Give Michael Quinn Sullivan his due — he was telling the truth about Speaker Dennis Bonnen

By Ross Ramsey

You hate to have to rely on a guy who seems to crave the attention. But in the case of his infamous conversation with Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and then-House Republican Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows, Michael Quinn Sullivan has produced the goods.

His recording of their June meeting verifies his July report of that meeting: that Bonnen offered Sullivan’s organization media passes to the House floor, and that he and Burrows offered up a list of 10 Republicans — members of their own party — Sullivan could oppose in the March primaries with their implicit blessing.

Bonnen said Tuesday morning that the recording proves no crime was committed: “I have repeatedly called for the recording to be released because it will be immediately clear that no laws were broken. This was nothing more than a political discussion – the problem is that I had it with that guy. My colleagues have always deserved the facts and context this recording provides, and with clear evidence now disproving allegations of criminal wrongdoing, the House can finally move on.”

Maybe that’s right. Prosecutors and grand juries — the experts on those criminal calculations — will work that end of the deal.

But that political discussion, as Bonnen calls it, was fraught with underhanded scheming, giving Bonnen’s constituents — the 149 other members of the Texas House — everything they need to replace him, if that’s what they’d like to do.

But will they?

After a few minutes of pleasantries, Bonnen cut to business, telling Sullivan, whose organizations work in election season with sometimes influential lawmaker scorecards and with millions from a political action committee, that he wanted Sullivan to spend his money winning general election battles against Democrats instead of running primary fights against Republicans. But, Bonnen added, “If you need some primaries to fight in, I will leave, and Dustin will tell you some that we would love if you fought in, not that you need our permission.

“What I would love to be able to do, candidly, is kind of have — I don’t want to say an agreement — but have an understanding,” Bonnen said.

Bonnen said he won’t be able to make conservative policy after the elections — to do what you and I want done, he told Sullivan — if he continues to “have the same tier of moderate Republicans” in his way.

“If we can make this work, I will put your guys on the floor next session,” he said a few minutes later.

If that sounds like a familiar description, it’s because Sullivan’s initial public account back in July was on the mark: Without getting into the legal questions, the recording provides a clinic in a certain kind of political deal-making. Whether it was a lawyer’s idea of a quid pro quo, it’s impossible to listen to the recording and to then deny that a list of political targets was laid out, that the motive for defeating them was explained and that something of value to Sullivan was proposed in return.

A nervous person in Sullivan’s shoes might’ve suspected it was all a trap.

The timing of the recording’s release is momentous: The House Republican Caucus will gather in person this week at an Austin country club for golf, meetings and some candid political discussions of their own.

Some might agree with Bonnen’s assessment of 2020 — that President Donald Trump is a danger to Republicans in urban and suburban Texas, that some of the Democrats who won in Republican districts in 2018 might prove too liberal to hang on in 2020, that groups like Sullivan’s Empower Texans should concentrate their fire on Democrats and not on Republicans next year.

But there’s bound to be talk of Bonnen’s help in plotting against moderate Republicans he believes are blocking a more conservative agenda and of offering House floor media passes to Sullivan’s colleagues.

Bonnen’s open and sometimes profane hostility to some of the Democrats will be a talking point — especially if his fellow Republicans see that as an impediment to continued good relations with moderate Democrats in the House.

They’ll talk about his thoughts on local government, because the Republicans who made the hit list were among the opponents of failed legislation to stop those governments from hiring lobbyists. Bonnen told Sullivan that the locals who came to see him earlier this year got this message: “My goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties.” Burrows chimed in: “I’m all for that.”

They might even muse about his excuse for leaving the meeting — to talk to Boys State, a summer leadership and citizenship program, like Girls State, that is sponsored by The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary for high schoolers.

“I’m going to walk out and talk to Boys State, and I’ll let [Burrows] work with you on that, because I probably shouldn’t do that,” Bonnen said as he prepared to leave.

“Let’s go after these Republicans, and I’m not kidding when it comes to 2020,” he said. “If we’re successful, and we gain maybe, one or two or three Republican seats, we can beat some of these liberal pieces of shit and we maybe flip a couple of these primaries [with] better Rs — kick my ass if we’re not doing a better job.”

Interesting choice of words.

This article originally appeared at the Texas Tribune.

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