The Republican speaker of the Texas House of Representatives announced Tuesday that he will not be seeking reelection in 2020 amid a scandal involving an audio recording in which he apparently sought help ousting incumbent members of his own party.
“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,” Speaker Dennis Bonnen said in a statement.
Bonnen listed about half of the Texas Republican caucus, who have “made clear that it is in the best interest of both myself and the House to move on” – including his brother, Texas state Rep. Greg Bonnen.
Bonnen’s decision caps a near four-month saga in which the speaker appeared to plot against members of his own party, used lewd language to describe Democrats and has been accused of bribery, which has led to an investigation by the state’s criminal investigation division. Bonnen has denied any criminal wrongdoing.
Last week, an audio recording made in June was released in which Bonnen appears to offer the leader of a conservative nonprofit group Empower Texans, Michael Quinn Sullivan, media credentials for his group in exchange for help ousting moderate Republican members who voted against a bill banning taxpayer-funded lobbying.
According to Sullivan, he sent a letter to Bonnen’s office a week after their meeting in June, rejecting the speaker’s offer. Bonnen replied in a letter made public by Sullivan, disputing the accusations.
Sullivan first publicized the recording in a July blog post, saying he had met with Bonnen and former GOP caucus chair, Rep. Dustin Burrows, at the Texas Capitol on June 12, and secretly recorded their conversation. The blog post prompted Bonnen in August to apologize for saying “terrible things that are embarrassing,” and called on Sullivan to release the recording, according to CNN affiliate KXAN.
In the recording, Bonnen asks Sullivan to “kill off one or two or three” House GOP incumbents, calls a Democratic lawmaker “vile” and refers to another as “a piece of s—.” Burrows, who stepped down as caucus chair in August after Sullivan’s accusations, could be heard listing the names of the Republican lawmakers they felt could be targeted.
“If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session,” Bonnen says on the recording, referring to the media credentials to cover the Texas House.
In August, the five members of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating unanimously voted to have the Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit conduct an investigation into the June meeting between Sullivan, Bonnen and Burrows, and “provide a copy of its final investigative report to the committee at the conclusion of its investigation.” The Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed to CNN on Wednesday that the Texas Rangers’ investigation is still ongoing.
Last Tuesday, the day the recording was released, Bonnen issued a statement insisting that no laws were broken.
“I have repeatedly called for the recording to be released because it will be immediately clear that no laws were broken. This was nothing more than a political discussion – the problem is that I had it with that guy. My colleagues have always deserved the facts and context this recording provides, and with clear evidence now disproving allegations of criminal wrongdoing, the House can finally move on,” Bonnen said in a statement on October 15.
The Texas House Republican caucus released a statement on Friday, condemning Bonnen and Burrows’ comments and the “offensive language” in the recording. And on Monday, five of the chamber’s senior GOP members released a joint statement, saying that they no longer support Bonnen as speaker and that “a leadership change is necessary.”
Some, including the conservative group Texas Right to Life, have gone further and called for Bonnen’s resignation.
Bonnen became speaker in January, making him the third highest ranking Republican in the state. He was first elected to the Texas House in 1997.
The Texas legislature doesn’t return until January 2021, when the House is able to elect a new speaker. But in that time, Democrats may gain more seats in the Texas House in the 2020 elections, when all 150 seats are up for grabs. In the 2018 election, Democrats picked up 12 Texas House seats. In 2020, they would need to flip 9 seats in order to gain the majority.
Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa called Bonnen’s decision not to run for reelection “a victory for transparency and accountability.”
“Texans are tired of politicians, like Republican Speaker Bonnen, who use backroom deals, cover-ups and outright lies to pursue power over everything,” Hinojosa said in a statement Tuesday.