DRC_Ross Ramsey

Ross Ramsey

Nobody’s going to believe Michael Quinn Sullivan or Dennis Bonnen or Dustin Burrows until they hear the recording of what was supposed to be a private meeting in June. But as long as Sullivan’s drip-drip-drip strategy is hurting his targets, he has little incentive to give everyone a listen.

Unless, that is, he wants to prove that his account of the meeting is true.

Sullivan is a political player, head of a group called Empower Texans that has been a sharp thorn in the paw of establishment Republicans in state government for the past decade or so. Bonnen is the speaker of the House. Burrows is the chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee and was, until just a few days ago, the chairman of the House Republican Caucus.

If this were a TV drama series, this would be the part about previous episodes. All set? Sullivan was loudly unhappy with what he considered inadequately conservative results from this year’s legislative session. Bonnen and Burrows were part of a group of triumphant state leaders who got done what they wanted in that same session. So it seems a bit odd that they agreed to meet at the state Capitol on June 12.

They did, though, with noisome results. Sullivan accused the two elected leaders of offering House news media credentials to writers for his Texas Scorecard website in return for Empower Texans’ opposition to a list of 10 Republican incumbents in the 2020 elections. Bonnen and Burrows denied doing that. But Sullivan taped the conversation, which clocked in at an hour, more or less. He has played the tape for some of his confederates and a number of Republican House members, but for reasons of his own, he won’t make it public. Texas Democrats have sued, hoping to get their mitts on the recording. The Department of Public Safety’s Texas Rangers are investigating. And, with a few exceptions, elected officials from the governor on down have said Sullivan should make the tapes public.

That’s a lot of back and forth, and the only way to prove who’s lying and who’s telling the truth about this nefarious meeting is to release the recording.

The Empower Texans folks aren’t unimpeachable sources; they’ve spent years building the reputation that they are difficult to trust. The only way to get politicians to trust each other is with hard proof; they like each other well enough, and they were mostly satisfied with the outcome of the session, but now a lot of them are wondering whether they’ve put too much trust in the wrong people. They want proof.

In this atmosphere, nobody who has heard the recording — and this is a somewhat dispiriting statement about the current state of affairs in politics — has the kind of rock-solid credibility to represent a true and complete version of the recording that would satisfy everyone who hasn’t heard it.

The only way to go is to let everyone hear it, to trust their own ears, and to decide what happened and whether anyone should be spanked for it.

The Rangers might release it, but that’s not how they generally do things. They’ll report either to the House General Investigating Committee, a prosecutor or two, or a grand jury — depending on whether they find something criminal in this or just some political people running their mouths.

We’re all watching a clinic on politics. Elections and campaigns are very important. But what people do once they’re elected is largely outside of voters’ control. And unelected players like Sullivan can often bend an elected government away from voters and toward their own interests.

Voters are powerful on Election Day, but they become the outsiders when the officeholders, operatives and lobbyists take over. Not all of the insiders know just what happened in the meeting — what was promised, what wasn’t; what was embarrassing or should have been left unsaid. But the fallout has already changed the temperature in the Capitol in ways that will eventually translate into who’s in power and who isn’t — into who still has the clout to do what voters sent them to Austin to do.

Everybody ought to know what happened. It’s already ugly. Transparency is the best way to clean it up.

ROSS RAMSEY is executive editor and co-founder of the Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization.

Recommended for you