Bud Kennedy

What they say about Bonnen’s mess: ‘stupid,’ ‘clumsy,’ may cost him Texas speakership

Nobody is sure exactly what happened in Austin last week, but it was out of line even by Texas Legislature standards.

A familiar face around the Capitol — libertarian-conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan — posted online saying the speaker of the House met with him June 12 to say he wants 10 of the 83 Texas House Republicans knocked out in the March party primary.

Oh — and the speaker was asking Sullivan and the political advocacy group he leads, Empower Texans, for help.

What’s weird is that only two weeks earlier, Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, had said Sullivan and Tea Party critics “aren’t worth responding to” and “You will never please or appease those folks.”

What’s weirder is that just two weeks ago, Bonnen even said he’d fund $3 million to protect all Republicans.

Yet a few House members say they’ve heard part of the recorded June 12 meeting, and names of the Republicans targeted for defeat.

House members know they can’t trust Sullivan, 49, for help. Empower Texans wasted $3 million of its West Texas millionaire donors’ money last year, backing only narrow ideologues and mostly losing.

Now the same House members also must wonder whether they can trust Bonnen, 47, the first-year speaker, now at risk of losing control to a bipartisan coalition or maybe even to a Democrat.

“I think it would be difficult for Speaker Bonnen to maintain his post,” Dallas Republican and former state Rep. Jason Villalba said — “in light of the clumsy way he handled an attempt to make peace with a known opponent of the establishment.”

If Bonnen really hoped to swing a deal and unify the party — Sullivan said the speaker offered Empower’s web staff working-press status, hardly a fair exchange — then why risk that unity with a target list of 10 Republicans quickly nicknamed “The X-Men”?

Speaker Dennis Bonnen in 1997, his first year in the Texas House. AP

(Actually, House members who listened to the recording said it was Rep. Dustin Burrows, Bonnen’s guest and the chairman of the Republican Caucus, who gave names.)

Republicans are worried about their current 83-66 House edge (one seat is vacant).

Democrats were close to winning 17 other seats in 2018, even with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz on top of the Republican ticket. Democrats’ voter turnout improves in presidential election years, and President Donald J. Trump is not as popular as Cruz.

Forty-year University of Houston professor Richard Murray, a witness to Republicans’ rise to power, said it’s not clear how deeply Bonnen was involved.

But if he was, he wrote, “it’s one of the stupidest moves I’ve ever seen.”

Yet Texas Republicans’ biggest problem remains in the White House.

Trump is “toxic” in urban Texas, Murray said. (Cruz lost all the big cities, the first time since Barry Goldwater in 1964 that Republicans’ top candidate didn’t win at least one city.)

Southern Methodist University professor Cal Jillson said Gov. Greg Abbott may have to work harder supporting House Republicans.

“To have Bonnen declare so early that incumbents should not be targeted, but then to compromise that so boldly and in such a crass way, may cost him his speakership,” Jillson said.

“It really does seem incredibly stupid to have a conversation with a guy [Sullivan] who you know is against everything you stand for.”

Maybe so. But this is 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.