The rise and fall of Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen is akin to a Shakespearean tragedy. He began two decades ago as the youngest member of the House and rose to the third-most powerful position in state government. Then after only one term as speaker, he lost it all.
Bonnen was flying high until he invited his mortal enemy, Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans, into his lair. When Sullivan released a secretly made recording of Bonnen’s ham-handed attempt at backroom deal-making, it was over. Bonnen was forced to announce his early resignation as speaker.
I first met Bonnen 20 years ago when he was a newly elected freshman, only 26 years old, still living at home with his parents. He hung tight to two other rookie Republican lawmakers, Bedford lawyer Todd Smith and Kilgore businessman Tommy Merritt.
They sat together in the back of the House chamber and did almost everything together. They called themselves the “Three Amigos.” I profiled the trio in a 1999 story.
Since then, all three have seen their political careers crash at the hands of Sullivan, his Empower Texans and related groups that campaigned against them. They supported candidates running against Smith and Merritt when both ran for higher office.
Pundits and politicians have spoken about Bonnen’s sensational fall. But what do his pals say? In this joint interview, I asked Todd and Tommy what to make of the fall of Dennis, their third amigo.
(Note: Sullivan’s response to this story can be found at the end.)
Watchdog: How did his happen?
Merritt: I never would have allowed him to be in the room with Michael Quinn Sullivan (MQS in future references). He is not trustworthy.
Smith: Dennis had succeeded in obtaining the applause of almost everyone, from the conservative wing of the Republican Party to the more mainstream influences of the Republican Party to the Democrats. It’s really a great credit to him. It’s impossible for that to occur without extremely wise and competent leadership from the top.
I don’t think anybody on any side questioned the fact that he delivered that during the legislative session. Clearly, that decision to have a meeting with MQS is one that Dennis will regret for the rest of his life. We all make misjudgments, but that was a whopper.
Watchdog: Do you have a theory about this?
Smith: My guess is that he was doing what perhaps every politician does on occasion — telling someone that he didn’t trust what he thought that person wanted to hear. That’s what I want to believe: that those weren’t Dennis’ true convictions.
Merritt: He could have been trying to throw MQS off the track. That’s just the way Dennis thinks. He’s good about making you jump off the track. And the next thing you know, here comes Dennis through the tunnel with his train.
Watchdog: Why did Dennis ask for the recording to be released, even though it would prove to be embarrassing?
Merritt: I believe that Dennis did not believe MQS taped him. He was calling his bluff and saying, “Look how honest I am. Release the tape.” He just called MQS out to the gunfight. This is one of the three amigos walking out in the street and saying, “Hey, just come out in the street.” And MQS actually had a cannon loaded.
Dennis was just too naive. Dennis took the hook. MQS outsmarted him. Dennis was above his pay grade in dealing with MQS. He does not think like MQS. MQS has a way to control the tempo, to control members of the House being afraid of him.
Smith: MQS is exercising an inordinate amount of power among Republican primary voters that has people with institutional power constantly looking over their shoulder in a way that is not healthy to the operation of state government.
But every indication during the legislative session was that Dennis certainly was not in any way allowing that influence to dictate how he handled the Texas House — just one of the reasons I was proud of him. That’s what people like Tommy and I were looking for. Was he going to allow people like that to influence him in a direction that would be harmful to public policy? And I think the answer to that is clearly and universally “no.” For this to happen to him is such a surprise and shock.
Watchdog: MQS targeted you when you ran for state Senate in 2012 and lost. Same for you, Tommy, when you ran for agriculture commissioner in 2014.
Smith: He has a list of emails of Republican primary voters. Every day, he pounds them. Part of the problem with the political system in Texas right now is the unlimited and undisclosed contributions that can be made by billionaires — and you don’t even know who’s funding a political campaign against you.
Merritt: [Groups such as Empower Texans] use certain recorded votes as a score sheet to tell their contributors, “Look how liberal these people are.” MQS doesn’t care about the institutional process because he has the sugar daddies that fund him. He doesn’t care about destroying the system.
Dennis became a problem because he is an independent. Dennis made a huge error when he didn’t step up and say, “Hey, I made a mistake. I said it. I did it. Let’s have a meeting, and I’ll tell everyone about it.”
Smith: I disagree. It really doesn’t matter what Dennis did after the fact. Once MQS got him on a recording, saying the things that were said, my judgment is, the die was cast, and there was not much that could be done to avoid the result that we’ve seen.
Watchdog: Closing thoughts?
Merritt: Our hearts and prayers go out to Dennis.
Final note: Here is Sullivan’s response:
“Nothing quotes better than bitter politicians who were run from office by their voters. I actually had to look them up to remember who they were. Their records lacked distinction.
“Dennis Bonnen, like Todd Smith and Tommy Merritt before him, fell because his allegiance was to himself and the corrupting Capitol culture, rather than the people of Texas.”
Sullivan added, “Texans are tired of duplicitous politicians who govern differently than they campaign. Above all else, they expect and deserve honor and integrity from their public servants.”