The fall of Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was as rapid as his rise to power. In his first legislative session last spring, he skillfully and capably guided the House towards its most productive and bipartisan session in years.
The legislature finally made some progress on school funding and property tax reform, something that has eluded them for well over a decade. Bonnen was the most influential actor in state government, easily overshadowing Governor Abbott and Lt. Governor Patrick.
I have not seen someone manage the House this well since Pete Laney ran the place in the early 2000s, which makes Bonnen’s fall from grace so disappointing.
Bonnen has no one to blame but himself. He carried himself in public as cooperative and reasonable, but a secret tape revealed his contempt for just about every elected official in both political parties.
He expressed the utmost contempt for city and county officials, vowing to make their lives miserable in the next legislative session. He even attacked President Trump, a mortal sin for any Texas Republican.
He showed a juvenile contempt for some leading House Democrats, and even attacked members of his own party who chose to work with the Democrats.
Bonnen then asked Empower Texans, a right-wing group, to target moderate Republicans in the 2020 GOP primary elections.
This was just beyond stupid. If moderate Republicans lose their nomination bids to right wing conservatives, it will make it that much easier for Democrats to win those seats in the general election.
The state is already trending Democratic, so it is baffling that Bonnen pursued a strategy that would make it even easier for the Democrats to gain even more seats in the legislature. If the Democrats manage to secure a legislative majority in 2020, he will be ousted as Speaker.
Bonnen’s mess has already been written about extensively, but there is one glaring question that no one has addressed. Why was a representative of Empower Texans recording this conversation in the first place?
Empower Texans is a group committed to small government and fiscal conservatism. They were not thrilled when the legislature pumped billions of dollars into public schools and significantly increased overall state spending.
When they criticized the GOP leadership at the close of the legislative session in May, Bonnen tore into them, dismissing them and similar groups as extremists who were impossible to please.
After this public flogging, Bonnen then secretly met with the same group and tried to repair the relationship. He had no knowledge that the meeting was being recorded.
Empower Texans had two possible motivations for the recording. One, they wanted to use the recording as a tool to blackmail the Speaker into following their agenda in the next legislative session. Or, they wanted to use the recording to destroy Bonnen.
Looks like they chose the latter option, but they also irreparably harmed themselves. No member of the legislature will ever trust Empower Texans again.
The duplicitous behavior of the actors in this comedy of errors tells us something much more fundamental about Texas politics.
Conservative power in Texas is on the wane, and conservatives are at a loss on how to deal with it.
Dr. Steve Showalter is a government professor at Lee College in Baytown.