Lesson from the past several weeks in the Texas Capitol: an elected official’s public words ought to be reflected in his private actions.
Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen learned that the hard way.
Bonnen, 47, was elected to the House from the coastal District 25 in 1996, when he was 24. He had served as House sergeant-at-arms in 1993.
After 22 years in the House, including three terms as speaker pro tem under his predecessor Speaker Joe Straus, Bonnen was considered to know well the ropes of the House — but also something of a hot-headed, bullying, grudge-carrying legislator.
Last fall, he soft-pedaled his explosive and combative approach but was still considered able to stand up to the lieutenant governor and governor.
After a late entry into the speaker’s race, Bonnen unveiled endorsements from 109 of the 150 members of the House — well more than the 76 needed to win.
On the session’s opening day, he was elected unanimously — not uncommon when the result seems inevitable.
He led the House in a cooperative, bipartisan effort to increase funding for schools and limit local property tax growth by requiring an automatic referendum if a tax increase exceeded a certain percentage.
On May 27, the final day of his first 140-day regular session as speaker, Bonnen told reporters he wanted to see bipartisan cooperation among House members continue into the 2020 elections.
“What makes the Texas House better than other institutions of governance is we do not campaign against each other,” Bonnen said. “Then, we’re able to come here and work together and solve the problems that face our state.”
For any House member failing to honor his wish, “The consequence is simple,” Bonnen said. “If you choose to campaign against any of your sitting colleagues, I will weigh in against you.
“And if I am fortunate enough to continue to be speaker,” he continued, “you will find yourself not well positioned in the next session.”
Bonnen told reporters that day he had no use for the irritating right-wing group Empower Texans, headed by Michael Quinn Sullivan.
“You will never please or appease those folks, and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying,” Bonnen said.
“They are a group that is based on attacks and disrespect,” he said. “They are not based on issue ideology.”
In the days and weeks following, Bonnen demonstrated what he said publicly was at sharp odds with what he did behind closed doors.
The day after the session, Bonnen ran into Sullivan at the Houston airport.
Bonnen and Sullivan arranged a meeting in the speaker’s office for June 12 — just 16 days after the session ended. In the private meeting with Sullivan, the speaker displayed a starkly different attitude than he had expressed to reporters earlier.
Later in June, Sullivan sent Bonnen a letter saying he was turning down the deal Bonnen had offered, to trade House floor press credentials for some of Sullivan’s employees in return for Sullivan agreeing to have his group lay off campaigning in Republican primaries against incumbents — with the exception of a list of 10.
Those 10 had voted against Bonnen’s pet effort to outlaw spending tax money to lobby the Legislature — aimed at killing off groups like the Texas Municipal League and Texas Association of Counties. The bill had failed to get a House majority, and Bonnen hadn’t forgotten.
The speaker publicly denied he had struck a deal with Sullivan.
But on July 25, Sullivan revealed that he had secretly recorded the meeting. Over the next few weeks, he had the tape played for several Republican House members and selected other Republicans.
They agreed Sullivan’s report was borne out by the tape.
Bonnen admitted he had said some “really terrible” things about some members, and apologized. But he demanded the tape be made public.
So did several Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The Texas Democratic Party filed suit to have it released.
It was, on Oct. 12. The House Republican Caucus met Oct. 18, condemned Bonnen’s actions and made it clear he couldn’t be re-elected as speaker.
On Oct. 22, he announced he would not seek re-election to the House in 2020, but would continue as speaker until his term ends in January of 2021.
But if the governor calls the Legislature into special session before then, Bonnen’s tenure as speaker will probably be over.— Dave McNeely is an Austin-based columnist covering Texas politics. His column appears Thursday.