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'The Ultimate Unforced Error': Texas House Speaker Caught in Political Scandal

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen is caught in a scandal of his own making. He's not the only state legislative leader across the country facing political peril.

Dennis Bonnen
(AP/Eric Gay)
Last month, Texas Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announced the formation of a $3 million political action committee to support members of his caucus.

Within the span of only a couple of weeks, however, Bonnen’s own political future was put at risk by the emergence of a tape in which the speaker named 10 members of that caucus he wouldn’t mind seeing go down to defeat in a primary.

“It’s the ultimate unforced error,” says Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “He was riding so high after the session, that perhaps he felt a combination of hubris and invincibility that allowed him to engage in one of the dumbest acts in recent Texas political history.”

When legislative leaders are forced to step down, generally the circumstances are pretty clear-cut. Often, financial corruption is involved.

But other things can get them in trouble. A handful of leaders around the country have resigned over the past year or remain at risk, either due to diminishing electoral prospects at home, or some form of scandal at the capitol. The situations differ, but most involve problems that their predecessors might have been able to survive.

Thanks to changes in technology, traditional media and social media, elected officials should know that everything they say or do might be subject to public scrutiny, no matter how supposedly private the setting. Their every word might be secretly recorded by phone, or broadcast to the world by an indiscreet tweet.

In today’s partisan environment, any slip will be seized upon by political opponents – even those who had appeared to be friends.

“The common underlying theme is hubris and invincibility – a belief that the rules don’t apply to me and I can get away with anything,” Jones says. “That leads people in really powerful positions to make dumb decisions.”


Bonnen’s Mistake

Bonnen got in trouble after taking a meeting with Michael Quinn Sullivan, the leader of Empower Texans, a hardline conservative advocacy group. Sullivan, it turned out, secretly recorded their meeting.

The recording hasn’t yet been publicly released, but a number of legislators have heard it. Bonnen apparently said that, since Sullivan’s business model involves supporting primary challenges against incumbent Republicans, there were 10 members of his caucus that Bonnen wouldn’t mind seeing challenged. 

Dustin Burrows, the House GOP caucus chair, was also at the meeting. Last week, he stepped down from his leadership post.

The House General Investigating Committee last week ordered a Texas Rangers investigation. Bonnen allegedly offered Empower Texans media credentials at the capitol in exchange for funding primary challenges.

It’s unlikely that any investigation will lead to criminal charges for the alleged quid pro quo. Nonetheless, the incident has clearly weakened Bonnen. He was a dead certainty to win another term as speaker, assuming Republicans maintain their House majority. (The Texas Legislature only meets in odd-numbered years.)

Now, the chances that he will be speaker again have at least dropped to somewhere below 100 percent. That reduces Bonnen’s clout as a fundraiser and candidate recruiter.

After initially denying Sullivan’s account of the meeting, Bonnen has sent an email apology to members of his caucus. His credibility was weakened by his initial denials, Jones says.

“The whole affair was probably unnecessary,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “Speaker Bonnen has dozens of ways to punish, both publicly and privately, members who don’t play ball under the pink dome. Choosing to outsource the job to hit men from Empower Texans makes him look politically weak and untrustworthy in the Republican caucus.”


Other Speakers in Trouble

On Aug. 2, Glen Casada formally resigned as speaker of the Tennessee House, following a vote of no confidence by the body. He and Cade Cothren, his onetime chief of staff, had exchanged sexually explicit text messages. Cothren had also sent messages seeking sex with an intern and a lobbyist and he admitted using cocaine at the capitol.

Last year, Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover stepped down, after settling a sexual harassment claim with Marissa Espinosa, a former aide. On Aug. 9, a judge dismissed a lawsuit Hoover and two other lawmakers had filed against Espinosa, claiming she had violated confidentiality agreements.

Casada and Hoover were both reluctant to step down. But both lost support from their caucuses and governors of their own party. 

There’s “no excuse” for the behavior in Casada’s office and public servants should be held to a high standard, says Tennessee state Rep. Mark White.

Still, he adds, there’s some irony to the fact that, even as society as a whole has grown more permissive, politicians find less forgiveness when caught in certain kinds of scandal. The media wouldn’t touch stories about President John Kennedy’s affairs while in the White House, White notes, but sex scandals had become fair game for the press well before the advent of the “me too” movement.

“It seems like we’re like we’re living in different times,” White says. “When I was a child 40 or 50 years ago, it seems like we were a much more ethical nation. Now it seems like everything is acceptable in our society, and yet the second you tweet or text anything, you’re found guilty.”


Changes Back Home

Leaders who remain impervious at the capitol sometimes find themselves challenged at home. A voting record that was once a comfortable fit for their districts suddenly no longer holds as much appeal.

Joe Straus, who preceded Bonnen as Texas House speaker, was viewed by some conservatives as insufficiently loyal to their cause, particularly on social issues. He received just 60 percent of the GOP primary vote in 2016 and decided not to seek reelection last year.

On the Democratic side, Rhode Island House Speaker Nick Mattiello and Maryland Senate President Mike Miller saw some allies and preferred candidates go down to defeat in primaries last year against more progressive challengers. Each remains in charge of his respective chamber.

But Al Carlson, the longtime majority leader of the North Dakota House, was defeated in a primary last year, finishing fourth in a field of four candidates who were seeking two seats. He’d cast some conservative votes that put him out of step with his changing district.

Dick Saslaw, who has been the Democratic leader in the Virginia Senate for more than 20 years, narrowly survived a primary challenge in June, taking 49 percent of the vote against a more progressive challenger.

“Dick Saslaw was originally a moderate, and his district preferred it that way,” says Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “But now his district is much more liberal and maybe antiestablishment in the party primary.”

On the other side of the capitol in Richmond, Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox faces a serious threat for reelection in November. That’s because the state House map was thrown out in federal court as an illegal racial gerrymander.

“Kirk Cox is endangered solely because of the just-adopted district lines,” Sabato says. “His district became 23 points more Democratic in one fell swoop.”

Jim Denning, the GOP majority leader of the Kansas Senate, is also politically imperiled due to a changing district. In his case, it’s not the actual district lines that were changed, but the voting proclivities of the people who live within his district.

Denning is a conservative representing an area that, like many suburban districts around the country, has trended more Democratic lately. Johnson County, outside Kansas City, had only two Democratic state House members in 2014, but now has 10. Three GOP legislators from Johnson County switched to the Democratic Party last year.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly carried Denning’s district last year, making him a top target for her party in 2020. 

“I believe Sen. Denning is vulnerable because he is out of touch with the needs and values of his constituents,” says Democratic state Rep. Cindy Holscher, who is running against Denning. 

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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