March 12, 2019

Curious Intentions

GOP House Speaker Rekindles Flames as Bid to Set Record Straight
Mixes Vague Apologies and Denial of Colleague Target List Existence

MIKE HAILEY

GOP Speaker Dennis Bonnen has bad blood boiling again in the west wing of the statehouse after an attempt to recast the narrative of a career-killing scandal with his first public recounting of his shocking self-destruction last year.

Bonnen appeared to be engaging in some belated reputation repair during a radio interview that conservative talk show host Chad Hasty conducted this week on Lubbock station KFYO. Bonnen apologized repeatedly to no one in particular for a performance that he claimed to have screwed up badly when he'd huddled with a major political enemy in his Austin office in June.

The veteran coastal lawmaker didn't say why he'd decided to break months of silence almost 600 miles from home. It wasn't clear what Bonnen had hoped to accomplish with a rehashing of the chain of events that ruined his first year in the powerful leadership post before the halfway point. But it's probably no coincidence that Bonnen chose State Rep. Dustin Burrows' hometown for his first media comments since the two were implicated in a GOP colleague targeting plot that the speaker effectively characterized as a fantasy in the 28-minute conversation with Hasty. How this could help Burrows is a mystery.

With Bonnen giving the gavel up without a re-election race in his home district, the curious resurfacing with the radio exchange sparked speculation on a potential comeback bid after a hiatus from elected office for the first time in more than two decades. Bonnen could have simply been following advice from Republicans who've remained loyal to him on the need for a public relations reclamation for the sake of majority protection in a chamber that the Democrats could take back with a net gain of nine seats in November. The timing of the radio appearance a week after the Texas primary election would make some sense if that's the case.

But Bonnen failed mightily if he'd been seeking absolution from the House Republicans who he'd alienated after insisting on the Hasty show that he'd done nothing wrong in connection with the maneuvering that led to his demise beyond bumbling behavior and insulting rhetoric at the fateful encounter with conservative crusader Michael Quinn Sullivan nine months ago.

Bonnen contended during the Hasty exchange that a reciting of an excerpt from a record vote at the meeting at the heart of the furor had been misconstrued as a Republican primary hit list. Bonnen suggested that he'd never planned to target 10 GOP colleagues who were singled out at the meeting with MQS as a result of their opposition during the 2019 regular session to a proposed ban on the hiring of lobbyists by Texas cities and counties.

Instead of parlaying the radio appearance into an admission of guilt with an authentic show of remorse, Bonnen drove the wedge deeper when he defended the decision to call out the 10 Republicans in question for positions on issues as routine Capitol chatter. He clearly had no intention of apologizing for that.

But Bonnen threw another curve into the mix when he asserted that Sullivan knew that a quid pro quo that he'd accused the speaker of pitching had been a bogus proposal that was never going to materialize. Almost everyone who's heard the bombshell tape that MQS secretly recorded at the ill-fated plotting session seems to think that it confirmed the activist's claim that the leadership duo had offered House press badges in a swap for his help in the unseating of the 10 Republicans who Bonnen now claims were never targets in the first place. Bonnen noted that House rules prevent groups like the one Sullivan leads from having media access to the chamber when it's in session. But the speaker raised eyebrows from the South Plains to the coast when he suggested that he had no influence with the committee that makes the calls on media credentials.

Bonnen hit some major nerves when he told Hasty that he was truly sorry for enlisting Burrows to be a witness at the Sullivan meeting as an ally who'd been in the Capitol City for a bill-signing ceremony. Bonnen heaped praise on Burrows for his work as the sponsor of a property tax relief package during the 2019 regular session in his role as the Ways & Means Committee chairman.

The flattering portrayal raised the specter that Bonnen had picked Lubbock for the interview as a debt of gratitude for playing the part of the fall guy throughout the speaker's unraveling. Bonnen reminded Hasty that Burrows had been the one who ticked off the names of selective Republican lawmakers who voted against the local government lobby prohibition in the meeting with MQS after Bonnen had slipped out of the room for reasons that remain unclear.

But it wouldn't seem to matter whether Bonnen was present or temporarily absent at the time of the roll call reading if he's telling the truth about the ostensible non-existence of a target list and the naming of names that created such an impression as business as usual that had been justified.

Bonnen injected some added intrigue into the yarn when he said that he'd agreed to meet with the Empower Texans leader at the request of "some gentlemen" who wanted Sullivan and other forces on the hard right to put their resources into general election battles with Democrats instead of going after fellow Republicans in the primary. There had been substantial speculation that was never substantiated that the powerhouse establishment group Texans for Lawsuit Reform had encouraged Bonnen to seek a tentative cease-fire with MQS. But TLR has backed most if not all of the House Republicans on the alleged target list that Bonnen is characterizing now as an allusion.

Burrows had been the GOP Caucus chair at the time of the meeting that destroyed the career of a speaker who'd been one of the Legislature's most talented, effective and devoted members before his election as Republican Joe Straus' successor early last year.

But Burrows doesn't appear to need Bonnen's help as a third-term incumbent who'll be a prohibitive favorite this fall in a battle with Snyder Democrat Addison Perry-Franks in a re-election race in a district that President Donald Trump carried in 2016 when 76 percent of the vote. Perry-Franks, who beat a primary foe last week with 54 percent of the vote, is not exactly a Scurry County stereotype as a party activist who came out as a transgender in 2018. But the Democratic challenger has fresh fodder now for the fall fight in the wake of the radio show that highlighted Burrows' ties to the fallen speaker and the scandal that took him down.

Mike Hailey's column appears on a regular basis in Capitol Inside

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Mike Hailey presents state politics with a personal touch. He's the only Texas Capitol journalist who's been to the dark side and back - having worked for two major newspaper bureaus before signing on as press secretary for Bob Bullock - the most powerful and legendary political leader of his time in the state. Hailey's Comment, which is published in Capitol Inside on a regular basis, is a direct reflection of that experience.

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