Shortly after the legislative session ended, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen invited me to his office for a meeting. Despite his occasional rants against Empower Texans, the organization I lead, and similar slights aimed at other conservative groups during the closing days of the session, I accepted. We’ve known each other casually since the mid-1990s.
My expectation was the meeting might include a tongue-lashing against us for not being sufficiently supportive of the lackluster results of the session, or a plea for unity. But he invited, so I figured I would accept Bonnen’s invitation and hear what he had to say.
I was surprised when I got to Bonnen’s office to also be greeted by the GOP Caucus chairman, State Rep. Dustin Burrows (R–Lubbock).
The meeting started off pleasantly enough. And, indeed, there was a little tongue-lashing. The notoriously thin-skinned Burrows didn’t like a tweet from the session in which I wrote he was “moronic” for floating a proposal that would have gutted property tax reform. For his part, Bonnen said he wants to fight the Democrats—offering amusing (if slightly vulgar) comments about Reps. Michelle Beckley (D-Carrollton) and Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston).
On the Floor Next Session?
But the thrust of the meeting took me by surprise. Bonnen invited me there to make me an offer.
A little context: Given my news background, Empower Texans has long operated as a news-media entity. Our focus on providing information that empowers citizens to exercise their rights as a self-governing people has taken the form of reporting on the actions of lawmakers—especially in exposing the difference between what they say and what they do.
For the past two sessions, our Texas Scorecard Capitol bureau has applied for House media credentials. Despite falling clearly inside the boundaries of the House’s criteria, and despite being granted credentials by the Texas Senate, those applications have been repeatedly denied. The 2019 session was no exception. We filed a federal lawsuit on the matter, which is going up before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Sitting in his Capitol office on June 12, Speaker Bonnen was adamant he wanted to do something for me. I told him I didn’t need anything from him or Burrows. But he really wanted me to listen to what he “wanted to do for me.”
Bonnen insisted: He would ensure Texas Scorecard reporters received House floor access in 2021 if we would lay off our criticism of the legislative session, not spend money from our affiliated PACs against certain Republicans, and—most shockingly—go after a list of other Republicans in the 2020 primary elections.
Spending political money was the issue, Bonnen said. Not just refraining from spending it against his pals. He wanted us to spend it against Republicans he saw as not being helpful.
If we could “make this work,” he would put the Texas Scorecard guys on the floor next session.
He’ll Show You The List
This is the same Dennis Bonnen who spent the last several weeks of the session publicly threatening lawmakers if they endorsed against or otherwise opposed other House incumbents—regardless of party. He has openly threatened to yank committee chairmanships from Republicans if they campaign against their Democratic colleagues.
Yet there he was, along with Rep. Burrows, suggesting I expend political dollars against GOP targets … in exchange for my team receiving media credentials.
Towards the end of the meeting, Bonnen made a show of leaving his office so that Burrows—again, he is the chairman of the House GOP Caucus—could actually read me the full list of names. By this point, I was very interested to see who they wanted targeted. Most of the names were unsurprising. But not all of them.
The list of targets Burrows named included 10 Republican Reps—Steve Allison, Trent Ashby, Ernest Bailes, Travis Clardy, Drew Darby, Kyle Kacal, Stan Lambert, John Raney, and Phil Stephenson. But Burrows wanted to make sure a specific name was on that list: State Rep. Tan Parker of Denton County.
That surprised me. Parker was Burrows’ predecessor as House GOP caucus chairman and has been widely seen as toeing the Bonnen line. Not close enough, apparently.
In fairness, these are all good targets. With the possible exception of Parker, none are faithful Republicans—and they’ve all worked to thwart conservative victories.
Burrows claimed the list was about those who voted against the ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying—yet he specifically exempted several legislators on the wrong side of that vote from being targeted.
So, why not say it publicly? Why not explain to citizens that the reason important initiatives like a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying failed was because of these bad actors conspiring with Democrats? Why the cloak-and-dagger games? Why not operate as the Speaker of the House and GOP caucus chair to bring discipline to those who work against the aims of the Republican Party?
Not For Sale
With all my years around politics, it is difficult to surprise me. But I admit Bonnen’s offer was something I was not prepared for; it was outside of my experiences. I left the speaker’s office and immediately called my lawyer—and then consulted with other lawyers. My first instinct was that this was dirty, and my priority was to make sure I acted to protect our organization.
The decision was made to send a specifically worded letter to Bonnen and Burrows unequivocally rejecting Bonnen’s offer, reiterating my position that neither I nor my organization would sacrifice one set of First Amendment rights to enjoy the full expression of other rights. The editorial independence of Texas Scorecard was not for sale, rent, or trade. And neither were my political actions.
Bonnen responded with a letter (available here) on June 27. He claims I had a “misimpression” of the meeting and disputes he made an offer of media credentials in exchange for us campaigning against his GOP opponents. The fact that he denied in writing what he clearly stated in the meeting is an unfortunate display of the inconsistencies he has demonstrated as speaker.
It is not clear there is a prohibition against him making such an offer. It is clear, however, that such actions—trading official favors in exchange for political actions—are as contemptible as they appear to be common. We have long said our goal is not to have a “seat at the table” but to get rid of the table. This episode provides an apt illustration of what we have meant by that. Speaker Bonnen offered us a seat at the table—literally, at the House media table—if we would play by his rules.
I take it as a given that it did not enter his calculation that we actually mean what we say. Our goal is that there be no “table.” No special favors. No backroom deal-making. Citizens deserve a representative government that focuses on stewarding the resources they have entrusted to its care.
Just as bad is the duplicity in Bonnen’s public statements ordering all incumbents to stand down. In our meeting he made it clear that was just a PR stunt. He said that while he would—of course—give a pittance to the Republicans named above, he would not “protect” them the way he would others. This is, again, nothing new to us. It is business in Austin as usual. But it is not what conservatives hoped they would get from a speaker chosen by the Republican Caucus.
Bonnen told me the entire “goal” of his public statements was to allow him to determine which members screwed up on the no campaigning rule. It’s all about empowering himself, not the members—and certainly not the citizens.
We have seen polling that indicates the Republican brand in Texas is waning. There is little wonder. What about these actions meets with the lofty expectations and bold rhetoric coming from Republican leaders?
The Republican members Burrows named are nearly all obstructionists, working with the Democrats to tank conservative legislative victories. In that respect, we would agree with Speaker Bonnen’s analysis of them. The sad thing is that if he and Burrows were transparent about their plans, conservative activists would undoubtedly cheer and throw their support behind bold leadership.
Bonnen apparently prefers to continue the duplicity we observed during the Straus era. He seems to crave credit from the left-wing media and Republican establishment for publicly disavowing challenges to incumbents, no matter how much they obstruct the will of the majority of Texans. Yet he privately sought to entice our aid in campaigning against those Republicans he—and most other observers—agree are problematic. All in exchange for media credentials that have been improperly withheld. (And now it is abundantly clear the credentials have been withheld for the most crass political reasons.)
In any event, the entire mess confirms what we have always known about conventional political media ranging from the Dallas Morning News to the Texas Tribune. The basic understanding is that Capitol access is conditional on playing ball by the establishment’s rules. Think about that as you read or listen to their coverage of the state legislature.
After much reflection, I have concluded the hour-long meeting in Speaker Bonnen’s office tells us the political culture in Austin is worse than we thought. We already knew it was a swamp; it appears to actually be a sewer.
Both Bonnen and Burrows have at times done very constructive things and are highly capable men. Much of what they expressed a desire to do would be applauded by conservatives and encourage activists.
So, why not just do it in a straightforward manner? Apparently, the culture in Austin is so twisted that if such a thought occurred to them, it was pushed aside in favor of unnecessary, tit-for-tat schemes.
I hope talented and capable public servants will work for a new culture. A culture where politicians do what they say and where representing the citizens of Texas comes before making deals around a table that should not exist.
If Republican governance in Texas is going to survive the coming Democrat onslaught, the Texas House must clean up its culture. The double-speaking and favor-trading must come to an end. Transparency should take its place. Instead of self-serving political intrigue, Texans deserve to enjoy the benefits of governing commitment driven by principled convictions.