Yesterday, the CEO of Empower Texans, a prominent conservative activist organization, published a story on the organization’s website detailing a closed-door meeting between the grassroots leader, Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) and Texas Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton).
Michael Quinn Sullivan alleges that Bonnen listed ten incumbent GOP House members he wanted the conservative group to target in 2020, and in exchange, would grant Empower Texans coveted House press credentials.
In Sullivan’s piece, he lists Reps. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio), Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches), Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), Kyle Kacal (R-College Station), Stan Lambert (R-Abilene), John Raney (R-College Station), Phil Stephenson (R-Wharton), and Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound) as the incumbents Bonnen saw as expendable.
Sullivan writes that Burrows, chairman of the House Republican Caucus and the powerful Ways and Means Committee, said the list was “about those who voted against the ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying.”
Senate bill 29, the watered-down version of a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying that was originally filed at the beginning of the legislative session, passed the Senate and successfully made it to the House floor. However, the bill died at the hands of Democrats and a select group of Republicans who voted against the measure.
Rep. Trent Ashby, one of the Republicans on Bonnen’s supposed list, essentially guaranteed the death of the bill after he amended it to include only 20 of Texas’ 254 counties.
Though 25 Republicans voted against passage of the bill, 15 of those weren’t included in the target list allegedly outlined by the Speaker in Sullivan’s piece — Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson (R-Waco), Keith Bell (R-Forney), Angie Chen Button (R-Richardson), Dan Flynn (R-Canton), Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), Ken King (R-Canadian), John Kuempel (R-Seguin), Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), Rick Miller (R-Sugar Land), Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), Four Price (R-Amarillo), John Smithee (R-Amarillo), Lynn Stucky (R-Denton), Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston), and John Zerwas (R-Richmond).
Most of the legislators on the alleged target list in Sullivan’s piece represent largely safe Republican districts, meaning a win for Republicans would be likely regardless of who the nominee is.
Perhaps the most intriguing accusation leveled against the Speaker is the “quid pro quo” offer of supplying media credentials to Empower Texans’ staff in exchange for the harnessing of the group’s political muscle.
In a move that exasperated many legacy media outlets, Empower Texans was given media credentials in the Texas Senate for the first time this legislative session. The group’s publication, called Texas Scorecard, follows legislative action at the capitol and disseminates that content to their followers.
Press passes give their team of writers a front-row seat to the action on the Senate floor as they, according to a statement found on their website, seek “to educate and inspire Texans to exercise effective citizenship and advance self-governance.”
Critics of this move claimed it muddied the water between what qualifies as a “lobby group” and what qualifies as a “press organization,” and some contended it was a political move for Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who has benefited financially from the group previously.
However, the organization did not receive the same courtesy in the Texas House.
According to the article, Sullivan wrote a letter of refusal to Bonnen following the meeting, who then responded with a letter of his own. In the Bonnen letter, which is printed on official state letterhead bearing Bonnen’s name and signature, the Speaker denies Sullivan’s claims that he was offered credentials in a quid pro quo exchange.
“Your suggestion that either I or Mr. Burrows requested that you, or anyone associated with you, ‘withhold spending and all other support for political attacks’ with respect to any member of the House in exchange for anything is mistaken.”
“No offer was made to you of any kind, and thus, there is nothing for you or anyone associated with you to ‘reject.’”
Sullivan’s allegation comes after Bonnen has publicly stated he would not campaign against any sitting member of the House, regardless of party affiliation.
In May, Bonnen told KXAN that he hoped members would, “stick to the tradition of the Texas House, and that is that no sitting member of the House campaigns against another sitting member of the House.”
Bonnen doubled down, citing the “tradition” as a reason for the House’s legislative success.
“What makes the House unique and successful, in the country, not simply here but across the country, is that we are bipartisan. And the central component of our bipartisanship is that you don’t see sitting members of the House campaigning against another sitting member of the House.”
Bonnen even recently launched a PAC of his own called “Texas Leads,” aimed exclusively at helping Republican incumbents secure reelection and funded with $3 million from his own campaign coffers.
In a press release detailing the intent of the PAC, Bonnen emphasized the importance of reelecting the Republican majority going into what could prove to be a contentious election cycle in 2020.
“If we are to continue building upon these successes in future legislative sessions, we must do everything in our power to reelect the Republican legislators who made them a reality.”
On the last day of the legislative session, Bonnen made waves with comments made to the Houston Chronicle regarding certain conservative grassroots organizations, including Empower Texans, stating that, “They aren’t worth responding to.”
Currently, Sullivan’s story is a tale of two competing and contradictory accounts. And it remains to be seen if any political fallout will occur as a result.
But if Sullivan’s account is proven accurate, the idea that the sitting Speaker of the Texas House would be willing to dangle press credentials in exchange for a hefty political favor will likely be difficult for anyone of any political persuasion to ignore.