Talk about a mood swing.
At the end of May, the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker were figuratively holding hands, reveling in the success of their plan to focus the Texas Legislature on school finance, property taxes and a handful of other issues.
At the end of July, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen had gone from that heady celebration to the bottom of the barrel, trapped in a career-threatening mess of his own making, accused of conspiring with a political nemesis against 10 fellow Republican incumbents in the Texas House.
At the end of the session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick compared their feats to “winning the Super Bowl.” At the end of a Monday morning hearing, the House General Investigating Committee referred the Bonnen blunder to the Texas Rangers — the elite arm of the state police — for investigation.
That’s how the political roller coaster operates. For some public figures — President Donald Trump is an example — it’s a familiar up-and-down ride. It passes quickly. The public’s attention moves to something else. The news media stampedes to another story.
Bonnen’s audience is different. His risk is different. The other 149 members of the Texas House have longer attention spans, especially when they’re threatened or stand to benefit. That’s the situation in Austin.
But less than two weeks after the “Big Three” held their celebratory end-of-session news conference at the Governor’s Mansion, Bonnen and Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, met with Michael Quinn Sullivan, a well-known Republican foil of the GOP establishment and head of an outfit called Empower Texans.
He has been around state politics for years but really made his bones during the decade that Joe Straus was speaker of the Texas House.
Sullivan and other activists outside the House found Straus, who became speaker in 2009, insufficiently Republican. They recruited and funded challengers to his supporters, trying to isolate him and other establishment Republicans.
They were strong at first, but their influence waned steadily, bottoming out after their weak showings in the 2018 elections and their inability to frame any of the agenda pursued this year by Bonnen, Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott.
They were on the outs — right where the Republican establishment hoped they would be.
And then Bonnen invited Sullivan over for that meeting. After the June conversation, which Sullivan recorded, he accused Bonnen and Burrows of offering to give his organization news media passes to the House — allowing them onto the floor of the House chamber during legislative sessions — in return for help opposing 10 Republican members in the 2020 elections. Members who’ve heard the recording have more or less (depending on the member) confirmed Sullivan’s story.
Nearly three weeks later, this is still the talk of the House. And that’s the only audience a speaker has to cultivate. If at least 76 of them don’t want a change at the top, there won’t be a change at the top. What the public thinks is important, but only if voters have some reason to care who’s swinging the gavel in the Texas House. Most of the time, it’s safe to say, the public doesn’t care.
But this is a scandal for the insiders. Bonnen’s stock has dropped through the floor. It hasn’t cost him his post, but it has raised the question. And Sullivan, who reached the end of a legislative session with virtually no clout, is back in business. He’s had a stream of legislators through his office to hear the recording of the June meeting. Many of those were allies or sympathizers, but not all of them. He’s made some noises about releasing the recording so the rest of the Legislature, and the public, can hear it.
Yes, the Texas Rangers are investigating. That’s a crime-fighting outfit. Maybe they’ll find, in the conversations of Sullivan and Bonnen and Burrows, some tidbit worth referral to a prosecutor or a grand jury. But be ready for anything, whatever your preferred outcome. Don’t be surprised if the state police write a report that says, “No crime took place, but politics sure is stinky.”
That would be good news for Bonnen and for Burrows — and not necessarily bad news for Sullivan; a sour political smell can be like kryptonite to a legislative leader. Even without the investigation, the fortunes have flipped, for the moment.
That “Super Bowl” is over. New season.– Ross Ramsey is a co-founder of The Texas Tribune.