The traditional course of a political scandal, the shape of Watergate and most others that come to mind, is a slow unraveling. At the outset there’s a loose thread or a hint of truth, and as time goes on the rest of it comes out. Those scandals are for gumshoe reporters and crusading investigators. The course of the scandal that today consumed House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who announced Tuesday morning he would not seek re-election, is the sudden thudding of a great wet sack. Most of the relevant details came out in the first week, and the story of the thing is how people have reacted to it. (In that sense, it’s not unlike the Ukraine scandal currently afflicting President Trump.)
Most of all, the story is about Bonnen himself coming to terms with his fate. In July, Michael Quinn Sullivan, a leading figure in right-wing politics in the state and the head of an organization funded by oilmen and dedicated to purifying the Republican party through cleansing fire, alleged that Bonnen had tried to bribe him by offering his organization’s representatives access to the floor of the House by giving them press credentials. Bonnen would do so if Sullivan agreed to restrain his organization’s campaign spending in the GOP primary to a list of ten Republican incumbents the Speaker wanted gone—a betrayal made more delicious by the fact that Bonnen had promised at great length to protect all members of his flock equally in the upcoming election.
Bonnen released a statement that contained a vague denial but nonetheless promised he had offered no such list. Sullivan sallied back that he had secretly recorded the meeting and that the audio would show Sullivan’s account to be true. Many Republicans came to Sullivan’s office to listen to the tape, and they confirmed what he said. Bonnen demanded that the recording be released. Last week, Sullivan did release it. If anything, the meeting was worse than Sullivan had said, containing grievous insults by Bonnen of Democrats and local elected officials. OK, well, I committed no crimes, Bonnen said, and now we can move on. Let’s all hold hands and begin the healing process!
But he was unable to convince anyone of his sincerity. Facing mounting calls to resign, he announced Tuesday morning he wouldn’t seek re-election in his district. Whether he keeps the speaker’s gavel through 2021 is yet to be determined, but that’s a formality. His speakership is a corpse. It’s an incredible reversal of political fortunes and an extraordinary moment in Texas politics.
Last session, only seven of the 150 members of the Texas House had served longer than Bonnen, who is only 47. He’s spent his whole adult life in the chamber, dedicating himself completely to the House, finally winning power last year. Having long suffered from a reputation as a bully, he won plaudits from left and right for his evenhanded control of the chamber. He seemed set to remain speaker for many more years, if he was able to quarterback his party’s defense of the House in the 2020 elections.
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Instead, he’s going out in a maximally humiliating way. His predecessor, Joe Straus, took much bigger heat and went out tied for the longest speakership of all time. Straus’s predecessor, Tom Craddick, was kicked away from his gavel and stuck around as a hidden power behind the throne. If Bonnen steps down in 2021, he’ll be the shortest-serving speaker since Price Daniel in the early seventies, and he’ll have no afterlife in the chamber.
For a while, Bonnen seemed intent to try to stay in. If that seemed unlikely to succeed, it also didn’t seem impossible. There are a good many members, Democrats included, who are likely to hold more power under Bonnen’s gavel than his successors—committee chairs especially—and it was within the realm of imagination that he could keep waffling long enough to ride this out. After the tape was released, a few Republicans called for him to resign, but they were mostly far-right guys or members of the “X-men,” the ten members Bonnen had tried to shiv.
But on Monday, senior Republicans and committee chairs, people who gained when he took over, started calling for him to go. Republicans had a meeting with him earlier that day in which they urged him to step aside. When he didn’t, they started in. Dan Huberty, Lyle Larson, Chris Paddie, and Four Price—who chair public education, natural resources, energy resources, and the powerful calendars committee, respectively—made the call first, and then Phil King, who chairs redistricting. The dam had broken. Suddenly there was a rush to stick pitchforks in him before the opportunity had passed. Moderate Republican Sarah Davis, who had been stripped of her position as committee chair by Bonnen, tweeted that she “also wish[ed] to pile on.”
This morning, Bonnen released his statement. His “below colleagues” had impressed upon him the need to step aside, and he wanted to “thank them for the respectful and thoughtful way in which they have convinced me to do so.” Et tu, Huberty?
The Texas House is one of the most interesting political battlegrounds in the country in 2020, and this is not how Republicans wanted to begin their defense of it. In addition to this scandal being hugely demoralizing, Bonnen was supposed to lead his party in this fight. Millions of dollars have already been entrusted to him. His seeming intent to stay a lame duck speaker who’ll be out of the game entirely next year leaves the party in the lurch as primary season is getting started.
Also, the slow drip of dissent and then sudden turn against Dennis Bonnen gives an instructive example about what might happen to another prominent Republican leader now facing some internal party criticism over an ill-considered scheme to influence the next election. Bonnen and Trump are in very dissimilar positions vis-a-vis the rest of the party, of course, but there’s a rhyming element here. Bonnen was dominant and secure. He took heat in the opening stages of the scandal, but not enough to dislodge him.
And then, just as happened to Richard Nixon, who was passionately defended by most members of his party till near the end, there was a sort of invisible, collective decision that he had become too much of a liability. Once a few prominent voices had turned, people piled on, and it reached a critical mass. There’s no reason to think this will happen to Trump because it happened to Bonnen, and Trump has a loving fan base in a way that Bonnen ultimately didn’t. But it’s a cautionary tale. In politics, you have friends right up until the day you don’t.