Politics & Government

Bonnen’s ‘d-word’ attack on cities and counties is what cost him House speaker post

The gun crowd was already out to get Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, because he just wasn’t extreme enough for some Texas Republicans.

But it was county and city leaders who ultimately brought him down off the podium, because his comments attacking mayors and county judges were way out of step with Texans.

As complaints against the Angleton Republican mounted one-by-one from the party’s right wing before the release of an incriminating secret recording, Bonnen clung tight to the gavel.

But nobody in Texas wants to give all power to Austin.

So when local leaders heard how Bonnen mocked mayors and county judges asking him for help as “dumbass” and then promised cities and counties would have their “worst session in ... history,” it brought an abrupt end to his 12 terms in the Legislature and one as House speaker.

The d-word landed with a thud in conservative West Texas and the Panhandle. The Republican leaders there count on Austin for school funding, highway projects and agency support.

Nobody wants to be called a d-word.

Especially not by some guy from the Legislature.

Until then, the entire “Bonnengate” flap was drawing no attention anywhere else in Texas. It seemed like a dumb boys’ playground fight.

For all the pouting and fuming from Michael Quinn Sullivan, the former Ron Paul aide who leads the libertarian-conservative Empower Texans activist group, nobody else in Texas paid any attention until they heard Bonnen blasting local control.

At that point, Bonnen became an issue in the Republican primary only four months away.

What began as a Tea Party gripe turned into an existential crisis: Should local officials support lawmakers who defend local control, or those who serve some narrow Austin political ideology?

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, a Republican, said Bonnen should step down. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, a Hurst Republican, said some state policymakers “believe that local control stops in Austin.”

Whitley went on to say he doesn’t want “anybody from Brazoria County or from Lubbock or ... anyplace else” deciding how Tarrant County is run.

At a Republican club luncheon Tuesday in Mansfield, state Rep. Blll Zedler said Bonnen’s downfall began with his comments to Sullivan and later explanations to fellow House members.

“First of all, the best thing to do is tell the truth,” Zedler said.

Zedler said he hadn’t called for Bonnen’s resignation because House members caucused last week and didn’t reach a consensus. (Since then, several committee chairmen had called on Bonnen to quit.)

“What’s done is done — let’s move on down the road,” said Zedler, one of three Tarrant County Republicans facing tough Democratic challenges this year along with Reps. Craig Goldman and Matt Krause. Democrats also want to win the Hurst-Euless-Bedford seat where Rep. Jonathan Stickland is retiring.

The March primary remains treacherous for Republican incumbents. If conservative activists ride Bonnenmania to oust any establishment House lawmakers, that might in turn lead to more Democratic victories in the fall.

Right now, Texas Republicans hold a nine-vote edge in the House. If the party loses any more seats, that could return control to a bipartisan coalition and a speaker elected by both parties.

If Gov. Greg Abbott sees the need for a special session after the primary, the current House would have a chance to choose a new speaker.

If there is no special session, the 2021 Legislature will bring a new House, a new speaker and maybe a new day in Texas.

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Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.
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