Bonnen Audio Clear as a Bell, Hit List Given

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After listening to a recording of a conversation between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Rep. Dustin Burrows, and conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan in June a few things are clear.

Programming note: the recording is quoted heavily throughout this article, expletives and all.

Quick takes.

Lawmakers pay attention to what is said about them on blogs, social media, in papers and at public speeches. Bonnen and Burrows are dripping with self-consciousness. Burrows even quotes a tweet issued by Sullivan during the session calling Burrows “moronic.”

At many points in the conversation, Sullivan was provided with a partial and full list of approved Member targets by both Bonnen and Burrows, respectively. This is in direct contradiction to Bonnen’s denial that “at no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members.”

On this point, Bonnen appears to be playing a semantics game. It’s unclear from the audio that a physical list ever changed hands but Bonnen and Burrows listed off names throughout the meeting. In fact, Bonnen states, “he’ll show you the list.”

Bonnen in handing Sullivan off to Burrows for an entire list before leaving the room says, “Let’s go after these Republicans and if we’re successful beat some of these liberal pieces of shit.”

As for the quid pro quo, Bonnen says, “I need you firing harder that way than these ways. You need to hear what I want to do for you” at this point Sullivan demurs saying he doesn’t need anything and Bonnen counters, “We can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”

Any suggestion that the Speaker can’t inject himself into getting press credentials revoked or awarded is a micro fig leaf of a defense. 

In his original article about the meeting, Sullivan spent most of his time focused on the media credentials that are offered if Empower Texans would curtail or engage in certain activities. What’s arguably as interesting was the specific ask of Sullivan by the Speaker, don’t give money to my primary opponent.

Bonnen at multiple points asks Sullivan not to spend against him in a primary ending with, “I would prefer you to not hammer me every chance you get. But as long as you don’t spend against me” I’m good.

At another point, Bonnen states, “alright so we are clear the money is the issue and back down on the rhetoric.”

Rep. Keith Bell, who was a quasi member of the approved target list (originally on the list only to be taken off) is just a “dumb freshman” according to Rep. Burrows.

And Rep. Phil Stephenson, who’s name is mentioned several times throughout the recording, Bonnen, and Burrows appear not to care for Stephenson. What warrants such a level of animus is unclear.

More explainable is the distrust and desire to see Rep. Travis Clardy gone. Burrows says of Clardy, “he is the ringleader of all opposition [ostensibly to ending tax-funded lobbying] we would be thrilled to see someone else come back in that district.”

Burrows says of Austin based blogger Scott Braddock, “I think he’s slimy and sleazy.” This comment comes after Bonnen suggests that he may strip Braddock of his credentials early in the conversation.

Unwritten rules of the house are mentioned on the recording and Bonnen outlines rules of engagement. Sullivan states that, in his experience, it’s helpful for members in surrounding districts to publicly criticize other lawmakers. Bonnen okays that activity while agreeing that putting out a mailer would be a step too far for a member. Bonnen says of Democrats, “if a Democrat member does make a statement against a Republican, I’m all in against them.”

The mechanics of what happened and why.

As originally concocted, the meeting was likely meant to be neatly bifurcated. Starting with Bonnen, Burrows, and Sullivan, the meeting was supposed to be focused on talking generally between Bonnen and Sullivan, steering clear of specifics and certainly not disclosing the list or offering what could be seen as a quid pro quo.

Bonnen knew that this bifurcation was important stating, “between you and I, the Speaker of the House shouldn’t tell you [Sullivan] who to pop. He [Burrows] has some folks if you want to go pop.” Still, Bonnen couldn’t remain disciplined at one point launching into the list, “Clardy and Stephenson and I don’t want to go further into the list, he [Burrowns] can.”

At that meeting, Bonnen and Burrows suggested that Sullivan and Empower should stop spending money in primaries against unapproved targets and focus on an approved list of incumbents to challenge.

Burrows is Chairman of the House Republican Caucus. At a recent meeting of the House GOP Caucus, John Raney, a member of the approved hit list given at the Bonnen-Sullivan meeting, was successful in getting a bylaw passed forbidding caucus members from campaigning or financially supporting a candidate running against another member.

Breaking the bylaw could lead to a fine, suspension or revocation of caucus membership. It will be interesting to see how fellow caucus members interpret Burrows and Bonnen’s actions in light of their rules.

Woven throughout the conversation is the fact that the former Speaker Joe Straus (San Antonio) was worse than the current regime with both Burrows and Bonnen jockeying for the ground right of the former speaker.

For instance, Burrows states that Sullivan “know[s] better than we do what we had to deal with for the last 10 years” under the Straus Speakership.

It’s been suggested that Bonnen came out of the session flying high, untouchable, and without a need to improve his lie, and that having this meeting and its aims are inexplicable. This is incorrect.

Bonnen was brought to the dance, just like Straus was brought to the dance, by others. The partners were different but he wasn’t his own man this session and the time to improve his position and flex his accrued power is during primaries.

Now is the natural time for Bonnen to be collecting power.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick was largely MIA this session. The commonly cited source of his lackluster performance, his head was in the D.C. clouds, dreaming of escaping the Texas swamp to wade in Northern waters. And Greg Abbott has been laboring to keep his head down ahead of 2020, a pattern likely to persist.

Bonnen, until two weeks ago, had a monopoly on the upcoming primary. It remains to be seen what changes arise from this development.

Democrats.

What about the Democrats?

Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat from the Dallas area, has called for the full release of the audio, laughably suggesting that full transparency is “paramount.” It’s laughable that Turner or any elected official would gripe about transparency in politics. The machinations of politicians are planned and executed in secrecy on a daily basis.

The difference between Sullivan’s audio and public policy are that Texans are entitled to demand and receive full transparency from elected officials. Sullivan is a private citizen, Turner can pound sand. 

Since Turner is interested in the audio, the conversation does mention a handful of Democrats specifically and impacts the party generally. First, Bonnen is clear that his aim is to win in 2020 and to come back with more conservative members.

Specifically, Rep. Anna Marie Ramos is called awful, Rep. Jon Rosenthal makes the Speaker’s skin crawl, is called a “piece of shit,” and identified as a closeted man, and Rep. Michelle Beckley is vile. These are presumably the “amusing” (if slightly vulgar) comments alluded to in Sullivan’s first piece on the recording.

During the meeting Bonnen says that he has recruited an opponent for Williamson County Democrat James Talarico and that former Speaker Straus is working to have Democrats focus on taking out Republicans instead of engaging in primary battles, citing specifically a Dallas Co. race and Rep. Morgan Meyer.

While it’s likely only a matter of time before the audio is released, it won’t be Turner or any other Democrat dictating the timing.

Further, it’s not likely the audio can be spun up into something that will demonstrably affect the GOP in November 2020.

On the media.

Finally, one thing that has been and will continue to be of interest is the media’s handling of this situation.

The Austin American Statesman reported on the offer by the Speaker to Sullivan of free lodging at his in-laws’ home in Red River, New Mexico is characterized as a “gracious offer.” It might also be construed as a gift of value, an invitation to get cozy with the Speaker, formalize the set of circumstances hashed out by Bonnen and Burrows that afternoon in June, an inducement.

The media is collectively in bed with the elected officials who run our state and nation. It’s why their “reporting” is in service of those already in power and why the public is consuming less and less of it by the day.

Hacks from the Trib are already trying on lines of defense for Bonnen. Specifically, that there may not have been a clear quid pro quo statement made.

Action items.

Encourage your SREC members to reach out to Empower Texans and request to listen to the audio. Find out if your Republican lawmaker has listened to the audio, if they have not, probe for the reason. Sullivan has opened up “Republican legislators, party officials, and conservative movement leaders who may feel they are impacted by the recording” to listen to the audio in the presence of his lawyer.

Timeline.

Here’s a timeline of events

June 12, 2019 – Sullivan meets with Bonnen and Burrows

June 27, 2019 – Bonnen replies to Sullivan’s letter

July 25, 2019 – Sullivan publishes public account of the meeting

July 29, 2019 – Bonnen publicly denies list

July 31, 2019 – Sullivan reveals meeting was recorded

August 4, 2019 – DAT reviews audio

UPDATE: an earlier version of this post attributed a quote to Bonnen, when in fact it was Burrows.

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