, it's out and not hanging over his head anymore," Jones says. "There's also a little bit of fake outrage, in the sense that politicians are a relatively coarse lot, so the fact that Bonnen said something negative about someone or used crude language about someone, that's not exactly a surprise."

"What Dennis Bonnen said isn't anything that other people haven't said at other times or those people haven't said about somebody else." — Mark Jones

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Throughout the tape, Bonnen makes it clear that it's his intention to preserve Republicans' state House majority in what could be a difficult environment in 2020. That should help the speaker get through the aftermath of the tape's release, Jones says.

"If you're a Republican and trying to look for a way to positively interpret what Bonnen was doing — at its core, Bonnen was trying to help protect the Republican majority in the Texas House," Jones says. "The way he was doing so was effectively trying to steer Michael Quinn Sullivan in a direction through which he would not undermine Republican attempts to retain the House by attacking Republicans in purple districts or attacking people who Bonnen knew, if they were attacked, would be able to raise huge sums of money to defend themselves and that would mean less money available for November 2020."

It's unlikely, Jones says, that a significant number of Republicans, even among those named on the tape, will break with their party over Bonnen.

"In the end, these are grown-ups," Jones says. "What Dennis Bonnen said isn't anything that other people haven't said at other times or those people haven't said about somebody else. There are very few angels ... but you'd have to be a pretty shallow and petty person to defect on your party and vote for a Democrat just because somebody said some mean words about you."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young