In the pantheon of lawmaker-involved squabbles, what happened at the J.W. Marriott hotel in Austin on Wednesday night probably doesn’t rank higher (lower?) than the time Borris Miles whipped out a gun at a party, or the time Bob Bullock pulled a gun on a journalist, or the time last session that Matt Rinaldi allegedly threatened to shoot Poncho Nevárez, or countless other historical examples of pointless macho posturing because this is Texas and that’s what we do. But Wednesday’s events certainly belong in the rankings.
The Texas Tribune has the full rundown of what apparently happened. At a Republican spring fundraising dinner, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen found himself sitting close to pro-gun activist Chris McNutt, who had previously been intercepted by Texas state troopers after making an uninvited house call at Bonnen’s family residence while the speaker was in Austin. McNutt says he was handing out fliers, but others took his repeated visits to lawmakers’ homes as an implied threat, which is not an unreasonable thing, given the way gun rights activists have behaved at the Lege in recent years. Both men were at the fundraiser as guests of Darlene Pendery, a GOP megadonor who has been heavily involved in party infighting in recent years.
In Pendery’s account of the confrontation, Bonnen was looking for a fight—he confronted McNutt when he didn’t have to, and the situation escalated. Pendery blames Bonnen for turning her expensive experience at the fundraiser, for which she purchased three VIP tables for 30 guests at a cost of $75,000, into a “horrible night.”
In Bonnen’s telling, he approached McNutt and politely but firmly asked McNutt never to visit the homes of lawmakers again. McNutt gave him a letter. Then things got weird: One of Pendery’s guests, according to Bonnen, “handed the speaker a Kool-Aid packet,” then threatened a “physical altercation,” at which point Bonnen left the fundraiser, skipping his upcoming speech.
For what it’s worth, Bonnen has a well-deserved reputation as a man with a temper, and gun activists like McNutt have a well-deserved reputation for making threats and causing ruckuses. But what actually happened at the fundraiser is less interesting than how it came about.
The Tribune story relates that Pendery is a major GOP donor active in boosting “anti-establishment causes,” but that’s underselling it a bit. Pendery is a prominent member of a cohort of GOP donors that, until recently, was pouring millions and millions of dollars into a campaign to take down House Speaker Joe Straus, Bonnen’s predecessor, and move the House as a whole to the right. The story of Straus’s fight against his haters was one of the most bitter and vituperative (and often stupid) fights in modern Texas political history.
The biggest donors in this faction are Midland oilman Tim Dunn and the Wilks brothers, but Pendery is secure in the second tier. She’s a true believer in far-right causes. When Straus, who is Jewish, tweeted a picture of the House Christmas tree in 2017, Pendery replied: “But Jews don’t believe in Christ or Christmas.” According to a data analysis by Texas politics wonk Chris Tackett, she was the third-largest individual donor to give directly to candidates for the Texas House in 2018, mostly to right-wing challengers in the primary, and the second-largest contributor to Bonnen’s own primary opponent, the wonderfully named Damon Rambo. (The largest contributor was Empower Texans, to which she is also a major donor.)
Many of the players in the far-right faction of the party dislike Bonnen almost as much as they did Straus. All session, groups like Empower Texans have been engaged in elaborate kabuki theater to tell a story of the high hopes they had for Bonnen as speaker, and how he is now betraying them. But they need to construct a working narrative first about why and how Bonnen is unacceptable in order to get the base riled up and the donor money flowing.
One could interpret Pendery’s invitation to Bonnen as an olive branch: She told the Tribune she invited McNutt and Bonnen before the controversy over McNutt’s home visits blew up. Nonetheless, McNutt and Bonnen ended up sitting “back to back” at tables in close physical proximity. The other guests at Pendery’s table included hard-hitting members of the Empower faction. Bonnen is famed for his assertive nature. If this sounds conspiratorial, it should be said that Bonnen also describes the whole thing as a “setup.”
None of this is likely to hurt Bonnen in the House—McNutt’s home visits were deeply unpopular with the body and Bonnen will be seen as standing up for them. But today the party’s right is furious with Bonnen. “Idi Amin had more grace than this,” wrote a Tarrant County activist named Jon Wholcom on Facebook, an assertion that seems unlikely. Wholcom went on to complain that Bonnen had proven himself “emotionally unhinged” and should be removed as speaker.
The hard-right faction is going to wage war on Bonnen just as they did against Straus. Most observers saw that coming, but now it’s taking shape. One thing to watch for: The anti-Straus forces frequently tried to call attention to Straus’s relative moderation by moving legislation through the House that they knew Straus would kill, the biggest example being the bathroom bill of 2017. Recently the upper chamber served up Senate Bill 17, a “religious liberty” bill that would give professionals licensed by the state, from doctors to teachers to mold remediators, the right to deny service to individuals based on religious beliefs. It’s a landmine bill that seems unlikely to pass but will nonetheless have to be killed by somebody. Bonnen will take the blame if it fails.
We’re falling into the old patterns, in other words. The right faction has less power than it has had in a decade, but old habits die hard. Every happy warrior needs an enemy, and Bonnen will more than do. One big difference this time: Straus was a stoic, who could take almost limitless derision and say virtually nothing about it in public. Bonnen, who during the Straus era was one of the speaker’s punchier lieutenants, likes to brawl.