Ears of most politically attuned Texans still were listening to the just-released bombshell tape that had dogged him for months when House Speaker Dennis Bonnen weighed in with a statement via email.
“I have repeatedly called for the recording to be released because it will be immediately clear that no laws were broken,” the statement read. “This was nothing more than a political discussion — the problem is that I had it with that guy. My colleagues have always deserved the facts and context this recording provides, and with clear evidence now disproving allegations of criminal wrongdoing, the House can finally move on.”
Not so fast, Mr. Speaker.
The problem is not just that Bonnen had this political discussion with “that guy,” Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan. That guy was, however, pretty much the worst guy to trust with anything, much less your future, and by extension, that of the state and its residents.
The problem is the recording confirmed people’s worst assumptions about politics and politicians. It laid bare that at the top level of state government, the game is more about screwing the other guy than doing what’s right for Texans.
Consider this quote, the most egregious of the statements Bonnen made in the hour-long meeting Sullivan secretly recorded:
“Any mayor, county judge that was dumbass 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 said.
It’s no secret state priorities often run contrary to those of local governments — property tax caps and unfunded mandates dictated by state lawmakers have made the job of local governments harder for generations. And a main topic of the meeting was how state leaders could make it harder for local governments to fight back by banning taxpayer-funding lobbying — a top priority of Sullivan last session.
Bonnen’s willingness to follow through on that threat was evident in the list of moderate Republican lawmakers state Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock read during the meeting. All of the sacrificial lambs being served to Sullivan were people who voted against the anti-lobbying legislation.
Working to replace colleagues who oppose policy initiatives you champion is acceptable, routine even. There is a level of dirty politics expected of anyone who gets things done. A story Bonnen recently told about trading support for a veterinary school in Lubbock for transferring ownership of the Allens Creek reservoir project didn’t raise a single eyebrow in a roomful of local leaders.
But the underhanded double-talking Bonnen sunk to in this meeting, the willingness to turn a collegial handshake into a toss under a bus, is stomach-churning. Actively working to screw anyone “dumbass enough” to seek change or compromise is not leadership. Slithering up to one of Texas politics’ most renowned snakes to achieve that goal, what’s best for constituents be damned, is unacceptable, legal or not.
Whether laws were broken during his discussion with Sullivan remains the most ominous lingering question for Bonnen. A Texas Rangers investigation into the whole affair should wrap up soon. Then it will be up to the Brazoria County District Attorney to decide whether charges should be considered. Regardless, Bonnen likely can consider his speakership over.
The price Brazoria County will pay is much steeper. After years of benefiting from Bonnen’s rise in the Texas House, its residents will pay the price for a local voice being ignored by colleagues because of the dishonesty and duplicity of its speaker.
Bonnen has work to do to rebuild that trust. That starts with acknowledging the treachery he practiced out of public view, followed by sincere apologies. Without those, he has little chance of regaining the respect of those he claims to admire.
Bonnen has achieved much for our region and our state during his tenure in the House. The session he led as speaker accomplished long-awaited school finance reform and property tax cuts. We looked forward to his long tenure as speaker and more significant accomplishments for the people.
Whatever political pain he might feel from the fallout of that June meeting with Sullivan will dissipate far sooner than the damage he has caused the people of Brazoria County and Texas who trusted him.