AUSTIN, Texas — (THE TEXAS TRIBUNE) – House Speaker Dennis Bonnen addressed his fellow GOP members officially for the first time in months on Friday, offering, through an emotional speech, a motion for his colleagues to call for his resignation, three people in the room told The Texas Tribune.
"It is the will of the caucus that Dennis Bonnen should step down as Speaker of the House," members in the closed-door meeting, shocked at the scene before them, read on a piece of paper.
The dramatic move in the ballroom of an Austin resort was the culmination of a months-long political crisis for Bonnen that had already reached a new pitch earlier this week. On Tuesday, hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan released secretly recorded audio of Bonnen that confirmed that in June the Republican leader had, among other things, offered Sullivan's Empower Texans media access to the House floor and suggested the organization go after a list of 10 GOP members during the 2020 primaries.
Ultimately, Bonnen, who members there described as apologetic and remorseful, withdrew the motion Friday after some in the caucus asked him to — and the caucus instead debated for the next few hours a statement to release to address the drama. What was supposed to be a 45-minute meeting turned into a roughly 4-hour one, and as members exited the room at the end of their annual caucus retreat, a statement was released condemning the speaker and one of his lieutenants, state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, "in the strongest possible terms."
Still, Friday's meeting marked the tensest face-to-face exchange among House Republicans since the allegations against Bonnen — now largely proven true — were first aired in late July. And in the hours afterward, it was unclear whether Bonnen was on better political footing than he was before the meeting, as statements from members who attended the meeting were released to the public, including from some members who proclaimed they could no longer support the speaker moving forward.
Some members at that meeting considered the fact that a vote was never taken on the speaker's resignation as a sign that things could soon begin to resolidify for Bonnen, who has now faced nearly 20 calls from Republicans and Democrats to step down. Others, however, suggested it was just the latest maneuver by a savvy student of the lower chamber who faces an inevitable reality that he'll never be reelected again to lead the lower chamber.
Before long, the conversation inside the room quickly turned to discussion of whether a statement from the group should include a censure, which is effectively a slap on the wrist for an elected official. That motion failed considerably, according to the three people who were there and who requested anonymity to discuss the private proceedings.
"We, the members of the Texas House Republican Caucus, condemn in the strongest possible terms the offensive language used and the statements made by Speaker Bonnen and Representative Burrows during the secretly recorded meeting which occurred on June 12th," the statement said. "Both members violated the high standards of conduct we expect of our members. Their conduct does not reflect the views of our Caucus membership."
The statement went on to vaguely point to caucus rules for selecting a speaker within the party.
“Constitutionally, the Speaker can only be elected or removed when the House is in session,” the statement said. “A process in our Caucus bylaws presently exists to nominate a Caucus-endorsed Speaker candidate, and we intend to abide by those provisions accordingly.”
The statement also rebuked anti-local government sentiments expressed by Bonnen and Burrows in the recording, which captured the two House leaders boasting about making things difficult for city and county officials during the most recent legislative session and saying that they'd be "all in" for making the 2021 session even worse for that group. The caucus statement also made clear that the caucus backs the members who were said to be on the list for potential primary challengers.
"We completely and fully support the [House] members mentioned in the recording," Friday's statement said. "Further, the views expressed in the taped recording in no way reflect the high regard we have for our locally elected officials."
As the statement hit inboxes, members left the ballroom, with most declining to comment as they headed toward their vehicles.
But soon after, a host of statements were issued, including one from a group of four Republican lawmakers from North Texas — state Reps. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall; Matt Shaheen, R-Plano; Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, and Jeff Leach, R-Plano — calling on Bonnen "to work diligently to prove ... that he can rebuild trust and continue to faithfully lead the House and our state forward.
"[And] if that is not possible, the people of Texas expect and deserve a new Speaker of the House during the 87th Legislature," they lawmakers said.
Others, including state Rep. Dewayne Burns R-Cleburne, stated they could no longer support the speaker amid the latest development in the political drama.
As House lawmakers were huddled behind closed doors Friday afternoon, an investigation instigated by the House General Investigating Committee continues. The committee previously asked the Texas Rangers to review the June 12 meeting, and announced Friday that it had retained three legal advisers — former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips, Democratic former state Rep. Patricia Gray and Republican former state Rep. Will Hartnett —to advise the committee on the next steps once the Rangers report their findings.
“My colleagues on the committee and I have consistently said that any investigation must follow the facts and the evidence without regard to political consideration,” said committee Chairman Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas.
By Friday night, over half the 64-member State Republican Executive Committee, including the party's vice-chair, had signed onto a statement saying that Bonnen "should now resign as Speaker." Chairman James Dickey didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, though he seemed to downplay the situation to a radio host Thursday while in Dallas for President Donald Trump's rally.
On Friday evening, Dickey on Twitter retweeted an SREC member who said "the chair is obligated to support and promote the position of the Executive body over which he presides" and that Dickey "consistently and religiously holds to this standard."
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
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