“Forgive and Remember”

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

This analysis originally appeared in the Quorum Report. Join us there daily for coverage of Texas politics and government. 

The apology tour is on as Speaker Dennis Bonnen and former Texas House GOP Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows seek to make amends after admitting to saying “terrible things” about members in a private meeting while the cops have now been called to thoroughly investigate whether there was any wrongdoing.

Some of the Republican legislators on Bonnen’s alleged “hit list” say Chairman Burrows has sounded remorseful and looked “downright despondent” in meetings over the last few days. On the bright side, at least he has resurfaced and is talking with colleagues again. One member is said to have told Burrows that even though the apology is accepted – we’re all adults after all – that does not mean there should be no repercussions for plotting against fellow Republicans in secret and “making a deal with the devil.” Burrows late this week resigned from his leadership role in the caucus. 

As conservatives gathered in Austin for the American Legislative Exchange Council Summit, the issue came up frequently in the low talk. Bonnen gave the welcome speech at the reception and left quickly. During a state dinner, one of the spouses of a Republican member apparently heckled Bonnen as he spoke.

The conversations coming out of NCSL in Nashville were muted at best. The same was true at ALEC even though it is a must-attend event for Republican legislators. Meantime, national players are becoming interested. Reliable sources say RNC staff have started making calls asking whether Bonnen’s troubles may play into an overall narrative of “corrupt Republicans” while Democrats look to energize their voters with President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket next year. Friday afternoon, the story was splashed in the online pages of the New York Times.

You know, when the palace coup unfolded in 2009 sweeping out former Speaker Tom Craddick, the resentment for his hostility toward members had reached a crescendo after three sessions of GOP lawmakers feeling like they’d been relegated to acting as his employees after working so hard to capture the majority in 2003. That ill will festered, in part, as a result of open opposition to certain legislators who displeased Craddick.

In other words, everyone knew who was on Craddick’s list.

Speaker Bonnen may have, for the moment, created the same kind of hostility toward himself within the span of an hour-long closed-door meeting with Empower Texans spokesman Michael Quinn Sullivan. In the meeting, it’s alleged that Bonnen offered to trade media credentials in exchange for Empower Texans spending political cash against 10 incumbent GOP members in their March primary next year.

“You don’t ask the members for a chance to rebuild trust unless you’ve lost it,” said one veteran of the lobby, commenting on Bonnen’s plea for forgiveness.

A growing number of GOP members have publicly said Bonnen should be forgiven for the harsh words he admits to saying to Sullivan. So have both Democrats singled out during the meeting. Will they regret the calls to “move on” if the audio recording of the meeting is ever made public? Texas Rangers’ involvement may now pry the recording loose from Sullivan’s attorney Tony McDonald.

When major Texas Republican officeholders in recent memory were accused of wrongdoing – criminal or otherwise – it has generally been a unifying event for the GOP. The rallying cry was always that the “liberal Austin establishment is coming after them!” That was true for Tom DeLay, Rick Perry, Wallace Hall, and Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose legal issues could still prove problematic for the majority party come next November if the fraud case against him ever moves forward in Houston.

No similar unified front has come together for Speaker Bonnen.

Other than this defense from ethics attorney Ross Fischer promoted online by Bonnen’s own staff including General Counsel Gardner Pate, the response about any potential criminal quid pro quo has been, again, muted.

Meantime, Bonnen’s future has become an issue in the race to lead the Republican Party of Texas.

Allen West, the firebrand conservative and former Congressman challenging RPT Chairman James Dickey, has taken the opportunity to say he’s not an opportunist and call for Bonnen’s resignation – comments that have now been promoted online by Empower Texans.

“I would suggest the Speaker of the House, Dennis Bonnen, right now step down from speaker and resign from his State House seat, because we’re not going to be able to go forward as long as he stays in that position,” West told radio talk show host Chris Salcedo. The show airs on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s radio station in Houston, KSEV.

Speaking of Patrick, he and Gov. Greg Abbott have studiously avoided commenting on Bonnen’s troubles. When asked about it during a town hall, Gov. Abbott would only say that he welcomes the law enforcement probe of the situation.

Chairman Dickey, who unlike the challenger has a responsibility to at least try to keep the GOP unified, was more measured with his words after the General Investigating Committee Monday voted to ask Texas Rangers to get involved. “We look forward to an expeditious process, full transparency, and all evidence being presented,” Dickey said in a written statement. “We will stay focused on our mission as that process continues.”

That’s the same RPT Chairman who oversaw the censure of the last Speaker at the behest of the Empower Texans crowd in the name of “unity” and putting the controversy in the party’s rear-view mirror.

Just like former Speaker Joe Straus’ tenure when outside forces hoped to influence the choice of a speaker – and were time and again unsuccessful – the ultimate decision is up to the members of the Texas House.

But even if they forgive him, it doesn’t wipe the slate clean.

He didn’t originate the axiom but as Quorum Report Publisher Harvey Kronberg recalls, it was the late Sen. Babe Schwartz of Galveston who was credited with immortalizing the phrase “forgive and remember.”

Sure, bad things happen but the business of the state goes on. You just have to know who in the Texas Capitol building you can count as the honest brokers. That honesty is key for the speaker. The first standing order of a presiding officer is to protect the institution and Bonnen might eventually find his way to forgiveness for at least temporarily abandoning that post. But the members, most of whom are silent about all this right now, won’t forget it.

That cuts both ways.

If Bonnen can retain the gavel, he will remember how the members behaved during this time. And he’s been anything but forgiving in the past.

Copyright August 15, 2019, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved.

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