“This is all confidential”: Key excerpts from secret recording of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen

Texas Tribune Blue Government News

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen adjourns sine die from the dais on May 27, 2019.
House Speaker Dennis Bonnen adjourns sine die from the dais on May 27, 2019.
Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

For months, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has been hounded by an accusation that he plotted against fellow Republicans and sought political backing from hardline conservatives to defeat them.

Despite his initial denials, a secret recording between the speaker and Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan made public Tuesday seemed to back up claims against Bonnen with the back-and-forth depicting his ham-handed attempt at offering press credentials for Sullivan’s group and asking for political support for challengers in the 2020 primaries.

Here are key excerpts from the hourlong conversation that occurred at the Texas Capitol in June, edited in some places for clarity.

The meeting between Bonnen, Sullivan and then-GOP Caucus Chair Dustin Burrows starts with a few pleasantries and a several minutes of exchanges about Sullivan’s recent trip to France.

Around the nine-minute mark, the conversation turns to the 2020 elections. Bonnen expresses he wants to avoid expensive primary races between Republicans, but he hints at a possible list of targets.

Bonnen: “Let’s not spend millions of dollars fighting the primaries when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November. And so honestly I just wanted to see if we can try and figure that out. And I mean this in a polite way: If you need some primaries to buy in, I will leave, and Dustin will tell you some that we would love it if you bought in, not that you need our permission.

But what I would love to be able to do, candidly, is kind of have, I don’t want to say agreement but kind of understanding, look: You want to go pop some guys.”

Bonnen generally mentions “the same 10 Republicans who don’t want to help on anything” and stand in the way of what Sullivan and the speaker “want done.” And he suggests that Sullivan’s Empower Texans — a Tea Party-aligned political advocacy group that has a history of using its deep pockets to support far-right candidates in Republican primaries — should not challenge other Republicans whom Bonnen considers unproblematic.

(A month after the conversation, Bonnen formed his own political action committee focused on reelecting House GOP members.)

Hanging over the conversation is the reality that Democrats from both inside and outside of Texas have become intent on flipping the lower chamber and that Empower Texans’ dollars may be better spent in the November general election.

Bonnen: “I just think we got to get through 2020 and guarantee that we hold this majority, which — all due respect to Trump, who I love by the way — he’s killing us in urban, suburban districts.”

Next month, the Democratic Party hopes to flip a Fort Bend County seat vacated by John Zerwas of Richmond — a seat that, if Democrats are successful, would bring them within eights seats of the House majority.

Their optimism is due, in part, to President Donald Trump’s 2016 Texas win — which was thinner than previous GOP wins in the state — and Republicans’ heavy losses in the Texas suburbs in 2018, when two Republican state Senate seats flipped, 12 House Republicans lost their seats and two congressional districts turned blue.

But at the end of the this year’s legislative session, Bonnen said he would take action against House incumbents from either party who campaign against colleagues. His request was criticized by a faction of hardline Republican conservative activists who said the speaker should focus on picking up seats for his party, especially ahead of an election that impacts how the 2021 redistricting cycle will shake out.

In the recording, Bonnen boasts he recruited someone someone to run against that “Talarico kid,” referring to state Rep. James Talarico, a Round Rock Democrat who in 2018 flipped a seat previously held by Republicans.

Disrespecting Democrats

From minute 12:20 to minute 13:28, Bonnen makes several disparaging comments about Democrats — specifically state Reps. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton and Jon Rosenthal of Houston.

Bonnen: “Can we kind of not waste our resources — yours or mine or anyone else’s — fighting over members that aren’t really a huge problem? I mean you might not find them to be your favorite, but they’re not particularly a problem and even help us out. You kill off one or two or three that are never going to help you. And then let’s also turn our guns completely. … I can’t stand [Richardson Democratic state Rep.] Ana-Maria Ramos. I mean Jon Rosenthal makes my skin crawl. He’s a piece of shit. [Bonnen Chief of Staff] Gavin Massingill said it well — begging this is all confidential — after we meet with [Rosenthal] the first time, he leaves us … and he said well his wife is going to be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The men in the room laugh just before Bonnen affirms he agrees.

Rosenthal previously said he forgave Bonnen for what Bonnen said in the recording. In a new statement released Tuesday, Rosenthal said he’s “focused on people.”

“At the end of the day,” he said, “if you’re not making the lives of everyday people better — then you don’t deserve to be in office,” Rosenthal said.

Bonnen: “We’ve got Michelle Beckley, who’s vile. We’ve got people who beat our Republicans who are not even trying to act like moderate Democrats, OK. Which is good for us, because we ought to be able to take their heads off.”

Bonnen later comes back around the 16-minute mark and adds, “Michelle Beckley is heinous.”

During the tape, Bonnen never explicitly details what Beckley, Rosenthal or Ramos did to make his “skin crawl” or why he believes they’re “heinous.” Ramos has not publicly responded to Bonnen’s remarks; Beckley, meanwhile, called for Bonnen’s resignation as House speaker.

Talking about 2020

The conversation then turns to broader discussion on planning for 2020. Around the 22-minute mark, Burrows, Bonnen and Sullivan engage in the following conversation:

Burrows: “I’ve talked to Rodney Anderson every other day to figure out what’s going on in Dallas County just to make sure I know.”

Bonnen: “And we have a great Hispanic female candidate against John Turner who I’m going to meet with soon. … Actually, want to hear an interesting factoid? Joe Straus did meet her at an event and said, ‘Why are you running against a good moderate Democrat? Why don’t you run against [Dallas Republican state Rep.] Morgan Meyer?”

Sullivan, laughing: “Recently?”

Bonnen: “Yeah, a week or two ago.”

Anderson, who chairs the Dallas County Republican Party, previously served in the Texas House. He narrowly lost reelection in 2018 to state Rep. Terry Meza. The candidate Bonnen is referring to who is challenging state Rep. John Turner, D-Dallas, is Luisa Del Rosa, whom Gov. Greg Abbott has already endorsed. A spokesman for Straus did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations.

Around the 25-minute mark, Burrows and Sullivan engage in a brief spat about whether the latter called the former a “moron” on Twitter.

Burrows to Sullivan: “Well, yeah, but you called me a moron on Twitter and you’re attacking me.”

Bonnen: “The problem is when you call people a ‘moron’ and this and that, they don’t trust you to have the conversation.”

Sullivan: “I don’t think we called you a moron.”

Burrows: “You said ‘moronic.’”

Sullivan: “We may have said something was moronic. And I will …”

Burrows: “‘The moronic Dustin Burrows,’ which refers to the person being a ‘moron.’ But that being said, fair is fair.”

Then the conversation turns to the quid pro quo Sullivan has alleged, pointing to what he saw as Bonnen offering “to take an official government action in exchange if I would just go after his political foes.”

The official government action in question is granting Texas Scorecard — a product of Sullivan’s Empower Texans — coveted House media credentials in exchange for targeting 10 moderate Republican lawmakers in the March primaries.

Bonnen, who has vehemently denied the allegations and said the recording served as “clear evidence” disproving any criminal wrongdoing, first referenced the credentials around the 13:49 minute mark.

Bonnen: “Let me tell you what I want to do. … If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session. And here’s what I will do: I’ll do what [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick did. I’ll take [Scott] Braddock off.”

Burrows again mentions Braddock, the editor of Quorum Report, during a later exchange around the 27-minute mark.

Burrows: “I want to be very clear. I’m also not the guy sitting over there with Scott Braddock telling him shit because I don’t trust him or like him. I think he’s sleazy. I don’t do the same thing with any of the newspapers. I don’t have a relationship with anybody, giving them information about what I’m doing, because I like to play my cards differently with that.”

Targeting GOP incumbents

About halfway through the conversation, Bonnen more explicitly addresses the list of House Republicans he’s hoping will face primary challengers in 2020.

He starts by warning that he’ll have to step into some races where Empower Texans might help fund challengers to incumbent members of the House.

Bonnen: “If y’all fund a candidate who runs against Dustin Burrows, I’m gonna have to go make sure Dustin has his money. I just don’t want to waste that money, and if we want to do that in 2020, fine. And I’m not being funny like, ‘Let’s do it.’”

But he indicates there are several individuals he doesn’t plan to support and suggests Burrows has a list of members that could be targeted.

Bonnen: “I’m just saying, but we’re in a unique election cycle where we don’t need to burn that money up this time. And between you and I, he has some folks — because the speaker of the House shouldn’t tell you some folks to go pop — but he has some folks if you want to go pop. … They’re going to have primaries. I may give them some pittance here or there.”

Despite acknowledging the constraints of his leadership position, Bonnen gets specific and notes he won’t back up incumbent Republicans like state Rep. Phil Stephenson of Wharton, who Bonnen says is “not going to get $150,000 out of me.”

Sullivan argues that he doesn’t like getting entangled in Republican primaries, and a back-and-forth ensues over what Bonnen describes as “opportunities” in the upcoming election.

Sullivan: “I think there’s the sense that I actually like being involved in primaries, and I actually don’t. … There is this presumption that we feel some urge to spend the money —”

Bonnen: “Yeah, I appreciate that.”

Sullivan: “But not a single person on my staff gets fed because we spend money on elections. No one does.”

Bonnen: “I’m not saying you spend money on them.”

Sullivan: “It’s not a, it’s not a mission-critical thing for us. It is a, it’s an outgrowth of things that we care about. [Inaudible]

Bonnen: “But with that said, I do think there’s some opportunities here because there are a few people that I’m not going to go dump money to protect.”

Bonnen and Sullivan then trade remarks on what the possible involvement of other political groups that typically back Republicans could mean in races where primary challengers may emerge. Sullivan brings up Republican state Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, but the crosstalk between Bonnen and Sullivan makes it difficult to discern the exchange.

The conversation turns to the role Empower Texans plays in helping buck up primary challengers so they seem more viable, with Bonnen pointing to his own primary challenger from 2018, a pastor named Damon Rambo whom Empower Texans financially backed. Then, Bonnen makes a request that Sullivan’s group stay out of his primary and most others but nods at a list of exceptions.

Bonnen: “So all I’m asking is that this time you don’t fund him. And I’ve got a lady running this time, and I hope won’t fund her.”

Sullivan: “More than likely we would not.”

Bonnen: “And I hope that you won’t fund about 90% of any others that show up in a Republican primary this time. He’ll show you the list of who we hope someone will show up and [challenge].”

Bonnen eventually steps out of the room, and Burrow takes the lead in the conversation, presenting a failed effort to ban “taxpayer-funded lobbying” this year as the “benchmark for next session.” That legislation, which Empower Texans considered a priority and Bonnen supported, was voted down in the House.

But Bonnen and Burrows seemingly took a list of Republicans who voted against the measure, many of whom also vied to become speaker, as a start of potential targets.

Before moving forward, Sullivan asks if it’s OK to “write down names,” to which Burrows seems to indicate it is. Then, the Lubbock Republican gets into specifics.

Burrows: “We’re going to spend the entire interim trying to expose what those dollars are being used on, try to get public support behind it, and we want to come back and take another pass at taxpayer-funded lobbying.”

“I think the easiest way for me to say this is I’ve pulled the vote sheet from Republicans who voted against taxpayer-funded lobbying. And I’m going to go through the list of names and tell you who I think would flip their vote back on the good side. I don’t think I have to worry about that. Steve Allison voted against it. Doc Anderson voted against it — Doc will come around. I’m good with Doc. … [Trent] Ashby is 50-50, what do you think? … Same with Ernest Bailes. Keith Bell voted against it, he’s a freshman. I think Keith would probably come around. [Angie Chen] Button, she voted against it, but she’s good, especially for her district. [Travis] Clardy’s the ringleader of all opposition. [Long pause.] We would be thrilled to see Clardy, somebody else come back, in that district. … [Drew] Darby voted against it. [Todd] Hunter voted against it. … [Kyle] Kacal voted against it. [Stan] Lambert voted against it. Tan Parker voted against it. That makes no sense to me in his district at all. John Raney voted against it. [John] Smithee voted against it. Phil Stephenson voted against it. Those are pretty much the ones that I don’t know how to turn back and vote for it the next time.”

Burrows and Sullivan share a few exchanges, nailing down the list of 10 targets, before Sullivan quips, “Good targets.”

A lament on losing straight-ticket voting

The final portion of the recording features Burrows and Sullivan discussing the political implications of the loss of straight-ticket voting will present. Texas lawmakers in 2017 voted to eliminate a voter’s ability to select every Republican or Democrat on a ballot by hitting just one button — an option two-thirds of Texans who voted in 2018 used.

But the law’s implementation was delayed until 2020 after statewide elected officials won reelection.

Sullivan: “I think that we’re going to regret eliminating straight-ticket voting. … I think we are all going to live to regret it. I was ambivalent on it when it [passed].”

Burrows: “I trusted the governor’s office and others who swore it was the best thing since sliced bread.”

Sullivan: “The fact that they wanted it pushed to a year in which they weren’t on the ballot is what sent up my first red flag, and I’m just going through the over and under votes historically, and particularly with what everyone thinks of the president and the presidential contest, a whole lot of people will be coming out, and I think trying to vote for — I think Trump is going to win Texas, and he’s going to win at back-to-normal levels — but the people he pulls out are going to be people who really don’t know — or care — what a state representative is.”

Later, Sullivan concisely summarizes the possibility that voters won’t get to the rest of a ticket and support Republican state representatives and judges.

Sullivan: “It’s going to be real easy for that person — again, that person just coming out for Trump — to go, ‘I’m done.’ That’s my fear.”