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Speaker’s race

Dan Patrick’s budget destruction

It’s not what you think it is, but it’s still bad.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Texas state government, an arcane team of 100 or so budget nerds has led a private, if stressful, life — running financial models, ensuring state government and its private contractors aren’t spending beyond their means, and keeping lawmakers informed about each line item in the state’s 1,000-page, $250 billion two-year budget.

But these days, interviews with current and former budget agency staff indicate the emptying halls of their downtown Austin office feel more like the setting of an Agatha Christie novel.

The Texas Legislative Budget Board, created in 1949 to support full-time experts who track fiscal issues for the state’s part-time Legislature, provides the analysis on which the state bases its budget calculations — for example, how much money it costs to pay public school teachers or to fund hospital beds for people in mental health crisis.

It’s up to state lawmakers to set spending priorities, but legislators say their ability to make funding decisions is only as good as the information they receive from the experts.

“The LBB provided invaluable, unbiased information, which is critical to the development of the state budget,” former state Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.

The quality of that information may be in jeopardy; the agency is moldering as a quiet war erupts between its two masters.

State law names the lieutenant governor and House speaker as co-chairs of the 10-member board, which is supposed to jointly appoint an executive director to lead the agency. Last year, for the first time in nearly 70 years, that failed to happen; by Halloween, the agency will have been headless for a year.

Veteran employees have departed in droves with no one to replace them, leaving behind a trail of vacant offices and a dearth of institutional knowledge. Staff size has fallen 26% since 2015 — from 146 to 108 employees — and four of the agency’s five executive leadership positions will soon be unfilled. The agency’s lone remaining executive told a tearful staff last week that he, too, intends to resign.

Now, with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announcing he will not run for reelection next year amid a scandal that has shaken the entire lower chamber, the board finds itself in its most precarious position yet.

Interviews with more than a dozen budget agency staff, Capitol staff and state lawmakers — who requested anonymity to discuss private board deliberations — indicate that the Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has wielded a kind of veto power over the board to keep the agency undermanned and under fire.

They contend that his motive is to remake the agency to give the Senate more direct control over the number-crunchers; the current group of nonpartisan bureaucrats has produced analyses that at times conflicted with the lieutenant governor’s political messaging.

Basically, this is an attack on expertise and data. Dan Patrick doesn’t want accurate and objective facts about revenue and fiscal notes and what have you. They don’t serve his purposes. He wants minions who will tell him what he wants to hear so he can use it as a cudgel. If he can starve the LBB to death, maybe the end result (as the story suggests) would be two separate budget agencies, one for the House and one for the Senate, which would be under the control of the Lite Governor. Patrick is on the leading edge here – Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson had similarly nice things to say about the LBB as outgoing House Appropriations Chair John Zerwas did – but where Dan Patrick goes, other Republicans tend to follow. The longer he gets to press this attack, the greater the odds he’ll eventually get what he wants. Do I need to add that this is yet another reason why we need a Democratic House and a Democratic Speaker in 2021?

Every Speaker’s race is unique

The one to come has a more uncertain outcome than the last few we’ve seen.

Found on the Twitters

The current party mix is 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats. Republicans hope to hold their advantage after the 2020 elections, while Democrats, encouraged by their 12-seat gain in 2018, hope to win back the majority they lost in 2002.

The next race for speaker, a certainty with Bonnen’s announcement that he won’t seek reelection, probably won’t happen quickly — unless Bonnen can be persuaded to leave office earlier than January 2021 to allow a faster switch to new management.

Why? If the House majority isn’t overwhelming — in either party’s favor — it will probably take a coalition to replace Bonnen. A Republican speaker will need some Democratic votes to win; a Democrat, some Republicans. And until they know what the mix will be, uncertainty will prevent most state representatives from committing to any speaker candidate.

[…]

The list of people who might succeed Bonnen probably starts with the list of people he beat last time in a race that started slow, percolated for about a year, and then sprinted to a close. Straus announced in October 2017 that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term. A couple of aspirants announced quickly, and more trickled in as the year went on — especially after the primary elections were over.

But nobody could put together 76 votes. Bonnen, who had demurred when he was first mentioned as a candidate, became a late entry. Within a matter of days after the 2018 general election, he had the votes he needed.

And a year later, the House is back where it was two years ago, looking for new leadership with a tough election ahead, doing the preparatory work for a redistricting session with high political stakes, a huge budget to write and other big issues to confront.

And no strong incentive to hurry.

In early September of 2018 there were seven candidates for Speaker, six Republicans and one Dem. Two of them – Republican John Zerwas and Democrat Eric Johnson – are no longer in the Lege, while the others are in safe seats. Seems like those five would be in the mix, but there would be plenty of others, including who knows how many Dems. Bonnen got in as Zerwas got out just before the 2018 election, and he was the clear choice shortly thereafter. My guess is that while there are a lot of members who can envision themselves as Speaker right now, they’re mostly going to keep it on the down low until after the election, when it will at least be known which party will have the numerical advantage. After that, it will all be about counting votes. We may not know who the Speaker will be until the start of the session. The potential for excitement, and some bruised feelings, is quite high.

No charges against Bonnen

No surprise.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will not be criminally prosecuted for the things he said during a secretly recorded June meeting with a hardline conservative activist, the district attorney in his hometown announced Thursday.

“As repugnant as Speaker Bonnen’s actions and statements are,” Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said in a statement, “I do not believe there is sufficient evidence from the June 12, 2019 meeting to warrant a criminal prosecution of Speaker Bonnen for Bribery or Solicitation of a Gift by a Public Servant, therefore no criminal charges will be brought.”

[…]

A spokesperson for Bonnen said Yenne’s decision “deflates Michael Quinn Sullivan’s entire reason for going public three months ago — that, according to him, the Speaker solicited a bribe and broke the law.”

“Unfortunately, we now live in a political climate where one is guilty until proven innocent, and not only has that thrown the ability of Republicans to hold onto our House majority into jeopardy, it sets a dangerous precedent moving forward,” Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary, said in a statement. “While justice prevailed today, unfortunately, the damage has been done.”

See here, here, and here for the background. This was the conclusion of the Texas Rangers investigation – their report was submitted to DA Yenne earlier this week, according to the story. There wasn’t anything in the tape to suggest criminal activity, just deep stupidity, for which Bonnen will leave the Legislature and Yenne chewed him out. All things considered, I’ve got no gripes about how this turned out.

Still more Bonnen business

I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be obsessing over the Bonnen implosion, but we’re not done yet. Today’s topic is What It All Means for 2020.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

“The quarterback and coach have been taken off the field,” said Bill Miller, a longtime Republican lobbyist. “It’s short notice, it’s a big leadership change, and they don’t have a lot of time. It’s problematic for Republicans.”

One of the more obvious questions is what happens to Texas Leads, the political action committee that Bonnen unveiled in July to help keep the majority — and touted in his conversation with Sullivan. Bonnen started the group with $3 million transferred from his own campaign, which saw a seven-figure flood of donations after he emerged late last year as the likely next speaker. Bonnen promised an “ongoing commitment” to the PAC, though its first campaign finance report is not due until January, so it is unclear how much more he raised since the PAC’s July launch.

In any case, the money now carries the stain of Bonnen’s scandal — “I don’t see how any of us could take any money from him,” recently remarked a member targeted in the Sullivan recording — and likely would only make a race more complicated. Still, Democrats are not taking any chances.

“I can give you 3 million reasons why Democrats are not gonna let their guard down going the 2020 election cycle,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, who Bonnen referenced in the recording while talking about his rule against member-versus-member campaigning. “Speaker Bonnen’s announcement is by no way a message that Democrats can take the day off. We have a lot of work to do.”

[…]

In addition to the fate of Texas Leads, uncertainty abounds about Bonnen’s end-of-session threat of consequences for members who campaign against other members. Bonnen’s edict was already undermined by comments he made in the recording, but his decision to not seek reelection only further invalidated his self-appointed role as political disciplinarian.

“I don’t think that Speaker Bonnen — and we heard it on the tape — I don’t think he ever was sincere about that edict,” said Royce Brooks, executive director of Annie’s List, which works to elect Democratic women at the state level who support abortion rights.

Brooks and other Democrats involved in House races said Tuesday it was full steam ahead regardless of Bonnen’s political standing throughout the rest of the cycle. For Annie’s List, that means following through on its plan to have female nominees in at least 20 of the 29 seats that it believes are in play.

See here for the previous update. Honestly, I think the main effect of the Bonnen affair will be to depress and disorganize Republicans by at least a little bit. The ten Republicans who were targeted by Bonnen have every reason to be pissed off, and in being pissed off pull back a bit from being a team player in favor of focusing on themselves. Is that a difference-maker at a state level, or in the most hotly contested districts? Probably not. But it won’t help them, and this year they need all the help they can get. On the other hand, it clarifies things greatly for Democrats, and puts focus on the goal of winning the House. I’d say there was already clarity and focus in abundance, but a little more can’t hurt. It’s not much but it’s better for us than for them, and that’s good enough.

Bye bye, Bonnen

Wow.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

First-term Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen on Tuesday announced he will not seek reelection to the lower chamber in 2020 — completing a stunning fall for the Angleton Republican who enjoyed near unanimous support in the House just months earlier.

“After much prayer, consultation, and thoughtful consideration with my family, it is clear that I can no longer seek re-election as State Representative of District 25, and subsequently, as Speaker of the House,” Bonnen said in a statement, which included a list of 43 House Republicans — a majority of the House GOP Caucus — that the speaker said “have made clear that it is in the best interest of both myself and the House to move on.” (Bonnen’s own brother, Greg Bonnen of Friendswood, was among those on the list.)

[…]

Bonnen’s decision not to seek reelection means his seat in House District 25 will be open for the first time in over two decades. One Republican, emergency room nurse Rhonda Seth, was already running for the seat before Tuesday, aiming to take out Bonnen. The district in southeast Texas is solidly Republican.

With Bonnen’s exit, members will be jockeying among one another to become the next speaker. That election officially won’t happen until the next time the Legislature convenes, which is scheduled to happen in January 2021. In the meantime, if Bonnen remains in place until then, he can carry out typical interim duties, which include assigning issues for committees to study ahead of the next legislative session.

The race to replace Bonnen is coming ahead of a competitive election cycle for Republicans, who, after losing a dozen House seats to Democrats in 2018, are gearing up to hold onto their majority in the lower chamber. If Democrats were to flip nine seats and hold onto the dozen they picked up, they could be the party in power in the House and, consequentially, elect a member from their caucus to lead the lower chamber.

It’s unclear what role — if any — Bonnen will play in 2020 in helping to hold onto the GOP seats. In July before Sullivan’s allegations surfaced, Bonnen announced he had infused a new political action committee with $3 million to support House Republicans running for reelection. Since the speaker became engulfed with the drama though, some members have privately wondered whether Bonnen would be a help or hindrance to their fundraising efforts heading into the election cycle.

Shocking, but in retrospect not at all surprising. The day had started with this story about Republicans abandoning the Bonnen ship:

Some of the most powerful Texas House Republicans said Monday they no longer support GOP Speaker Dennis Bonnen, marking the biggest blow yet to his political future amid the fallout from a secret recording released last week by a hardline conservative activist.

Five Republicans considered senior members of the lower chamber issued a statement withdrawing support for him: State Reps. Four Price of Amarillo, Dan Huberty of Houston, Lyle Larson of San Antonio, Chris Paddie of Marshall and John Frullo of Lubbock.

“As long-serving members of the Texas House, we informed Speaker Bonnen earlier today that we no longer support him as our Speaker,” they said in a joint statement released Monday night. “It is clear that trust and confidence in the Speaker has significantly eroded among our membership, and the matter has both damaged the reputation of the House and relationships among individual members.”

All five members were closely aligned with Bonnen this year during his first session as speaker. A number of them also chair some of the chamber’s most powerful committees: Price chairs the House Calendars Committee; Huberty heads the Public Education Committee; Larson chairs the Natural Resources Committee; and Paddie chairs the Energy Resources Committee.

Later Monday night, another high-profile chair, Phil King of Weatherford, who heads the Redistricting Committee, joined the calls for Bonnen to resign. So did Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who said on Twitter she planned to pen a letter on Tuesday to the caucus chair requesting a caucus meeting to vote on it. Even Dan Flynn of Van, who just days before had reiterated his support for Bonnen, said he could no longer support the speaker.

See here for the previous update. Clearly, things snowballed from there. Bonnen likely could have won re-election – HD25 is indeed a strong R district, where Ted Cruz got nearly 70% – as there were no big name primary challengers yet, but he was certainly toast as Speaker, and I guess he didn’t want to deal with life as a regular member again. I’d have had a hard time with that too, given all that has come out. I supported Bonnen as Speaker this year – he was hardly ideal from my perspective, but he was smart and was effective as Speaker pro tem. Dems did all right under him. I’m still shocked that he was dumb enough to trip over his own dick like this. Rick Casey summarizes it well in describing Bonnen’s ill-fated meeting with MQS as “almost criminally stupid – both tactically and strategically.” I don’t know what happens from here – obviously, Dems winning enough seats to put one of them at the podium would be best, but someone from the wingnut faction could end up on top as well – but at this point it’s hard to be sorry about what happened. Dennis Bonnen brought this on himself. He deserves what he’s getting. Good riddance. A statement from the TDP (which has also moved to dismiss its lawsuit over the recordings) is here, and Texas Monthly, the Chron, the Texas Signal, the Observer, and the Current have more.

So now what with Bonnen?

Democrats will wait and see.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

On Thursday night, as Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s political fate continued to hang in the balance, some of the most influential Democrats were in El Paso for a town hall and were split on whether the first-term leader should immediately resign from his post.

“That decision, ultimately, isn’t mine,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, a top Bonnen ally. “Like all other situations, that decision is best left up to the voters in the state of Texas. I trust them.”

“There is this urgency to respond in kind with negativity or delight in this situation,” Moody added. “[But] I am sad about this, I am disappointed in it. I don’t delight in this.”

Others were less measured.

“He’s done damage to the body,” state Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, the new head of House Democrats’ campaign arm, told a reporter for The Texas Tribune. “And for that reason, I think he should resign.” (Just months before, at the end of the legislative session, Israel said Bonnen was “the right man at this point in Texas history.”)

Those two answers — and that vast departure from where most members stood earlier this year — provide a glimpse into a caucus that’s navigating how to respond as the minority party to the drama that has dogged Bonnen over the past few months.

[…]

On Wednesday evening, roughly half the House Democratic Caucus met in Austin for a meeting that was already on the calendar. The Bonnen issue, of course, took center stage, and while no formal action was taken, multiple members there said there was talk of calling another meeting sometime soon to discuss potential further actions.

“I think there’s a desire to bring the entire caucus together with a specific agenda to have a discussion that could result in a vote,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, told the Tribune on Thursday. “Certainly [Wednesday’s] discussion was clear that there was no one in the room who felt anything but anger and betrayal and disappointment.”

“The general consensus … was that people should feel free to put their own messages out there and that we should be united as a caucus moving forward,” Howard said. “So far I’ve heard nothing that would indicate that we’re not all on the same page.”

But there has been variation in Democrats’ public positions. There’s also the question of whether it would be politically advantageous for Democrats to act beyond what the caucus chair, state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, has already said — that the latest “revelations are incompatible” with Bonnen serving another term — before Republicans have a chance to move on the issue themselves.

I don’t have any problem with deliberation, and the potential is there for the Republicans to fracture and generate some heat for us, but at some point we need to be speaking with one voice on the topic. Pick a direction and take it.

Meanwhile, the Republicans use harsh language.

After gathering behind closed doors for hours Friday, the House GOP Caucus released a statement condemning “in the strongest possible terms” language used by Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants during a secretly recording meeting with hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.

“Both members violated the high standards of conduct we expect of our members,” the statement said. “Their conduct does not reflect the views of our Caucus membership.”

[…]

“We completely and fully support the [House] members mentioned in the recording,” the statement said. “Further, the views expressed in the taped recording in no way reflect the high regard we have for our locally elected officials.”

The statement was released as members, on the tail end of their annual retreat, left the ballroom at a resort in Austin. Most of them declined to comment as they departed the meeting, which was originally scheduled for 45 minutes but lasted for just over four hours.

But soon after, a group of four Republican lawmakers from North Texas — state Reps. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall; Matt Shaheen, R-Plano; Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, and Jeff Leach, R-Plano — issued a joint statement calling on Bonnen “to work diligently to prove to all 149 House members and, more importantly, to the people of Texas, that he can rebuild trust and continue to faithfully lead the House and our state forward.

“If that is not possible, the people of Texas expect and deserve a new Speaker of the House during the 87th Legislature,” the members said.

You can see the full statement here. Like I said, there’s plenty of potential for further dissension on the GOP side, and it’s fine to give them some room to express it. Just have a strategy and a plan to execute it, that’s all I ask.

The Bonnen tape is out

It’s a doozy.

During a June conversation at the Texas Capitol, Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen urged hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan to target members of their own party in the 2020 primaries and suggested he could get Sullivan’s group media access to the House floor, according to a secret recording of the conversation released Tuesday.

Bonnen could also be heard speaking disparagingly about multiple Democrats, calling one House member “vile” and suggesting that another’s “wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The 64-minute recording of Sullivan’s June meeting with Bonnen and another top House Republican, then-GOP caucus chair Dustin Burrows, was posted on Sullivan’s website and the website of WBAP, a talk radio station in Dallas on which Sullivan appeared Tuesday morning. The recording largely aligned with Sullivan’s initial description of that June 12 meeting — and with what certain Republicans who listened to the audio before it was public had described.

While its release prompted immediate outcry from Democrats and silence from Republicans, Bonnen said in a statement that the audio makes clear he did nothing criminally wrong in the conversation, adding that the “House can finally move on.”

Roughly nine minutes into the recording, after discussing Sullivan’s recent trip to Europe, Bonnen tells Sullivan he’s “trying to win in 2020 in November.”

“Is there any way that for 2020 we sort of say … let’s not spend millions of dollars fighting in primaries when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November,” Bonnen says. “I wanted to see if we could try and figure that out. … If you need some primaries to fight in — I will leave and Dustin will tell you some we’d love if you fought in. Not that you need our permission.”

Roughly five minutes later, the speaker said, “Let me tell you what I can do for you. Real quick, you need to hear what I want to do for you.”

“I don’t need anything,” Sullivan responded.

[…]

Before Bonnen made his offer, he also disparaged a number of House Democrats. The speaker said state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat, “makes my skin crawl” and is “a piece of shit.” Bonnen, after saying he’s”begging this is all confidential,” then recounted a meeting with the freshman, after which he asked his chief of staff, Gavin Massingill, what he thought about the new House member.

“Massingill said it best,” Bonnen recalled. “Well, his wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The room dissolved in laughter before Bonnen turned to discuss other members of the lower chamber’s minority party.

“We’ve got Michelle Beckley, who’s vile,” he said, referring to the freshman Democrat from Carrollton who unseated a Republican in 2018. He exhorted Sullivan to help target these Democrats in competitive districts.

See here for the previous update. I kind of don’t think there’s going to be any “moving on”, except in the sense that no Democrat has any reason to support Bonnen’s re-election as Speaker now. All well and good if Dems take the House in 2020, and still theoretically possible even if they come up a member or two short. Remember, Bonnen was also targeting ten of his fellow Republicans, who may well want to keep their own options open. It’s hard to imagine a Republican in a Republican-majority House backing a Democrat for Speaker, but at this point I think we can all agree that crazier things have happened.

By the way, in regard to those ten targeted Republicans, the Rick Casey theory that they were in Bonnen’s crosshairs because they opposed a bill to ban local government entities from hiring lobbyists sure looks on the money given this quote from the tape: “My goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Quite the sentiment, no?

Anyway, there’s plenty more out there. The Signal has some clips, the Trib – which is all over this – has choice excerpts, and other outlets like the Chron, the Observer, Texas Monthly, and the Dallas Observer are going to town. If that’s still not enough, go search the #txlege hashtag on Twitter. On a side note, the TDP claimed victory in their lawsuit now that the tape has been released, but there was still a court hearing about it. All that’s left – before the next election, anyway – is for the DPS to finish their investigation. Hope this helps with evidence collection, guys.

How’s that investigation into the Bonnen-MQS kerfuffle going?

About how you’d expect.

Found on the Twitters

If recent history is any indication, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has little to fear from a Texas Rangers investigation into allegations he offered a bribe to a conservative activist.

Investigators who have delved into accusations of impropriety against the state’s most powerful politicians over a 15-year period delivered just five cases that led to convictions. The Rangers inherited the public integrity caseload in 2015 and have yet to secure a conviction of a lawmaker at any level, records reviewed by Hearst Newspapers show.

Experts say these cases are difficult to prove, often caught in the gap between suspicious behavior and violations of law.

“Is this really a corrupt move or was this just some stupid thing that a politician did, or a cop did, or just a normal citizen did? Usually it’s pretty clear,” said Johnny Sutton, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas from 2001 to 2009. “That’s why we tend to look for the real bribes, the cash-in-the-pocket type of activities, which there’s plenty of, even to this day here in Texas.”

[…]

Investigators for the Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit will have to unearth facts to help a committee of lawmakers — and possibly a prosecutor — decide whether Bonnen offered a bribe or committed offenses such as official misconduct or retaliation. But that could be a difficult case to make.

Bonnen says he has no control over whether any group receives press credentials, which guarantee access to the House floor and lawmakers while they debate and vote on bills. The Texas Scorecard, which is affiliated with Empower Texans, has been denied the credentials in the past because Empower Texans makes millions of dollars in political donations, and House rules forbid interest groups from having them. But the credentials also seem to have little, if any, monetary value — one of several potential sticking points in the investigation.

Without having heard the tape, it’s difficult to determine exactly what Bonnen said and what the understanding was, said Buck Wood, a prominent ethics lawyer of more than 50 years. But investigators don’t need a “magic word” from Bonnen to determine whether the offer constitutes a bribe or threat, he said.

“All you have to do is ask someone to do something and, ‘If you do that, I will do something for you,’” said Wood. “You don’t have to say, ‘By the way, I want to give you a bribe.’”

See here and here for the background. The rest of the story goes into the long and often unsuccessful history of pursuing prosecutions against politician peccadilloes, the transfer of the responsibility for such prosecutions from the Travis County DA to local DAs with unfunded assistance from DPS, and so forth. In short, don’t expect much (or for it to happen soon), and never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. That said, with the pending release of the tape, we may at least get a bit more clarity than we have now. The Texas Standard has more.

MQS says he will release the Bonnen tape

Well, well, well.

Hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan said Thursday he will release a secret recording of his controversial meeting with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and another top GOP member next week.

“I have been given the green light to do so by my legal team,” Sullivan wrote in his morning “Texas Minute” email to subscribers. “Later today I will announce that the audio will be released next week.”

Sullivan could share the recording ahead of an already-scheduled House GOP caucus meeting on Oct. 18, which will mark the first official Republican gathering since the head of Empower Texans accused the speaker of planning to politically target members from his own party. That allegation has, for the past couple of months, thrown the 150-member House into turmoil.

[…]

In August, at the request of a House committee, the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit launched an investigation to look into the allegations surrounding that June 12 meeting. It’s been unclear when that investigation could wrap up. Earlier this week, the Rangers were hand-delivering letters to House offices at the Capitol requesting members to provide “any testimony, recordings, documents, records, or other information relevant” to the investigation by Oct. 17.

Before then, on Oct. 15, Sullivan is scheduled to appear in a Travis County court as part of a lawsuit spearheaded by the Texas Democratic Party, which has sued over the recording. A couple of days later, the House Republican Caucus will be in Austin for its annual retreat, which was on the books before Sullivan’s allegations first surfaced.

See here for more on that Travis County court action, and here for previous blogging on this saga. It has always been my belief that MQS would release the tape when and if he decided it was better for him to have it out there than to have people continue to speculate about it. I still believe that, and while it’s possible that the court could have forced him to turn it over, that hasn’t happened yet, and he’s not known for walking away from a fight. So we’ll see what this means. The Texas Signal has more.

Dan Patrick and Michael Quinn Sullivan fighting is the sweetest sound you will ever hear

Inject this directly into my veins.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Michael Quinn Sullivan, a hardline conservative activist long aligned with the head of the Texas Senate, publicly accused each other of “destroying” the Republican Party on Tuesday — seeming to further a rift that has emerged between the two longtime conservative allies.

The dust-up on Twitter started over gun rights, specifically Patrick’s recent support of requiring background checks for private person-to-person gun sales — an idea Sullivan opposes. But the most aggressive sparring came over a secret recording Sullivan has of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen during a June 12 meeting at the Capitol. Sullivan has said he caught Bonnen and one of the speaker’s top allies on tape asking Sullivan to target 10 GOP lawmakers in the 2020 primaries, but Sullivan hasn’t made the recording public.

“BTW, release the tape,” Patrick tweeted at Sullivan. “You are destroying our party.”

To be clear, Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, have forcefully pushed back against Sullivan’s allegations. And both, along with Patrick and other Republicans and Democrats, have also called on Sullivan to release his recording of the meeting. Sullivan has so far declined to do so, though he has allowed certain Republicans to listen to the roughly hour-long audio privately.

[…]

Responding to Patrick, Sullivan tweeted that the lieutenant governor hadn’t yet listened to the audio himself — and suggested that Patrick may be “too scared to make a moral judgment without a poll.”

“What’s actually destroying the GOP is moral cowardice in which elected officials are unwilling to address the unethical behavior of other politicians,” Sullivan tweeted.

See more of the thread here. Read it, share it, enjoy it. As an old beer commercial once said, it just doesn’t get any better than this. The Texas Signal has more.

As the Bonnen turns

Drip, drip, drip

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

In the hours after hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan exploded his political bombshell in late July — alleging House Speaker Dennis Bonnen wanted to target some of his own GOP members in 2020 — the lower chamber’s top Republican lawmaker made a series of phone calls to assure his flock that Sullivan was lying.

“This is Dennis,” the speaker said to a House member in a 22-second voicemail soon after Sullivan lobbed his allegations. “Hopefully, you know better than to believe anything Michael Quinn Sullivan would bother to say. … I did meet with him to tell him he should not campaign against any Republican in the primary — um, obviously the opposite of what he’s trying to present.”

Now that voicemail, obtained by The Texas Tribune, is giving more ammunition to critics who say it was Bonnen — not Sullivan — who has lied and misled the people who elevated him to the powerful elected position he could be in danger of losing.

Such a response from the speaker in the aftermath of Sullivan’s allegations, multiple members say, has prompted some to wonder whether the chamber will ever fully trust Bonnen again — or if the damage that’s been done is simply beyond repair. For House speakers, who owe their job not to nameless Texas voters but instead to a few dozen fellow members they know well, trust is the coin of the realm in the lower chamber.

At least five members on the alleged 10-person political target list were told either by Bonnen or by someone on his team that Sullivan’s allegations were downright false in the hours after the news broke, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

In most cases, Bonnen batted down the allegations and questioned the credibility of Sullivan, who many state lawmakers already loathed thanks to his track record of criticizing — and, oftentimes, spending against — members in his own party.

In a statement to the Tribune late Wednesday, Bonnen’s office renewed the speaker’s call for Sullivan to release his secret recording of a June meeting from which his allegations stem.

“There is significant context missing from reports, namely, the hour long recording that has been strategically withheld from the public despite repeated calls from the Speaker, state leaders, and objective journalists for its release,” said Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary. “The Speaker believes that Members are owed the opportunity to draw their own conclusions based on the full context of the conversation — not the slow leak of cherry-picked information that has been used to fuel speculation.”

Since his immediate denial though, according to those familiar with the matter, the speaker hasn’t spoken with at least a few of those members who were allegedly mentioned during that June 12 meeting at the Texas Capitol between Bonnen, another top House Republican and Sullivan.

And though Bonnen has since apologized to members for saying “terrible things” during the meeting, he hasn’t directly addressed Sullivan’s allegations about a 10-member list — which has fed into a frustration that’s been simmering for almost two months among a broader coalition of Republicans.

“He’ll deny, deny, deny, a little more will come out, then he will dial back his denial and get a little more technical about it,” one person who works closely with multiple Republicans on the alleged target list told the Tribune. “It’s a constant walking back of previous details.”

There’s more, so read the rest. As a reminder, all of the reasons why Bonnen and others want MQS to release the full recording are also exactly the reasons why he won’t. MQS is in it for himself, as he always is. You can’t overstate how big a self-own by Bonnen it is to make the loathsome and sleazy Michael Quinn Sullivan look like a truth teller.

On a side note, we’ve been wondering from the beginning why Bonnen would target these particular members of the House, since they included seeming allies. Rick Casey puts forth a theory:

What did the 10 on Bonnen’s would-be hit list have in common? They all voted against one of Bonnen’s pet bills, a measure that would have made it illegal for cities, counties, school districts, and other local government agencies to hire lobbyists to represent them at the state legislature and in Washington.

It’s a very bad bill that had been pushed for years by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. Speaker Straus had made sure it didn’t see the light of day in previous sessions, but Bonnen signed on as a co-author.

The only Bexar County legislator on the hit list was, somewhat ironically, Straus’s successor, Allison, to whom Bonnen had made an in-kind contribution of $20,000 earlier this year. While he was a rookie in the 86th Legislature, Allison is no stranger to local government. He has served on both the Alamo Heights school board and on the VIA Metropolitan Transit board. Like Straus, he is not an ideologue. He is conservative, but he wants government to work.

Bonnen’s bill would not only have prohibited local governments from hiring lobbyists, but it also would have barred them from belonging to associations that hire lobbyists. So the school board would not have been able to belong, at a very modest cost, to the Texas Association of School Boards, which lobbies on behalf of the more than 1,000 school boards in the state. Likewise the City of San Antonio would have had to quit the Texas Municipal League unless it fired its lobbyists, considerably reducing its value to its members.

[…]

What’s stunning is that Bonnen would react by secretly asking a sworn enemy to do something he himself had so publicly criticized – working against incumbents. Being so vindictive against those who vote for the interests of their constituents rather than acceding to the speaker’s desires is, ironically, what led to the downfall of former Speaker Tom Craddick.

It’s an interesting hypothesis and Casey is the first person I’ve seen identify a common thread among the Bonnen Ten. That doesn’t mean this is the reason, but until someone comes up with a better explanation I’m willing to go with it. Every way you look at this, it’s such a bad look for Bonnen.

Pretty much everybody wants MQS to release the Bonnen recordings

From Twitter:

Rep. Stephanie Klick is the current Chair of the House Republican Caucus, having replaced Rep. Dustin Burrows after he resigned from that post. Burrows and several of his friends in high places, such as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, have also called for the release of the tape. So have some unspecified number of House Republicans. I’m sure more will add on the longer this drags out.

And I appreciate their efforts. It’s very much in the public interest for the full recording to be released. As Scott Braddock notes in an interview with Chad Hasty, “if Empower Texas really is media, which they’re suing to try to be, then they ought to act like media and publish the findings of what they say is their investigative journalism.”

All of this is unquestionably true. It’s also unquestionably true that what MQS is the rights of being classified as “media”, but without any of the responsibilities. This is when Rep. Klick and others find out that what MQS cares about is himself, and that releasing the tape would be in conflict with his own interest of keeping everyone attention on himself. So again, while I appreciate the gesture, I’m pretty sure it’s going to go unrewarded. Thanks for trying, though. The DMN has more.

The Bonnen-MQS saga makes the Times

Gotta love it when our little intramural squabbles go national.

Found on the Twitters

In Texas, they are calling it the case of “The Speaker and the Creeper.”

The political imbroglio started last month, when Michael Quinn Sullivan, a conservative pit bull who routinely antagonizes establishment politicians, accused the Republican House speaker, Dennis Bonnen, of offering his organization coveted House media credentials if it would work to defeat 10 incumbent House members from Mr. Bonnen’s own party.

Mr. Bonnen denied it, and the bombshell was initially greeted with some skepticism. Why would one of the state’s top politicians court a back-room deal — to undermine his own bench — with a man Texas Monthly recently described as “one of the biggest snakes in Texas politics”?

Except there was a tape.

Now Mr. Sullivan’s accusations are at the heart of the biggest scandal to hit Texas in years, one that is throwing the state’s Republican-led House of Representatives into turmoil and threatening to bring down the speaker.

[…]

The big question many are trying to answer now in the Texas capital is why Mr. Bonnen would have approached a group about which he has been openly dismissive.

After Mr. Sullivan criticized the latest “amazing LOSER #Texlege session” on Twitter, Mr. Bonnen brushed it off. “They speak only for themselves,” he told reporters. “They aren’t worth responding to. The reality of it is, if we passed every pro-life bill filed in the history of the state they would say we have not done enough. You will never please or appease those folks and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying.”

That was at the end of May. Then came the meeting in the speaker’s office, in June. Mr. Sullivan said he was expecting a “tongue-lashing” for not supporting what he called the “lackluster results” of the legislative session, but instead, according to his account, he was asked by the House speaker to refrain from further criticizing the just-ended legislative session, leave a select group of Republicans alone and target 10 others.

In exchange, Mr. Sullivan said, he was offered press credentials for Texas Scorecard, the media arm of Empower Texans — though the House speaker has since pointed out he would not have the authority to grant such credentials.

Cal Jillson, a political-science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Mr. Bonnen may have been seeking to soften the “enmity” between Republican factions and head off “incoming fire” from Empower Texans and affiliated groups in the future. “What Sullivan did was lay a trap for him,” Professor Jillson said.

In a July 29 press statement before Mr. Sullivan revealed that he had taped the conversations, Mr. Bonnen said that he had “one simple reason for taking the meeting — I saw it as an opportunity to protect my Republican colleagues and prevent us from having to waste millions of dollars defending ourselves against Empower Texans’ destructive primary attacks, as we have had to do in the past several cycles.”

Mr. Bonnen has said he supported the Texas Rangers investigation and has called on Mr. Sullivan to release the statement “in its entirety.”

Texas is no stranger to scandal, and a few old hands around the Capitol still remember the granddaddy of them all — the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal of 1970-72, which centered on quid pro quo stock purchases that resulted in charges against more than two dozen current and former state officials and led to a wholesale turnover in state government.

The latest investigation, which is becoming known as “Bonnenghazi” or “Bonnghazi,” will determine whether the current speaker hangs on to power or is forced to the sideline, further casting Republicans in disarray in a race for a new leader and perhaps even giving an opening to Democrats in their perennial efforts to regain control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades.

The question of what exactly Bonnen was doing talking to MQS in the first place remains the big mystery to me. None of it makes sense, including the list of alleged targets. I’m happy to continue to stoke the flames on this, but I think we would all be well advised to maintain some skepticism until such time as the full tapes come to light. The odds that MQS has been bullshitting us all this whole time via selective editing or other trickery remain non-trivial. Bonnen deserves a heaping pile of criticism for his actions, but that doesn’t mean we should believe anything MQS says.

Rep. Dustin Burrows steps down as House GOP Caucus Chair

Noted for the record.

Rep. Dustin Burrows

State Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock has resigned as chair of the Texas House GOP Caucus, according to two people familiar with the matter. Burrows’ departure comes amid allegations that he and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen planned to politically target members from their own party in the 2020 primaries — and it marks the largest fallout yet since the accusations surfaced.

Burrows has served in the House since 2015. His resignation is expected to be announced to House Republicans sometime Friday. State Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, who serves as vice chair of the caucus, will be elevated to chair.

Burrows has not yet publicly responded to the accusations made by Michael Quinn Sullivan, a hardline conservative activist who heads Empower Texans. Over the past few weeks, a number of House Republicans have privately expressed frustration that their caucus leader was largely remaining silent on the accusations made against him.

In a statement, Bonnen said that Burrows “was a strong leader for the caucus.” He added, “I respect his decision and I remain committed to strengthening our majority.”

Normally, this is super-deep Inside Baseball stuff, of interest to almost no one outside of the people who actually inhabit the Capitol. But these are not normal times, and Burrows is enmeshed in the current unpleasantness surrounding Speaker Dennis Bonnen and professional troglodyte Michael Quinn Sullivan. The fact that Burrows has maintained such strict radio silence is either a tribute to his loyalty to Bonnen or a measure of how deep the doo-doo is. Some day, perhaps we’ll find out which is the case.

Bonnen blinks

OMG.

Found on the Twitters

Speaker Dennis Bonnen on Tuesday apologized to his 149 colleagues for “terrible things” he said about some of them, just hours after more details emerged about slurs against fellow House members uttered by him and his chief GOP sidekick Rep. Dustin Burrows.

“It was a mistake,” Bonnen wrote of his and Burrows’ June meeting with longtime conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.

“I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally,” Bonnen said in an email obtained by The Dallas Morning News. “You know me well enough to know I say things with no filter.”

Bonnen, whose hold on power has been rocked by Sullivan’s disclosure of the June meeting in Bonnen’s Capitol office, stopped short of admitting he has lied. Bonnen said he plans to meet individually in coming days and weeks with House members.

“I ask for your forgiveness, and I hope to rebuild your trust,” he wrote.

[…]

Bonnen acted Tuesday afternoon, more than five hours after Direct Action Texas, a grassroots conservative group critical of state GOP leaders, provided new and damning details of Bonnen and Burrows’ alleged targeting of incumbent House Republicans in a blog post.

On the Fort Worth-based group’s website, [Daniel] Greer, a former colleague of Sullivan’s, quoted Bonnen as labeling certain Democratic colleagues as “awful” and “vile,” while he said Burrows, the House GOP caucus’ chairman, derided fellow Republican Rep. Keith Bell of Forney as a “dumb freshman.”

Richardson Democratic freshman Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos “is called awful, [Houston Democratic freshman] Rep Jon Rosenthal makes the Speaker’s skin crawl … and [Carrollton Democratic freshman] Rep. Michelle Beckley is vile,” according to Greer’s account of a June 12 meeting between the two GOP House leaders and Sullivan. Sullivan secretly made the audio recording, and Greer wrote that he listened to it Sunday.

While The News could not independently confirm the account, Nacogdoches GOP Rep. Travis Clardy, who was named among the list of 10 targets and has listened to the recording, told the newspaper that the new account was mostly in line with what he’d heard.

As some House members, including Bonnen, were attending a national legislative conference in Nashville, Tenn., many were said to be discussing the Sullivan affair.

As texts and phone calls about the Greer post proliferated, Bonnen issued the apology.

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the Bonnen letter. There’s a lot here, so I’m going to summarize:

– My initial, hot-take reaction is that I don’t see any way forward for Dennis Bonnen to remain as Speaker. I’m not certain he can stay in the House. He’s going to have to smooth an awful lot of ruffled feathers, that’s for sure.

– But then, if Rep. Jon Rosenthal is typical – and according to Glenn Smith, he may be more typical than I’d have thought – maybe he will survive. Though I still don’t see how he can be Speaker again. Maybe that’s just me.

– By all accounts, Dennis Bonnen is a smart guy. And yet, this was galactically stupid of him in every regard. I have no idea what he hoped to gain, what he had against the members in question, why he let his guard down around a known enemy like MQS, all of it. Maybe someday he’ll spill his guts to a reporter to explain himself, but until then, boy howdy was this dumb.

– At least now we understand why Dustin Burrows has been hiding these past few days. I wouldn’t want to explain my role in this clusterfudge, either.

– As a Democrat, I almost can’t believe our luck. I do wish all of this were coming out later in the cycle, but this is going to leave a mark. I generally downplay the long-term effect of hard-fought primaries. There’s plenty of time to regroup and focus on the common goals. Here, I don’t think forgive and forget are in the cards. MQS being MQS, he’s sure not going to let people forget.

– Even after all this, it still feels like there’s another shoe to drop. At this point, all those calls to release the full tape may now work in MQS’ favor. I’m sure he will continue playing it for more people, and we’ll keep getting reactions from them. Who knows how long this will drag out?

So yeah, let’s keep that popcorn coming. The Trib has more.

UPDATE: This guy, clearly a Republican, is tracking statements of House members accepting Bonnen’s apology.

It’s all about the tape

You want to hear the recording of that conversation between Speaker Dennis Bonnen and MQS in which Bonnen supposedly trashed a bunch of Republican legislators? You can’t hear it unless MQS wants you to.

Found on the Twitters

For the past week, Texas Republicans, Democrats and even Speaker Dennis Bonnen have called for the full release of audio that allegedly captures him attacking members of his party and making crude remarks about House colleagues.

But now some of those who listened to the audio are calling for the full recordings to be withheld from the public.

The fear? Mutually assured destruction.

“Any representative calling for this to be released in its unredacted, unedited form hasn’t heard it, because if you had heard it you wouldn’t want it to be released,” said Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, who listened to the recordings last week.

Toth is among at least a half dozen people who say they’ve listened to the full audio of a conversation captured by conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan. He has roiled the state Capitol with accusations that Bonnen and House GOP Caucus chairman Dustin Burrows asked Sullivan to target a list of 10 Republican legislators ahead of next March’s primary.

Six people who say they listened to the audio have confirmed Sullivan’s side of the story, despite Bonnen saying publicly that Sullivan is lying. Sullivan last week began allowing Republican lawmakers, party leaders and conservative activists listen to the audio in the presence of his lawyer.

[…]

The list of supposed Republican targets includes Reps. Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Steve Allison of San Antonio, Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Kyle Kacal and John Raney of College Station, Stan Lambert of Abilene, and Phil Stephenson of Wharton.

From that list, Parker and Clardy have told news outlets they have listened to the recording, but it’s unclear how many others have listened to it. Parker declined further comment to the insider newsletter Quorum Report. Clardy called the comments on the recording “repugnant” and said it was “the most disappointing thing I’ve ever seen.”

Sullivan has denied Democrats a chance to listen to the audio, even those who he says were mentioned by name. He has also denied requests from news outlets to hear the recording.

See here for the previous update. Democrats of course want the full recording to be released, as do some Republicans, but MQS is gonna do what MQS is gonna do, and as long as only a select few get to hear it, it keeps his name squarely in the news. What more could an egotist like him want? All I know is I haven’t run out of popcorn yet.

Your daily Bonnen-MQS update

I’m just sittin’ here watching the wheels go round and round…

Found on the Twitters

After a week of denying that he asked an arch-conservative to target 10 fellow Republicans in the next primary election, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen challenged Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan to release a secretly-recorded audio of their meeting.

But three House members who have reportedly listened to the recording said the speaker is not being truthful about the alleged list of GOP targets, rocking the Texas Republican party as it prepares for its most challenging election cycle in decades.

“It’s pretty shocking. I’ll be honest with you. It is,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. “There’s just frankly vomiting of the mouth, if you will, by these individuals and you can’t help but just kinda cringe by some of the stuff I heard … It’s beneath the office, for sure.”

Stickland, a darling of Empower Texans who is not running for re-election, said Bonnen offered media credentials to Sullivan during their June 12 conversation. Stickland said he heard on the audio that Bonnen then sweetened the deal by offering to deny media credentials to political reporter Scott Braddock of the Quorum Report. The credentials give journalists access to the floor of the Texas House when the Legislature is in session, and provide better access to lawmakers for interviews and follow-up questions.

[…]

Two other Republican lawmakers who have heard the audio have offered fewer details about what they heard, although Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, confirmed the audio reveals that Burrows gave Sullivan the names of members who could be challenged in their primary elections without repercussion.

Clardy, who is on the list, said there are things on the recording that will be hurtful to some members, but each representative will have to determine for themselves “what it means and how to take it and whether they will be able to move past it.”

For his part, Clardy said he has already moved past it and wants to talk to Bonnen and Burrows, who he has yet to speak with to since news of the meeting broke last week.

See here, here, and here for the background. Let’s hear from Scott Braddock about this:

Here’s Ross Ramsey:

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen isn’t cooked, yet — but the water is boiling.

The compact between a speaker and the members of the Texas House who elect him goes like this: Protect the members from the outside world (and from fratricidal colleagues), and in return, you get the title, the fancy corner office, the apartment in the state Capitol, and the gavel and the dais when the Legislature is in session.

Protection for power. It’s not a complicated transaction.

And the threat to that compact is why Bonnen is facing a crisis seven months after winning the job. Accused of selling out 10 of his fellow Republicans to a political operative, he’s now pitting his word with that activist threatening to make public a recording of their conversation.

[…]

As more members hear the recording — assuming they’re hearing a clean and complete rendition — they’ll compare that to what Bonnen has been telling them for the last week. If the stories don’t match, the speaker — this is the gentlest way of putting it — will have to explain the discrepancies.

In a trust-based relationship between a leader and the followers who elected him, that’s perilous.

A speaker who doesn’t have the trust of his own members isn’t in a secure spot. And one caught working directly against those members is cooked.

Plus two more Trib stories. Never let it be said that MQS doesn’t know how to get his name in the papers.

It is certainly possible that Bonnen, normally a pretty astute fellow, was dumb enough to talk to MQS and say these things he supposedly said. I don’t know why he’d do that, I don’t see what was in it for him, but maybe he was just saying the quiet parts out loud and forgot that he was dealing with a fundamentally dishonest broker. That’s the real key here, that no one with any integrity of their own should ever believe a word MQS says. If he’s got the goods on Bonnen, then put that recording out on the Internet for all of us to hear. I don’t care one way or the other what happens to Bonnen, but to me this is analogous to all of those “sting” tapes that grifters like James O’Keefe have put out over the years, supposedly showing people they don’t like saying or doing horrible things. Except that at a closer look, the whole thing falls apart, as the tape in question was heavily and dishonestly edited to make the sting subject look bad. I wouldn’t put that past MQS at all, but again, the answer here is simple. He says he’s got the goods. Let the rest of us hear it for ourselves. If MQS himself doesn’t also want that, we should wonder why.

I just can’t quit the Bonnen-MQS squabble

How much popcorn is too much? Asking for a friend.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

A hardline conservative activist who has accused Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, of offering his group long-denied media access to the lower chamber in exchange for politically targeting 10 GOP lawmakers says he has a recording of their conversation — and suggested he may soon release it to the public. Bonnen has denied Sullivan’s characterization of the June 12 meeting.

“Speaker Bonnen and Rep. [Dustin] Burrows must recant their false claims. All of them. Immediately,” Michael Quinn Sullivan wrote Wednesday. “If they do not, I believe I will be obligated to release the recording—in whole or in part, I haven’t decided yet—so as to set straight the record they have tried to contort.”

Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, made the statement on his group’s Texas Scorecard website. Sullivan last week accused Bonnen and Burrows of offering Sullivan’s organization House media credentials if the well-funded political action committee he heads targeted 10 Republican members in the 2020 primaries. According to Sullivan, Bonnen left the room before Burrows handed over a list of the 10 members. Burrows, a Lubbock Republican, chairs the House GOP caucus.

In an email to House Republicans the day after those allegations surfaced, Bonnen disputed Sullivan’s version of events. And in a statement released Monday, Bonnen said that “at no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members.” Burrows has remained silent publicly since Sullivan first made his allegations.

See here and here for the background. Everyone knows that MQS is a lying liar, but folks from Ross Ramsey to Christopher Hooks to Erica Greider are baffled by Bonnen’s weak denials and Burrows’ disappearing act. Hooks notes the claim of a recording and calls it “a potentially mortal threat to Bonnen’s speakership”. I only wish this were all happening about 14 months from now.

UPDATE: Oh, yeah.

“Mr. Sullivan, release your recording. Release it in its entirety,” the speaker said in a statement late Wednesday.

Keep at it, boys.

UPDATE: More, more, more.

Two members of the Texas House who listened Wednesday night to a recording of a meeting that has shaken up the Legislature refuted House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s denials that he offered a list of 10 GOP representatives for a hardline conservative group to politically target.

“What I derived from the audio tape — it’s very clear — is that Speaker Bonnen was not truthful about a list not being provided,” state Rep. Steve Toth, a Republican from The Woodlands, told The Texas Tribune after he listened to a recording of Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, visiting Bonnen’s office June 12.

State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, who is said to be on the alleged list, later told The Dallas Morning News that what he heard is “consistent with” what Sullivan has alleged.

Please never stop feuding over this.

Speaker Bonnen

It’s official.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Talking about dreams, honesty and courage, the members of the Texas House unanimously elected Rep. Dennis Bonnen House speaker, making him one of the most powerful Republicans in the state.

Members of the House voted 147-0 in favor of Bonnen.

His election was expected after announcing he had secured the nomination less than a week after the November election. Bonnen, who has been a member of the House for more than 20 years, drew no opponents for the position. More than a half-dozen other candidates vying for the position dropped out in early November.

Basically, once Bonnen was in for Speaker, he went from zero to 60 in a heartbeat. The only question was whether someone would make an out-of-the-blue protest vote, or vote “Present”, for whatever the reason. Given the three current vacancies, the answer to that is a clear No. So congratulations, Speaker Bonnen. This is a good way to start.

In 2017, one of the most talked about bills in Texas would have required transgender people to use bathrooms matching the sex on their birth certificates, spurring a flood of protests at the capitol as civil rights groups and business leaders rallied against it. Though the bill did not pass, this year hardly anyone is talking about another push for it.

New Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen wants it to stay that way.

“I would be very discouraged if a distraction of that type derailed the opportunity of significant school finance reform or property tax reform,” the newly elected speaker told Hearst Newspapers.

[…]

Since [last session], [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick has said the battle over bathroom legislation is “settled.” The lawmaker who carried the bill in 2017, Republican Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, lost his re-election. And [Gov. Greg] Abbott said while running for re-election that a bathroom bill is “not on my agenda” but declined to say whether he’d sign such a bill if it reached his desk.

I mean, we should all cast a wary eye at the reform proposals, but the sentiment is appreciated nonetheless. Dan Patrick wasn’t even in Austin for Opening Day, and boy howdy is the quiet nice. The bathroom bill may be on the back burner, but it will never truly go away as long as the horrible lying liars who have been pushing it continue to do so. The Trib has more.

It sure looks like Dennis Bonnen will be the next Speaker

The Speaker’s race is over before it started, basically.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen announced Monday that he has support from 109 members to become the next speaker of the Texas House. That number, if it holds, is more than enough votes for him to win the gavel.

The Angleton Republican’s announcement comes after four other speaker candidates — Republicans Tan Parker, Four Price and Phil King, along with Democrat Eric Johnson — dropped out of the race in the last 48 hours. All four endorsed Bonnen upon removing their names from consideration. Bonnen said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol on Monday afternoon that his team plans to release the list of 109 members supporting his bid soon.

“We are here to let you know the speaker’s race is over, and the Texas House is ready to go to work,” said Bonnen, who was flanked by at least two members of the hardline conservative Texas House Freedom Caucus — Jeff Leach of Plano and Mike Lang of Granbury — and state Rep. Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican and former speaker, among other Republican and Democrats. When asked by reporters what the House’s No. 1 priority would be during the 2019 legislative session, Bonnen suggested school finance would be at the top of members’ lists.

[…]

During Monday’s press conference, Bonnen dumped cold water on rumors that there would be no Democratic chairs under his leadership — adding that he would adhere to the House tradition of being a “bipartisan chamber.”

“We are excited to bring the house together, to be unified and to do good work for the people of Texas,” he said.

See here and here for some background. All of the other Speaker wannabes have since withdrawn and gotten behind Bonnen as well. The dominoes really started to fall when Rep. Four Price dropped out on Sunday and endorsed Bonnen. Then the tweets started flying, with a 3 PM press conference announced, and Democratic Rep. Eric Johnson announced his withdrawal and endorsement of Bonnen an hour or so ahead of that, and the next thing you know Rep. Bonnen is announcing his 109 supporters and getting cautious kudos from Rep. Chris Turner, the House Dem Caucus leader. There may still be some bumps in the road from those who had previously committed to other candidates, but honestly that’s a bump on a log. Your average Alabama football game has more suspense about who’s going to win at this point. Look to see who gets named to Committee chairs, and then we’ll see how spicy this session may be.

Now how about that Speaker’s race?

It’s a little different now.

Rep. Eric Johnson

Democrats picked up 12 state House seats and are now confident they’ll have a stronger hand in electing the next leader. It’s an outlook even some Republicans agree with, although they’ll only say so privately. But while the GOP’s 95-55 stronghold shrank, they still appear to hold 83 seats — comfortably above the 76 votes a candidate needs to succeed retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

“Election night strengthened the Democratic caucus and a renewed commitment to taking our time,” said state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin. “We have time to be thoughtful. We mattered at 55, and we matter even more now at 67.”

But of the six declared Republican speaker candidates, two told The Texas Tribune that the state of the race hasn’t changed much — despite the fact that their party lost a considerable number of seats.

Republican Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, who launched his bid in August, said he didn’t think Tuesday’s results will impact his party’s role in determining who will replace Straus on the dais — and that he still has a “viable path forward” after Tuesday.

“I didn’t lose any supporters [Tuesday] night, by my calculus,” he told the Tribune. “I think it is going to prove to be helpful to me not because we lost Republican seats, but because we’re bringing in a new energy.”

Phil King of Weatherford, who filed to run for speaker before Straus announced his retirement, said the race will still be settled exclusively within the 150-member lower chamber even if it does have a new balance of political power. And King pointed to an upcoming GOP caucus meeting scheduled for Dec. 1, when members are set to rally around their preferred speaker candidate ahead of the full floor vote in January.

[…]

Rep. Eric Johnson of Dallas, the only Democrat to throw his hat in the ring to replace Straus, is bullish that his party’s 12-member gain means that a lawmaker from the minority party can win the speakership.

“My perspective on this is pretty straight-forward: Democrats should stop being defeatist in their mentality and start thinking about the speaker’s race in terms of us sticking together — we have 67 votes and are nine away from the majority,” Johnson said. “If we start thinking in terms of finding nine Republicans who will join with us, we can change the conversation from ‘which Republican is it going to be’ to whether we can elect one of our own as speaker. And there’s no reason we shouldn’t be thinking that way.”

I think the odds of Speaker Eric Johnson are extremely slim, but as a matter of strategy, Rep. Johnson has it right. The more united the Dems are, the more influence they will have. As the story notes, some Dems have met with Dennis Bonnen, which fuels my speculation that he was recruited by the Straus disciples for the purpose of garnering enough Dem support to win the job. That said, as the story also notes, the smaller Republican caucus means the number of them needed to form a majority and declare their choice is smaller. Assuming they all agree to support their majority-of-the-majority choice, of course. I suspect there will be plenty more drama and intrigue before it’s all over. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Four Price has dropped his bid to be Speaker and has endorsed Dennis Bonnen. I didn’t see this in time for this post. I’ll post about that story tomorrow.

Zerwas out, Bonnen in for Speaker

A harbinger of intrigue.

Rep. John Zerwas

State Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican, has withdrawn from the race for speaker of the Texas House, he confirmed to The Texas Tribune on Sunday evening.

“I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to engage with the members of the House. The honest conversations are critical to the relationships I have, and I am honored to work with such principled leaders,” he said in a statement to the Tribune. “While I believe that I could lead the House through a successful 2019 session, it has come time for me to end my bid for Speaker and wholly focus on writing the budget for the 2020-2021 biennium.”

His departure comes amid an effort among roughly 40 GOP House members to draft state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, into the race. Bonnen did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Texas Tribune.

On Sunday night, that group of 40 members was scheduled to gather in Austin to discuss recruiting him for the job. Bonnen previously had told The Texas Tribune in May that he was not interested in running for the top slot in the lower chamber. The Tribune was told Sunday night that Bonnen was not at the meeting.

There are still a lot of Speaker wannabes. Zerwas was the first among them, declaring his intent to run right after Joe Straus announced his departure. My speculation when I read this was that the various Straus-like candidates have concluded their best move is to consolidate behind one candidate that they think can win, someone who Democrats and enough Republicans can support, so as to pre-empt the non-Straus contenders. For that to happen, to assuage egos and whatnot, the compromise/consensus candidate would have to be someone who is not currently a candidate. And thus it was:

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said Tuesday he is officially running for speaker of the Texas House — two days after an Oct. 28 meeting in Austin, where roughly 40 GOP House members gathered to discuss recruiting him for the job.

“Throughout my career in the House, I have always emphasized my respect for the institution as a whole as well as the unique position each member has to serve their district,” Bonnen said in a statement. “I look forward to the many conversations to come with members across the state. My desire, which I believe I share with the vast majority of my colleagues, is that this process come to a conclusion with a House ready to do the people’s business with strength, resolve, and unity in the 86th Legislative Session.”

Clearly, they were sufficiently persuasive. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is more or less how Straus emerged as a contender for Speaker in the first place – the dozen or so renegade Republicans who were publicly gunning for Tom Craddick emerged from a meeting with him as their exemplar, and after that it was all a matter of counting noses. We’ll see if it works.

Four makes seven

Rep. Four Price files for Speaker, making him the sixth Republican and seventh member to do so.

Rep. Four Price

State Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, filed Thursday for speaker of the Texas House, making him the sixth Republican to enter an already crowded race to replace the retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

“Having successfully worked for the last four sessions with my colleagues from across our state to pass major legislation and focus on issues of importance to all Texans, I am eager to seek this leadership position in the Texas House of Representatives,” he said in a statement. “Looking towards the future, I truly believe the Texas House will play a leading role in making the decisions that keep Texas on the path to prosperity.”

Price enters a speaker’s race that already includes Republicans Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford, John Zerwas of Richmond, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches and Drew Darby of San Angelo, as well as Democrat Eric Johnson of Dallas.

As with the other Republicans, I have no official opinion on Rep. Price, though I will note that he was endorsed by the Texas Parent PAC when he first ran for office. Honestly, at this point I’d rather see another villain type declare for Speaker, as that would help divide the bad-guy vote some more. The goal here is for the next Speaker to need Democratic help to get there, so the more division on that side, the better.

Ron Reynolds reports to jail

We’ll see how long a year lasts.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

State Rep. Ron Reynolds has turned himself in to authorities in Montgomery County to begin serving his year-long jail sentence.

Reynolds, a Democrat from Missouri City, was convicted in 2015 on misdemeanor charges for illegally soliciting clients for his personal injury practice and sentenced to a year in jail. He was out on an appellate bond for years while his case wound through the appeals process.

On Friday morning, he had a hearing in Montgomery County after all his appeals were denied, and he turned himself in, according to a court clerk. He has not resigned his seat and state law does not force resignations for misdemeanor convictions, meaning it’s likely he’ll be in jail when the next session of the Texas Legislature convenes in January.

Reynolds has won several elections since his conviction, including his primary in March. He faces no opposition in the general election this November.

The exact length of time he will spend behind bars, however, remains uncertain. Though he was sentenced to one year, county jails will often allow “good time credit” which can drastically cut time served in some cases. Joel Daniels, the main prosecutor in Reynolds’ trial and chief of the white collar division in the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, said that decision is left up to the sheriff.

“The sheriff can have him serve day-for-day, he can give him credit for two days for every day that he serves or three days,” he said. “It’s really just on the discretion of the sheriff and it depends on Mr. Reynolds’ behavior.”

If Reynolds served only one day of every three of his sentence, he could conceivably get out of jail just one or two days before the next legislative session starts on Jan. 8.

[…]

On Friday, a Texas Democratic Party leader said Reynolds was taking responsibility for his actions.

“No politician is above the law,” said Manny Garcia, the party’s deputy executive director. “Today, Rep. Reynolds took responsibility for his actions and is facing the consequences, when will indicted Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton do the same?”

Paxton is facing a criminal trial for securities fraud charges, but has not been convicted of a crime.

Garcia said he had “no further comment at this time” when asked if the party saw any need for Reynolds to resign or face disciplinary action. State Rep. Chris Turner, head of the House Democratic Caucus, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

See here for the previous update. You know where I stand on this, so I will just note that there’s an excellent chance Reynolds will be absent when the next Speaker is chosen. Given how Democrats are working to be in position to affect the election of the next Speaker, being shy a member diminishes their influence, even if only at the margins. I sympathize with Manny Garcia, as the TDP has zero power to make Reynolds do anything, but until Ken Paxton is convicted of something, this is not an apt comparison. Reynolds should have taken responsibility for his actions a long time ago. And judging by the press release I got in my inbox shortly after this news hit, the Republicans are already making hay about it, as well they should. We wouldn’t be in this position now if Reynolds had stepped down or declined to run again this year.

And then there were six

Five Republicans for Speaker, six in total.

Rep. Drew Darby

State Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, filed on Friday to run for speaker of the Texas House.

“After prayerful consideration, discussions with my family, and at the urging of my House colleagues, today I filed paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission to start a speaker campaign for the 86th Legislative Session,” Darby said in an emailed statement. “In the coming weeks, I plan to visit with every House member to discuss the priorities of their district and how the Texas House of Representatives can work together to put forward good policies to keep Texas the number one state to live, work and raise a family.” 
 


Darby, who’s been in the House since 2007, joins four other Republicans in vying for the top slot in the lower chamber: state Reps. Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches and John Zerwas of Richmond. Dallas Democrat Eric Johnson has also declared he is running.

[…]

When the Texas House convenes for its legislative session in January, picking the next House speaker will be one of its first acts. Ahead of the vote from the full chamber, House Republicans last year agreed to hold a non-binding vote to pick a speaker candidate within the GOP caucus. And ahead of this year’s primaries, the Republican Party of Texas urged candidates and incumbents running for House seats to sign a form pledging to back whoever the caucus picks as their speaker candidate. Parker and King have signed the form, while Darby, Clardy and Zerwas have not.

See here for some background. What I said about Rep. Clardy’s candidacy holds true for Rep. Darby’s. Not sure how some of these guys will distinguish themselves from their rivals, but that’s their problem.

One more for Speaker

And then there were five.

Rep. Travis Clardy

State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, filed Monday morning to run for speaker of the Texas House, making him the fourth Republican to throw his hat in the ring in the race to succeed retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

“We’re coming out of the summer and I think it’s time we get serious about the political process,” Clardy told The Texas Tribune. “I think it’s more important than ever that we make a decision as a House to pick our leadership, and be prepared to start the 86th Legislature with a strong, positive step and a vision for the future.”

[…]

He enters a speaker’s race that already includes Democrat Eric Johnson of Dallas and three Republicans: Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford and John Zerwas of Richmond.

Ahead of the next regular session, House Republicans agreed to select a speaker in their caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor. Prior to the March 6 primaries, House Republicans pushed incumbents and candidates to sign a form promising to ultimately support the caucus pick. While Parker and King have signed the form, Zerwas and Clardy have not. Clardy told the Tribune Monday, however, that he does intend to vote with his party next session on who should succeed Straus.

“I’m a lifelong Republican and I was at the convention, but that pledge was originally prepared before we did the caucus vote. It’s kind of redundant,” Clardy told the Tribune. “I already voted with the caucus to support a Republican nominee out of our caucus to be the next speaker. It’s kind of backwards to pledge to do something I’ve already done.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t have an opinion on Rep. Clardy, who told his hometown newspaper shortly after Straus announced his retirement that he’d be interested in the Speaker gig. As I said in that first link above, the question is whether Republicans can coalesce around a single candidate so that they can elect him (all the candidates so far are male) without needing any dirty Democratic support, or if their divisions are too deep and whoever comes crawling to the Dems first wins the prize. The more Dems there are, the fewer Republicans there are, the less room the Republicans have for dissent, the more likely that latter scenario. So basically, as with most of my other entries the past few months, the message is to get out and vote, and make sure everyone you know votes. It’s not just about Congress, after all.

Rep. Eric Johnson declares for Speaker

It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Rep. Eric Johnson

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, filed Wednesday to run for speaker of the Texas House, making him the first Democrat to enter the race to succeed retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

In a statement sent to The Texas Tribune, Johnson pointed out that, if elected, he would be the first speaker under the age of 45 since former House Speaker Price Daniel Jr. in 1973 and the first person of color to ever serve as speaker of the Texas House.

Johnson enters a speaker’s race that already includes three Republicans: Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford and John Zerwas of Richmond.

“I’m in it, and I’m in it to win it,” Johnson told the Tribune.

[…]

“I am deeply troubled by the far rightward shift in our state government and the excessive partisanship and the poor legislation this shift has spawned,” Johnson said in a separate statement. “Texas has become a one-party state, and this has been to Texas’s detriment.”

As a Democrat, Johnson would need bipartisan support to be elected speaker in the Republican-dominated House. Ahead of the next regular session, House Republicans agreed to select a speaker in their caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor — a move that could completely cut out Democrats from picking the chamber’s next leader. Prior to the March 6 primaries, House Republicans pushed incumbents and candidates to sign a form promising to ultimately support the caucus pick. While Parker and King have signed the form, Zerwas has not.

Let’s state up front that Republican members are not going to vote for a Democrat for Speaker, at least not as long as they have a majority in the House. Let’s also state that it is…unlikely…that the Republicans will lose the majority in the Texas House. So, barring something very unexpected, Rep. Eric Johnson will not be the next Speaer of the House.

What could happen is that Republicans fail to coalesce behind a single one of their Speaker candidates, so that none of them can get a majority to become Speaker. In that case, Eric Johnson and his Democratic supporters can make a deal with one of them to push him over the top in return for some concessions. This is a more likely scenario with Democrats numbering in the mid-to-upper sixties (or higher, of course), but it could still happen with something more like the current caucus size. This is not unlike how Joe Straus became Speaker himself in 2009; I trust you will find the irony of that if it happens to be as delicious as I will. Having Johnson file as Speaker should mean that the Dems will be unified behind him, rather than making their own individual deals a la Tom Craddick in 2003.

And that’s the key. Being able to elect a Democratic Speaker would be awesome, of course, but the way the House map is drawn they’d need not just to win the statewide vote, they’d need to win it with some room to spare. That just isn’t going to happen. But being in a position to get a seat at the table, that’s a fine consolation prize. The more seats we do win in November, the closer we can get to that.

Speaker Straus not running for re-election

A bombshell no one saw coming.

Rep. Joe Straus

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election in 2018, a decision that has the potential to upend the political balance of power in the state.

Straus, who has lately been the most powerful moderate Republican in the Texas Capitol, said he will serve until the end of his term. That means there will be a new speaker when the Legislature next convenes in 2019.

His decision will immediately set in motion a scrum for control of the House, pitting arch-conservative members who have opposed Straus against more centrist Republicans. Within hours, one of Straus’ top lieutenants, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, announced that he had filed to run for the speaker’s post. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, has already announced he is running. Other candidates are expected to jump in.

Straus has clashed with hardline conservatives in recent years, not least Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Tea Party leaders and their allies have blamed Straus for killing controversial measures backed by the far right, most notably a bill that would have regulated which bathrooms transgender Texans could use.

“I believe that in a representative democracy, those who serve in public office should do so for a time, not for a lifetime. And so I want you to know that my family and I have decided that I will not run for re-election next year,” Straus said in a campaign email. “My time as a State Representative and as Speaker will end at the conclusion of my current term.”

[…]

Asked if he planned to run for any other office in the future, Straus said he is “not one to close doors.” He acknowledged he has received encouragement to run for other offices and did not rule out the possibility of a gubernatorial bid. But he said he doubts he will be on the ballot in 2018.

As for the race to succeed him as speaker, Straus suggested he would not get involved.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who aren’t members in the Legislature in the next session to really register an opinion on that,” Straus said.

The announcement immediately set into motion speculation about the future of Straus’ top lieutenants. One of his closest allies, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who is chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said in a statement first reported by Quorum Report that he “will pursue other opportunities to serve our great state.”

Straus made his announcement on Facebook, which if you have a feed like mine immediately took over everything. This came as a big surprise, because just last month Straus was urging business leaders to keep up the fight against bathroom bills and other such harmful proposals, and two weeks ago he formed the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness to push pro-growth policies. I doubt it had occurred to anyone that he himself might walk away at this time, but if a young, scandal-free first-term US Senator can say “screw it, I’ve had enough”, then nothing like this should surprise us. Indeed, as Ross Ramsey notes, this will almost surely presage a lot more retirements. Get ready for it.

As to what happens next, I’m not going to panic or despair, at least not yet. For one thing, like Christopher Hooks, I’m a little wary of the hagiography coming from my fellow travelers over Straus’ legislative career.

Liberals have never quite figured out what to make of the man. On one hand, it’s undoubtedly true that Straus was a bulwark against the new populist tendencies of the Texas GOP. He and allies such as Byron Cook, who is also retiring, stopped a metric ton of junk legislation that would have passed with a different speaker. When considering the question of why Texas has fared generally better than similarly red states like Louisiana and Kansas, which are on fire, Straus and the conditions that created Straus are a significant part of the answer. He’s the last person in state government who seems to care about governing as a concept.

But out of that fact emerged too a picture of Straus as a sort of Aaron Sorkin character, a paternal figure with an unnaturally rosy image and a passing resemblance to Gregg Popovich, typified by the mythic representation of Straus’ bathroom bill showdown with Patrick in a recent New Yorker article. There is an element of Stockholm Syndrome in that, as if Straus was the jailer who always asks about your kids. Among other things, the House of Straus passed many of its own pieces of junk legislation — voter ID, loads of anti-abortion laws, etc. — and served at times as a trough for the lobby. Straus and his lieutenants often declined to water down bad legislation, including, spectacularly the state’s “show your papers” law. The Capitol debate over what Straus personally wants, and when his hand is being “forced,” is as long and storied as it is useless to ordinary Texans.

Straus isn’t Jeff Flake or Bob Corker — he’s been staying true to some version of his principles since he was elected speaker, not just recently. But it’s also worth wondering why a person who places so much emphasis on good government is willing to abandon his post, possibly to another Republican in the mold of Dan Patrick or Donald Trump. A tremendous amount now depends on whether a Straus-type successor can be elected speaker.

For sure, we could have done much worse than Straus – we had already done much worse, under Tom Craddick – and we could do much worse going forward. I’m just suggesting that we maintain a bit of perspective here. Going forward, a Speaker Zerwas would be more or less the same as Speaker Straus was, while a Speaker King would basically be Speaker Craddick minus the Craddick Dems. The way to enhance the odds of the former is for more Democrats to win legislative races next year, especially against wingnuts in swing districts like Matt Rinaldi. Perhaps the Texas Association of Business, who helped give us Speaker Craddick in 2002, might get involved in a few Republican primaries if they’d like to see Straus’ legacy live on. There are concrete things that can be done to ensure a better outcome, is what I’m saying. That’s where I’d put my energy if this news is distressing to me. The Chron, RG Ratcliffe, the Current, and the DMN have more.

State Rep. Larry Gonzales to retire

This is an opportunity for the Democrats.

Rep. Larry Gonzales

State Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, is not running for re-election.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve HD52 and this great state,” Gonzales wrote Wednesday night on Facebook. “We certainly gave it our all.”

Gonzales announced his decision not to run again at a meeting Tuesday night of the Williamson County GOP Executive Committee, according to attendees.

First elected in 2010, Gonzales has served on the Sunset Advisory Commission since 2014 and currently chairs the panel, which is responsible for periodic reviews of state agencies. He is also the chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee.

[…]

At least two Republicans have already lined up to run for Gonzales’ seat in House District 52: Texas GOP chaplain Jeremy Story and Round Rock resident Christopher Ward.

Another person, James Talarico, has filed paperwork indicating he is interested in running. He is expected to make an announcement early next week.

HD52 is one of several in which Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump by less than five points, with the spread in the downballot races being about eight points. It was a bit more Democratic than in 2012, though not dramatically so. It’s still one of the clearer Democratic targets for 2018, especially now that it is open. If that isn’t enough incentive, there’s also the Speaker’s race dynamic. HD52 is also a target for the wingnuts.

Gonzales was already facing a Republican primary challenge from the right in March. Jeremy Story, a 42-year-old father of seven from Round Rock who founded and is president of Campus Renewal, a Christian organization seeking to unite campus ministries across the country, has announced he’s running for the Republican nomination. Story also serves as chaplain to the Williamson County and Texas Republican parties.

Story said Wednesday that, like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, he was disappointed that Straus did not deliver on more of the governor’s 20-point agenda for the special session. He said he believed the House could benefit from a change in leadership.

But, on Tuesday night, the Williamson County Republican Party executive committee defeated, 31-14, a measure to call for the speaker’s replacement, and Chairman Bill Fairbrother said that support for Straus was stronger in the southern end of the county that makes up Gonzales’ district.

Fairbrother described Gonzales as a successful and popular legislator who had worked tirelessly to get around and represent the district. He said he expects several other Republicans to jump into the race in the near future.

They need to be joined by at least one good Democrat. Don’t let us down, Williamson County.

Meanwhile, up north there’s another retirement:

State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, announced Thursday she is not running for re-election.

Laubenberg, who chairs the House Elections Committee, did not provide a specific reason for her decision in a statement. “I am looking forward to the next chapter of my life,” Laubenberg said.

Laubenberg has served eight terms representing House District 89 in Collin County.

The seat is likely to stay under GOP control. One name that was already being mentioned Thursday evening as a potential candidate to replace Laubenberg was Candy Noble, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee from Lucas.

Laubenberg was the author of the infamous HB2 abortion bill that eventually got canned by SCOTUS, but not before a bunch of clinics were forced to close. I seriously doubt that anyone else will be better than she was – HD89 is a safe Republican seat, having been carried by Trump by over 20 points – but no one I know will be sorry to see Jodie Laubenberg walk out the door for the last time.

Court throws out State House map

Once more, with feeling.

Parts of the Texas House map must be redrawn ahead of the 2018 elections because lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minorities in crafting several legislative districts, federal judges ruled on Thursday.

A three-judge panel in San Antonio unanimously ruled that Texas must address violations that could affect the configuration of House districts in four counties, where lawmakers diluted the strength of voters of color. In some cases, the court found mapdrawers intentionally undercut minority voting power “to ensure Anglo control” of legislative districts.

These are the nine districts the court flagged:

  • Dallas County’s HD 103, represented by Democrat Rafael Anchia, HD 104, represented by Democrat Roberto Alonzo and HD 105, represented by Republican Rodney Anderson
  • Nueces County’s HD 32, represented by Republican Todd Hunter, and HD 34, represented by Democrat Abel Herrero
  • Bell County’s HD 54, represented by Republican Scott Cosper, and HD 55, represented by Republican Hugh Shine
  • Tarrant County’s HD 90, represented by Democrat Ramon Romero, and HD 93 represented by Matt Krause.

Adjusting those boundaries could have a ripple effect on other races.

[…]

In both the congressional and state House rulings, the court ordered Attorney General Ken Paxton to signal whether the Legislature would take up redistricting to fix violations in the maps.

But so far, state leaders have signaled they have no appetite to call lawmakers back to Austin over mapmaking. Instead, Texas is looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to keep its political boundaries intact.

“The judges held that maps they themselves adopted violate the law,” Paxton said in a Thursday statement. “Needless to say, we will appeal.”

Meanwhile, the state and the parties that sued over the congressional districts are scheduled to return to court on Sept. 5 to begin redrawing the congressional map. In its Thursday ruling, the court indicated they should be prepared to also meet on Sept. 6 to consider changes to the state House map.

“Today’s ruling once again found that Texas racially gerrymandered its voting districts and used Latino voters as pawns in doing so,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who is representing plaintiffs in the case. “With the 2018 election cycle fast approaching, it’s time for Texas to stop discriminating against Latino voters and agree to a remedy that will provide equal opportunity to all.”

It was just over a week ago that the same court invalidated the Congressional map, also calling it intentionally discriminatory. Add in the voter ID ruling and you’ve got three such judgments in a span of eight days; you can also toss in the ruling on interpreters for a four-game losing streak for the state. Don’t forget the Pasadena case, too – it’s not the state, but it is another intentional-discrimination opinion. Maybe this will all add up to enough to convince Chief Justice Roberts to change his mind about the state of voting rights and the need to protect communities of color.

Or not. I wouldn’t hold my breath. Be that as it may, this ruling could have an effect on the effort by wingnuts to oust House Speaker Joe Straus. RG Ratcliffe explains.

The court found that in Nueces County, the district maps discriminated in the placement of minority voters in a way that favored the re-election of Representative Todd Hunter, a key Straus Republican ally and chairman of the House committee that sets bills for debate on the daily calendar. To make his district safe, the court said Hispanic voters were packed into the district of Representative Abel Herrero, a Democrat. Redrawing the districts won’t automatically guarantee Hunter’s defeat, but it will make it more difficult for him to win re-election.

The court also ruled that the Legislature intentionally split a minority community in Killeen to guarantee the election of two white Republicans in Districts 54 and 55, Scott Cosper of Killeen and Hugh Shine of Temple. Both have backed Straus in the past. Putting the minority community in Killeen back together probably endangers Cosper’s re-election, and may put a Democrat in that rural district. Either way, this likely is a wash in the politics of electing the next speaker.

In Dallas and Tarrant counties, the court ruling likely would help Straus win re-election. In declaring that five districts in those two counties discriminated against minorities, the most likely losers in any redrawing of the district maps will be Republican Representatives Rodney Anderson of Irving and Matt Krause of Fort Worth. Anderson was among nineteen House members who voted against Straus in one election for speaker, and Krause is a member of the Freedom Caucus, which has been trying to force a speaker vote in the caucus instead of on the House floor, where Democrats also have a say.

Anderson barely squeaked by in 2016, in a district that was ever so slightly bluer than HD107, which flipped to the Dems. He was going to be a target no matter what. The ripple effect in Dallas could be very interesting. And of course, anything that puts jerks like Krause in jeopardy is a good thing. We’ll know if and when SCOTUS intervenes if a second special session will be forthcoming. A statement from MALC is here, and Michael Li, the Chron, the DMN, Rick Hasen, the HuffPost, and the Lone Star Project have more.

Straus not very excited about Patrick’s potty bill

Take this for what it’s worth.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus doesn’t think passing a transgender bathroom bill is a pressing issue state lawmakers need to address during the 2017 legislative session.

“This isn’t the most urgent concern,” Straus, R-San Antonio, said on Tuesday during an interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith. When asked if it was a priority, he added, “It isn’t. But that doesn’t mean the House is going to feel differently than I do.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said passing the bathroom bill is a top priority for him this session. Straus has expressed concern with the proposal, echoing business concerns that it will result in a huge economic loss for the state.

“We don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes that,” Straus said, referring to major events the state risks losing, like San Antonio hosting the NCAA Men’s Final Four in 2018. “I know the lieutenant governor is very enthusiastic about this. Let him run with it. We’ll see what the House wants to do.”

Let’s be clear about two things. One is that Straus can affect the fate of a given bill, if he really wants to. He can affect it by his committee chair appointments, which in turn can affect which committee gets a particular bill. This is old school Lege craft of long standing – the best way to kill a bill is to ensure it never gets out of committee. This can be done in ways that leave no obvious fingerprints, at least none that are visible to anyone who isn’t an obsessive follower of this sort of thing. So if Straus has a tacit understanding with the business lobby that any potty bill must die, he can make it happen without looking like he’s making it happen.

That said, such a style is more of a piece with former Speaker Tom Craddick than it is with Straus. Craddick fell out of favor with some Republicans in part because he put a heavy thumb on the scale of the bill-managing process. Straus’ MO has been to let the will of the House be the determining factor on most bills. He stays out of the way and whatever happens, happens. That’s a bit of an overstatement – all Speakers exert influence when they see fit to do so – but Straus is definitely subtle about it. Whatever does happen, Straus will say that this is how the House wanted it. The Trib has more.

Runoff watch: Legislative races

I’m going to spend a few posts looking at the runoff elections that will be on the ballot this May. Primary runoffs are completely different than regular primaries, mostly because the races involved are low profile and only the hardest of hardcore voters come out for them. Remember how much time we spent this primary cycle talking about the 2008 Democratic primary and how off-the-charts high the turnout was? Well, turnout for the 2008 Democratic primary runoff in Harris County, which decided one District Judge nomination and one Justice of the Peace nomination, as well as voting on the nomination for Railroad Commissioner, drew all of 9,670 votes. Republican primary runoff turnout that year was 40,457, considerably higher but still quite paltry. The exception to this rule is when there is an actual high-profile race on the ballot, such as in 2012 when Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst went into overtime for the US Senate nomination. That year, in a runoff that happened in July, over 135,000 people came out to vote. The Democratic runoff, which also included a Senate race, drew 30,000 votes. Point being: Don’t expect much this year.

The bottom line is that there are two types of primary runoff voters: Those who are super plugged into the process and who turn out any time there’s an election, and those who are brought out by a campaign. In the absence of a high-profile campaign, the kind that draws news coverage and maybe TV advertising, the main kind of campaign that will draw out voters is one with a ground game. Legislative races are the best for that. There are three legislative runoffs of interest, two in Harris County and one in Fort Bend.

HD128 – Republican runoff

Rep. Wayne Smith

I don’t pay that much attention to most Republican primary races, and even if I did I doubt I’d have given this one much thought. Rep. Wayne Smith in HD128 is a low-key guy, serving as the Chair of the Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee and generally not doing much to attract my attention. He hadn’t had a competitive primary since he was first elected in 2002, and hadn’t had a non-third party opponent since 2004. Yet there he was on Election Day, trailing some guy named Brisco Cain by four points and coming close to losing outright in a three-candidate field. What happened?

I’ll leave you to read this Big Jolly post to get an idea. Basically, it’s one part Smith not being “conservative” enough – Cain drew a ton of support from the “grassroots” organizations – and one part this being yet another proxy fight over Speaker Joe Straus. That’s likely to be how the runoff plays out, though so far it’s been as under the radar from the perspective of an interested outsider like myself as the March race was. Smith’s best chance, it seems to me, is for Straus’ money to buy him some voter outreach, and get as many people who think he’s been good for Baytown to the polls. Cain, who ran for HD129 in 2014 but finished fourth in the seven-candidate primary, needs to harness the same seething anger that propels candidacies like his. He had a 500-vote lead on March 1, and the kind of people that vote for the kind of candidate that he is tend to be highly motivated to turn out, so I see this as Cain’s race to lose. I predict there will be at least one controversy over a mailer or online ad attacking Smith, because that’s the way these things tend to go and also because groups like Empower Texans are backing Cain. If you’re a Republican, how do you see this race?

HD139 – Democratic runoff

This is the race for Mayor Turner’s open seat, with the winner of the primary runoff the winner of the office, since there is no Republican running. (The same is true for the HD128 runoff.) Candidate Randy Bates collected the most institutional support, and he led the field when the initial results, from early and absentee voting, were published. He then collected only 20% of the vote on Election Day, and slid into third place behind Kimberly Willis and Jarvis Johnson. I’m not sure what happened there, but if I had to guess I’d posit that 1) Willis had a better ground game, and 2) Johnson benefited from the high turnout on Election Day, as perhaps it featured a higher percentage of voters who were voting for a familiar name. Like I said, that’s just a guess.

I could see this runoff going either way. I have not yet seen updated endorsements from the groups that had backed Bates in March, but I’ll be surprised if it isn’t the case that Willis cleans up among them. She has been by far the more active campaigner of the two, and Johnson’s legacy as Council member isn’t the best. I think Willis will be able to turn out some voters for this race, and that gives her the edge, but Johnson’s name recognition can’t be denied. Willis’ model needs to be Erica Lee’s runoff win for HCDE in 2012, which she accomplished despite Johnson nearly taking a majority in the first round. If she can reach enough voters, she can win.

On a side note, there is a complicating factor for this race, and that’s the special election to fill out the remainder of Turner’s term, which will be held on May 7, a mere 17 days before the primary runoff. I don’t know when the filing deadline is for this, and I don’t know who all will be in that race, but surely Willis and Johnson will file for it. If nothing else, it’s another opportunity to get out there before the voters. As long as they understand that their obligation doesn’t end with that race and they come out again on May 24, that is.

HD27 – Democratic runoff

The one non-Harris County race of interest, and the one with the highest profile so far. You know the story – three-term Rep. Ron Reynolds and his tsuris, with Annie’s List-backed Angelique Bartholomew the last candidate standing against him. Reynolds, like Briscoe Cain in HD128, was above 50% for most of the night on March 1. In fact, I went to bed around midnight having stated that Reynolds had pulled it out. Not so fast, as it happened.

What Reynolds has going for him is that a lot of people still genuinely like him – for all his self-inflicted wounds, even his opponents have compassion for him – and he hasn’t lost the support of elected officials and many establishment groups. What he has going against him, besides his conviction for barratry, is at least one establishment group that is sure to spend money to try to defeat him, money that he doesn’t have and probably won’t be able to raise. There’s also ammunition to use against him that goes beyond the barratry issue. I think he’s buoyant enough that this is still his race to lose – again, he came very close to winning outright in the first place – but he’s not invulnerable. If there are any further cracks in his support, it could shatter on him.

Rep. Scott Turner not running for re-election

Another one heads for the exit.

Rep. Scott Turner

State Rep. Scott Turner, the Frisco Republican who unsuccessfully ran for speaker this year, has decided not to seek re-election.

Turner announced his decision in an email to constituents Thursday, hinting that he is not done with politics.

“One chapter is closing for now, and I am beginning new chapters that I believe hold great promise and potential,” Turner wrote. “Though my service as a state representative comes to an end, you can count on me to use my voice to remain involved and champion our shared conservative values.”

Turner also told constituents he is looking forward to spending more time with his nephew Solomon, who has lived for years with Turner and his wife. In a January interview, Turner said that he and his wife were Solomon’s “full-time parents.”

Along with the announced departure of Rep. Sylvester Turner, this may make the Lege a Turner-free zone may leave the Lege with just one Turner (Rep. Chris Turner) in 2017. It will also likely make the Lege, and the GOP caucus, whiter, as Scott Turner was one of two African-American Republicans. Turner was mostly known for challenging Joe Straus for the Speakership this session; he didn’t come close, and if he had any major legislative achievements in his two sessions, I’m unaware of them. HD33 is in Collin County and it’s heavily Republican – 72.1% for Mitt Romney in 2012 – so it’s all about the Republican primary and hoping for a bit of sanity to win out. Best of luck to Rep. Scott Turner and his family in the next chapter of their lives. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: Corrected my miscount of the Turners. Thanks to General Grant in the comments for the catch.

Keffer to retire

The original Straus gang shrinks again.

Rep. Jim Keffer

State Rep. Jim Keffer, an Eastland Republican who was one of the earliest supporters of House Speaker Joe Straus, has decided not to seek reelection next year, according to a statement he prepared for the Hood County News that was widely posted on social media Tuesday evening.

Sources familiar with his plans confirmed the news; Keffer could not immediately be reached for comment.

First elected in 1996, Keffer is finishing his tenth term in the Texas House. He chairs the Natural Resources Committee and previously led the committees on Energy Resources, Ways & Means, Property Tax Relief and Economic Development.

His departure leaves only three members of the original Polo Road Gang — the eleven Republicans who met privately at state Rep. Byron Cook’s house on Polo Road in Austin before the 2009 legislative session to decide who they would unite behind in the race for speaker of the House. The 2008 elections left the House split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats, destabilizing then-Speaker Tom Craddick’s coalition and setting the stage for a change in leadership. The eleven Republicans chose Straus, picked up some other Republicans and a majority of Democrats, and elected him that January.

Now, only Straus, Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Cook remain in office.

Keffer’s HD60 is ridiculously red (Romney 83.0% in 2012), so it’s all a matter of who survives the primary next year. Keffer is as conservative as anyone, but as a Straus backer and someone who’s more interested in governing than in burning crap down, he’s been a wingnut target for awhile and his seat will be high on their list. So, you know, same as it ever was. I wish Rep. Keffer the best in the next phase of his life, and I will hope that his successor isn’t a typical zombie robot idiot. It is what it is. PDiddie and Greg have more.