Politics & Government

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen says he won’t seek re-election after scandal

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announced Tuesday he will not seek re-election to the Legislature following growing calls for his resignation.

“Since Friday, I have had numerous conversations with Members who care deeply about the Texas House, and I respect the manner in which they have handled this entire situation. After much prayer, consultation, and thoughtful consideration with my family, it is clear that I can no longer seek re-election as State Representative of District 25, and subsequently, as Speaker of the House,” Bonnen said in a statement. “I care deeply about this body and the work we have accomplished over the years, namely, the outstanding success we achieved in the 86th Legislature.”

Bonnen named more than 40 representatives who he said “have made clear that it is in the best interest of both myself and the House to move on, and I thank them for the respectful and thoughtful way in which they have convinced me to do so.”

Included in the list was Bonnen’s brother, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, and many other representatives who had been publicly silent while calls grew for Bonnen to step down.

Republican lawmakers from Tarrant County, including Craig Goldman of Fort Worth, Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake, Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth and Bill Zedler of Arlington, were among those named.

Bonnen’s announcement comes three months after conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan alleged that Bonnen offered writers of the group’s news site long sought-after House press credentials in exchange for the group’s firepower in targeting 10 Republican incumbents in their re-election bids.

The allegations stem from a June 12 meeting between Sullivan, the CEO of the political advocacy group Empower Texans, Bonnen, and Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Republican from Lubbock who was chair of the House GOP Caucus at the time.

In July, Sullivan revealed that he had secretly recorded the meeting. The audio, which was publicly released last week, appears to largely support Sullivan’s allegations and spurred a flood of renewed calls from House members for Bonnen to step down.

On Friday, the GOP Caucus collectively issued a statement condemning Bonnen and Burrows, but did not immediately call for any resignation. However, individual lawmakers began to speak out, with five senior Republican House members, some who chair powerful committees, withdrawing their support of Bonnen late Monday night.

After the recording’s release, Bonnen and Burrows stressed the need to move forward, with Bonnen claiming it disproved allegations of criminal wrongdoing. The Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed Tuesday that the Texas Rangers’ investigation into the allegations is still ongoing.

Burrows, who resigned as chair of the House GOP Caucus in August, thanked Bonnen for his leadership in a statement Tuesday.

“I thank him for his many years of service to Texas,” Burrows said in the statement. “I am proud to call him my friend.”

Sullivan took to Twitter and Facebook shortly after Bonnen’s announcement, saying it was both a sad and good day for Texas.

“Dennis Bonnen could have behaved ethically from the start in his dealings with his fellow lawmakers, with me, and with the Texas public. He could have recanted his unethical offer privately when given the opportunity,” Sullivan wrote on Facebook. “He instead chose lies, deceit, dishonor, and — ultimately — ruin. He has gone from the third-ranking constitutional officer in Texas to a cautionary tale about the dangers of political hubris.”

“Make no mistake: Bonnen is giving up because his strongest supporters in the House were feeling the heat of electoral accountability,” Sullivan wrote.

In a “Texas Minute” email newsletter sent shortly after Bonnen’s announcement, Sullivan called on Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to call a special session to address a slew of issues, in addition to using it as an opportunity to elect a new Speaker.

“As an added benefit, it would give House members the opportunity to replace Bonnen immediately with someone Texans can be proud to call the Speaker of the Texas House in 2020,” Sullivan wrote.

While Bonnen announced he would not run for re-election, a new Speaker cannot be elected until the Legislature is in session. Lawmakers aren’t set to reconvene until January 2021, and in the meantime, Bonnen can still carry out interim duties, such as assigning charges to House committees.

In a statement from his campaign Tuesday, Abbott thanked Bonnen for his years in the Legislature, and pinned his sights on keeping a Republican majority in the House in 2020. Patrick echoed Abbott’s pledge in a statement of his own, saying “the future of Texas depends on it.”

Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey also noted the stakes of the 2021 session, where the party in power will have an influential say over how districts are redrawn.

“Members of the House Republican Caucus had a decision to make. They made that decision clear, and the Speaker listened,” Dickey said in a statement following Bonnen’s announcement. “The House Republican Caucus is once again in a position to elect a Speaker that will commit to advancing the Legislative Priorities of the RPT and winning a larger majority of the Texas House in the 2020 elections, and we implore them to do so.”

Meanwhile, Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa on Tuesdsay touted Bonnen’s announcement as “a victory for transparency and accountability.” Shortly after, the party said it would be dismissing its lawsuit against Sullivan. The lawsuit, filed in August, alleged that the June meeting resulted in the creation of an unregistered political action committee and violated a slew of state election laws.

Chad Dunn, general counsel for the Texas Democratic Party, said the lawsuit had two goals: two obtain and make public the recording of the June 12 meeting and “ensure the Speaker’s breach of the state’s campaign finance laws did not continue.”

The June meeting that prompted the allegations was shortly after Bonnen had wrapped up his first session serving as leader of the House — the same chamber he was first elected to in 1997, where he was the youngest member. In May, he earned praise from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for his leadership, and at the time, had expressed he had no regrets with what some had deemed the “Super Bowl” of legislative sessions.

“You’d really have to be digging to find something to be regretful about,” Bonnen had told reporters in May.

But praise for Bonnen quickly shifted as more details about the June meeting came to light. Sullivan, who first sent a letter to Bonnen privately, later publicly called on Bonnen to recant “false claims.” Sullivan subsequently revealed he had recorded the meeting, and selectively shared the recording with Republican officials as the state’s top leaders called for its release.

The allegations that Bonnen attempted to target members followed his own stern warning to House members in May: if they campaigned against their colleagues, they would face repercussions.

Bonnen also faced backlash for disparaging remarks made throughout the recording, in which he called some Democratic members “vile” and “a piece of s---” and called local officials who met with him “dumbass.”

“My goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties,” Bonnen said on the audio.

Local officials were quick to admonish Bonnen, with Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price calling on him to step down as Speaker last week, and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley slamming Bonnen Monday night for his most recent comments about local officials.

In a Facebook post to his constituents Tuesday, Bonnen shared the news of his decision.

“Aside from the blessings of my wife and two sons, there has been no greater or more rewarding accomplishment in my life than serving all of you” Bonnen wrote. “I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to all of you for putting your trust in me for the past 23 years.”

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.