86th LegislatureIssuesSpeaker Bonnen’s Feuds With Conservative Grassroots Suggest Divided GOP

The new Speaker and conservative grassroots have engaged in a public war of words after the session, highlighting deep divides within the GOP coalition.
May 30, 2019
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The 86th legislative session ended on Monday with little drama and a lot of celebration by many lawmakers who view the deal on property taxes, teacher pay raises, and school finance as a major success story.

Compared to the 85th Legislature, which included the infamous “Mother’s Day Massacre” where Texas Freedom Caucus members killed off bills on the Local and Consent Calendars, and an incident where ICE was called on activists in the House gallery during the sanctuary cities debate, this year was relatively mundane.

Several conservative advocacy groups, however, have not hesitated to criticize Republican leadership. And in the aftermath of the session, a public war of words between some conservative organizations and the Speaker has revealed that sharp divisions remain between Republican lawmakers and grassroots activists.

Texas Gun Rights, Texas Right to Life, and Empower Texans are a few of the more well-known critics of the so-called 2019 “Super Bowl” session, as described by Texas’ statewide leaders at their press conference last week.

Criticism over what these groups see as failures to advance key conservative policies during the session has spilled into the open, resulting in Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) issuing harsh rebukes toward the grassroots organizations in multiple media outlets.

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Earlier this year, Speaker Bonnen declared constitutional carry legislation (HB 357) dead after he made allegations that Texas Gun Rights’ executive director, Chris McNutt, had visited his home as an “intimidation tactic” and accused McNutt of threatening his family. 

Police outside the Speaker’s house encountered McNutt, who dropped off a flier in support of HB 357 before leaving.

On Chad Hasty’s radio program, Bonnen dubbed HB 357 “criminal carry,” repeatedly saying it would allow felons to carry firearms. Bonnen also used the interview to accuse McNutt of intimidating other lawmakers, saying the same thing happened to Rep. Four Price and Rep. Dustin Burrows — the latter of which received a district office visit from McNutt as well.

Bonnen said of that interaction, McNutt “flashed his gun in [Burrows’] district office to the staff.” 

McNutt said of this accusation at the time, “I was not carrying a firearm the entire [trip].” McNutt left his sidearm back home in Richardson because “[I] hate checking bags.”

Video obtained by The Texan last month shows police body cam footage of McNutt’s visit on March 27 that seemingly corroborates McNutt’s version of events regarding his visit to the Speaker’s home.

One of the officers stationed outside the Bonnen residence who encountered McNutt provided a statement that testified that he did not observe McNutt carrying at the time of their interaction outside the Speaker’s residence.

But constitutional carry advocates have not been the only critics of Speaker Bonnen to receive public rebuke.

Pro-life advocacy group Texas Right to Life has been quick to call out what has been in their view, a lackluster performance by the 86th Legislature.

In a public statement released Monday, Texas Right to Life said, “No bills that stop abortion passed.”

The statement continued, “Yet, the message from Austin is a resounding ‘Super Bowl Session.’ Not if you are an unborn child in Texas!”

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle earlier this week, Bonnen fired back and told reporters Monday, “If we passed every pro-life bill filed in the history of the state, they would say we had not done enough. You will never please or appease those folks and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying.”

The Texan received the following from Kimberlyn Schwartz, director of media and communication with Texas Right to Life, in response to Bonnen’s accusation.

“House leadership will say anything to try to sell this pitiful purple session to the grassroots community, including personal attacks.”

Schwartz continued, “Texas Right to Life always gives credit to legislators when due.”

“In 2013, we celebrated the passage of the pro-life omnibus bill HB 2; in 2015, we celebrated the passage of the bill to reform the  judicial bypass procedure and the bill to ensure that food and water are not forcibly withdrawn from hospitalized patients; in 2017, we celebrated all the victories in the special session, including pro-life insurance reform and patient consent before a DNR Order.”  

Schwartz concluded, “Regrettably, over 100,000 children will die at abortion clinics between now and 2021 when the Legislature reconvenes. Texas has slipped in ranking as the 4th most pro-life state in the US to 13th, and our hope was that with new pro-life leadership in the Texas House—many of who participated in these aforementioned victories, our rankings would be restored as a leader in the pro-life movement.”

Bonnen also took aim at Empower Texans, the conservative accountability organization known for both their scorecard and support for primarying lawmakers who they view as failing to advance conservative policies.

Empower has been a frequent critic of Republican lawmakers throughout the session on a myriad of issues.

About Empower Texans, Bonnen told the Dallas Morning News, “They are a group that you are fooling yourself and you are not respecting your constituents and you are not respecting this institution if you are chasing their wants and their desires, because you will never meet their wants and desires,” he said. “They are a group that is based on attacks and disrespect to raise money. They are not based on issue or ideology.”

Ross Kecseg, President of Empower Texans, responded to our request but declined to comment on Bonnen’s remarks.

Chris McNutt with Texas Gun Rights said, “It’s clear Speaker Bonnen is willing to alienate all grassroots conservatives going into the 2020 elections.”

“All session long, Bonnen has been sending a message of ‘if you are a conservative, I don’t want to hear from you,” said McNutt.

“Instead of helping pass conservative priorities this session while Republicans still maintain control, he’s trying to save his own hide by sucking up to Democrats before the election. It’s quite repugnant, but not surprising for a career politician like himself.”

The Texan contacted Cait Meisenheimer, communications director with Speaker Bonnen’s office, for comment on this story.

The Speaker’s office did not provide a response. 

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Tony Guajardo

Tony Guajardo

Tony Guajardo is a reporter for The Texan. He has been involved in politics since the fall of 2012 when he served as an intern for the now-retired U.S. Congressman Charlie Gonzalez (D-San Antonio). He is a native of Fort Worth, Texas and graduated from Texas A&M University.