Today, Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans released the long-awaited recording of his once-secret June meeting with Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) and Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock).
The three begin with about ten minutes of small talk about Sullivan’s summer travels — before Bonnen breaks the ice.
“I’m trying to win in 2020,” he says.
Bonnen acknowledges the “millions of dollars [spent] in primaries” before telling Sullivan if he “need[s] some primaries” to get involved in, he’ll leave and let Burrows divulge the names of “ten moderate Republicans.”
In return for Sullivan’s compliance to target only these agreed-upon members, Bonnen will extend an offer. “You need to hear what I want to do for you,” he says.
Sullivan rejects the premise that he needs anything from the speaker, but is interrupted by an insistent Bonnen who offers his group coveted House media credentials — the quid pro quo.
“If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”
Though it’s made clear that it’s “money that’s the issue,” Bonnen says he “would prefer you not to say that I’m awful” and wouldn’t mind if Sullivan’s group would “tone down the rhetoric.”
“Let’s go after these Republicans and if we’re successful beat some of these liberal pieces of s***.” If that happens, Bonnen says, “kick my ass if we’re not doing a better job.”
“You have no responsibility for who runs. Your responsibility is whether your money lands there.”
“He’ll show you the list,” Bonnen says, referring to Burrows, though he does mention two members by name — Reps. Phil Stephenson (R-Wharton) and Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches).
If Stephenson was to draw a primary opponent, “he’s not getting $150,000 from me,” Bonnen says, and instead states he would give these ten members a monetary “pittance” if asked.
Throughout the course of the conversation, Bonnen references Democrats too, stating Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston) “makes my skin crawl” and makes suggestions about his sexuality, while calling Reps. Michelle Beckley (D-Carrollton) “vile” and Ana-Maria Ramos (D-Richardson) “awful.”
He also talks about “recruiting” a potential challenger to Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) at the signing for Senate Bill 2, this year’s property tax legislation.
Burrows chimes in, saying, “I’ve already texted him.”
The current speaker makes negative references to his predecessor, Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), under whose speakership Bonnen served as speaker pro tempore and Empower Texans waged war, and says Sullivan “knows better than we do what we had to deal with for the last ten years.”
Bonnen said that he considered retiring after 2017, citing the frustration he felt “when you’re busting your ass and you realize it’s the speaker who’s screwing you.”
Additionally, Bonnen claims Straus met the “female candidate” running against Rep. John Turner (D-Dallas) at an event and asked her, “Why are you running against a good, moderate Democrat? Why don’t you run against Morgan Meyer?”
Meyer, a Dallas Republican, won reelection in 2018 with only 220 votes.
Bonnen references another vulnerable Dallas County House seat, belonging to Rep. Angie Chen Button (R-Richardson), and explicitly states that President Trump is “killing us” in districts like hers.
Referencing SB 2, Bonnen says his “goal” was to make this session “the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.”
“I hope next session’s even worse,” Burrows adds. Later on, he goes so far as to state that there are Republican members who are “more interested in listening to their mayors than their taxpayers.”
Discontent among the conservative grassroots is mentioned and acknowledged, and the failure of Texas’ “Heartbeat Bill,” and its passage in other states, is mentioned multiple times.
Bonnen rebuts, stating, “You know who opposed the Heartbeat Bill? [Texas Right to Life Director] Elizabeth Graham.”
Sullivan responds saying Graham “doesn’t have a vote.”
Burrows tells Sullivan “[The grassroots] are upset because they’re being told to be upset.”
“I don’t think [voters] are stupid,” Sullivan replies.
Though Sullivan remains largely silent during Bonnen’s offer, he chimes in to say he would “love to have that list.”
Bonnen replies, “And I’ll let him work with you on that, because I probably shouldn’t do that.”
Words like “agreement” and “deal” are used by Bonnen, and, before he leaves the room, he reiterates that Sullivan refraining from spending money on other primary races “is the rule.”
“So taxpayer-funded lobbying is the benchmark for next session,” says Burrows as soon as Bonnen leaves the room.
He begins listing members who voted against the taxpayer-funded lobbying ban, but leaves certain names, like Rep. Doc Anderson (R-Waco), off the list, stating, “Doc will come around.”
“Clardy’s the ringleader of the opposition…we would be thrilled to see someone else come back in that district.”
Sullivan, who had asked to write down the names, reads them back to Burrows.
“Is [Tan] Parker on that list?” Burrows asks.
Sullivan confirms that the former GOP caucus chair and speaker candidate is not.
“I’d put Parker on that list,” Burrows says.
The two talk through more policy priorities, including social issues — which Sullivan argues invigorates the base more than fiscal victories. If more of the “right Republicans” are elected to the legislature, Burrows says, it will be easier to pass pro-life legislation in 2021.
Before parting ways, Sullivan voices concerns that the kinds of voters “[Trump] pulls out…don’t know or care” who their state representative is, and may not be motivated to vote down their ballot. Burrows says he’s been in contact with political consultants from swing states like Ohio, in order to glean from their experience.
“You have my cell,” says Burrows. He admits to not being responsive to press inquiries and says he’d try to be more responsive to Sullivan’s group going forward.
“As a first-time chair…I was just gonna stay out of the press.”
In May, Bonnen told KXAN he would not campaign against any sitting member of the Texas House, regardless of party affiliation. During the legislative session, Burrows, then chairman of the House Republican Caucus, oversaw the adoption of bylaws that prohibit GOP caucus members from campaigning against each other.
He later resigned as caucus chairman in light of the quid pro quo controversy.
After Sullivan detailed the meeting, Bonnen denied giving Sullivan a target list but apologized for saying “terrible things,” and Burrows, a lawyer by trade, maintained radio silence until recently appearing on local radio shows.
Sullivan appeared on the Chris Salcedo radio show this morning to discuss the release of the audio.
On the timing of the release, Sullivan told The Texan, “The release of the audio is something I’ve taken very seriously, evidenced by the amount of time gone by. If it was going to be released, it would have to be done when something can be done about it, and the Republican House Caucus meets this week. The Republican Caucus chose Dennis Bonnen as speaker, and now it’s up to them to clean up the mess that he’s created.”
“The one thing I’m absolutely sure of is that Dennis Bonnen needs to recant the things he’s said about me and this organization and apologize for breaking the rules of the Republican Caucus.”
As for what’s next — the Republican Caucus is set to gather this weekend, the Texas Rangers are investigating if Bonnen’s offer resulted in any criminal misconduct, and Sullivan is set to appear in court today as part of a lawsuit Texas Democrats have levied against him.
“I recorded because I needed to make sure I was protected from Dennis Bonnen. Especially after what we all saw happened to Chris McNutt earlier this year,” said Sullivan.
On what people should take away from the recording, he continued, “Hopefully, voters and taxpayers will look at this and say, ‘How do we make sure this doesn’t happen again? Why have we allowed these self-serving games to be played within the office of the speaker?’ It should drive us back to the reminder that the citizens are in charge.”
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McKenzie DiLullo serves as Senior Editor at The Texan. Previously, she worked as a Capitol Director during the 85th legislative session before moving to Fort Worth to manage Senator Konni Burton’s campaign. In her free time, you might find her enjoying dog memes, staring at mountains, or proctoring personality tests.