House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and conservative political operative Michael Quinn Sullivan are locked in an ugly battle with huge political implications. It’s high drama, complete with a secret recording, a Sullivan-issued ultimatum and what amounts to “bring it” from Bonnen.
The story broke more than a week ago that Bonnen had met with Sullivan, whose Empower Texans poured millions last election cycle into mostly fruitless campaigns aimed at driving out current members of the Legislature in favor of ones who would push the organization’s pet issues. Bonnen was one of those targeted lawmakers, yet he met with Sullivan, he says, to try to get him to back off current House members next year.
More than a month after the meeting, Sullivan released a statement alleging Bonnen and another House member in the meeting instead encouraged him to go after 10 Republican lawmakers in particular, and dangled long-sought press credentials for Empower Texans as a payoff. Bonnen said Sullivan was lying. Sullivan then claimed he had secretly recorded the meeting and demanded Bonnen recant his statement or he would release the tape.
Bonnen’s counter: Release the tape, in its entirety.
Sullivan did not. He has allowed a select few Republican members to listen to his recording; they back his version and say they were shocked by what they heard. He has denied access to others and flatly denied to release it to the media or the public, where it could be properly examined.
For Brazoria County, this ugly fight is personal. Sullivan once worked as a reporter for this newspaper, in fact, more than 22 years ago. His time here predates mine. We have never met. What he does now isn’t journalism.
Then there’s Bonnen. He has a lifetime of service to Brazoria County, through recession and boom, brokering assistance during hurricanes and going to bat for community causes. We don’t always agree with him, his tactics sometimes make us squeamish, but the prevailing opinion in Brazoria County is that he is on our side.
Even if he weren’t, though, it would be hard to believe he would turn against at least 10 members of the very chamber it’s in his best interest to preserve.
Because that would be, well, stupid. And Bonnen is not stupid. To the contrary, he is a very good politician. And he loves the House. He has spent more than half his life there and has publicly called out people who would campaign against sitting members.
Fresh off a leading a hugely successful legislative agenda deemed by at least one journalist a “kumbaya session,” Bonnen recently announced a $3 million gift to start a Political Action Committee aimed at supporting reelection efforts of House Republican incumbents.
Throughout the session, Bonnen showed himself as the adult in the room — a bonafide leader who could unite people around the issues so many before him had kicked down the road. The House led the way on school finance reform in what, damn near miraculously, proved near universally loved legislation.
Meanwhile, Empower Texans and Sullivan appeared to be grasping for relevancy and ready to pick any fight to disrupt the notion that the people’s work was actually getting done.
So what happened in that meeting everyone but Sullivan now agrees Bonnen never should have taken?
An attempt at finding some common ground gone way too far? A session’s worth of grievances laid bare?
We can’t really know. Not with the facts at hand now.
Just about anything seems more likely than a complete reversal of character for Bonnen and a sudden trust of someone so hell-bent on his ouster.
Politics makes strange bedfellows, they say, but that’s more than strange. It’s crazy.