As the 2017 and 2019 Texas State Legislatures were in session, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling called both an “assault on cities.” Former Mission Mayor Norbeto “Beto” Salinas asked why state leaders were “making life so difficult for us?”
On Tuesday, those concerns were bluntly confirmed in secretly recorded audio released by hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, who met with Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, in June at the state capitol.
“Let me tell you something,” Bonnen said, according to the audio. “In this office, and in the conference room on that end, any mayor or county judge who’s dumbass enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.”
The third person in the meeting was another top House Republican, then-GOP caucus chair Dustin Burrows, who chimed in.
“I hope next session is even worse,” Burrows said.
“And I’m all for that,” Bonnen said.
The audio’s public disclosure has been months in the making, since Sullivan wrote on his website following the June 12 meeting with Bonnen and Burrows that the speaker had offered Bonnen a quid pro quo. Sullivan had alleged that Bonnen urged Sullivan to target members of their own party in the 2020 primaries and in exchange, Sullivan’s conservative website would receive press access to the House floor during the next legislative session.
Sullivan is chief executive of Empower Texans, a group backed by oil money that is part political action committee, part news outlet and part political lobbyist. The group is often involved in Republican primary elections, going after more moderate Republicans, which Bonnen in July called “destructive primary attacks.”
The reaction from statewide Republicans on Tuesday was mostly silence, aside from state Reps. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Matt Schaefer, R-The Woodlands, who both called for Bonnen’s resignation.
“We do not need a legal and ethical cloud hanging over House Republicans as we ask Texans to trust us with their vote in 2020,” Schaefer said in a statement to the Tyler Telegraph.
Democrats swiftly condemned the events, with Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner issuing a statement that Bonnen “betrayed the trust of many members of the House” with his “deeply personal and hurtful insults about several members…”
In the audio, Bonnen at various moments called one House member “vile,” another member “a piece of shit” and said a third member’s “wife’s going to be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”
Bonnen in a statement on Tuesday defended himself, calling the meeting “nothing more than a political conversation.”
Meanwhile, state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, whom Bonnen appointed in January to chair the House Transportation Committee, weighed in.
“There is nothing in the recording that we have not already heard. Politics is a full contact sport,” Canales said in a statement on Tuesday. “I don’t agree with the rhetoric or name calling used by the Speaker, but under his leadership Rio Grande Valley school districts have received an additional $200,000,000 from this past legislative session, which is being used for unprecedented teacher raises and additional funding for full-day pre-K. Moreover, under Speaker Bonnen, we were able to pass monumental tax protections for Texas taxpayers, who are drowning in rising property valuations and out-of-control government spending.”
Canales continued: “That being said, of all the places in the world, the Texas Capitol is where I have heard the most racist, sexist, and downright offensive comments. Does that make it right? No, but you have to take the good with the bad. The Texas Capitol is not for the faint of heart or those with thin skin.
“In other words, Speaker Bonnen can call me anything he wants if it means Texas schools get fully funded and taxpayers are not taxed out of their homes. Speaker Bonnen helped lead the charge last session to ensure the Rio Grande Valley got long-needed trauma care funding.”
Canales and other Texas House members from the Valley fully supported Bonnen as he sought the speakership, and Bonnen rewarded three of them with committee chairman positions — Canales to the House Transportation Committee and state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, to the House Resolutions Calendars Committee and state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, to the House Insurance Committee.
The three Valley lawmakers joined 13 Democrats that Bonnen appointed to committee chair positions. State Reps. Sergio Munoz, D-Palmview, and Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, were also assigned to be vice chairs of committees.
Martinez said he was “extremely disappointed” upon hearing the audio.
“To actually call out colleagues individually and to say the derogatory things he did about them, that’s just not something I ever expected to hear from the leader of the Texas House,” Martinez said in an interview.
He added: “We as legislators, even though we may not agree with people, we do have the freedom to express our opinions. But to do it in that form and fashion to directly attack members of the legislature the way that he did is just something that is extremely disappointing.”
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said he did not appreciate Bonnen’s attack on cities and counties, citing the various health and safety services that counties are required by law to provide, as well as counties’ income restrictions, such as an inability to have a sales tax revenue stream like cities have.
“I would like a state legislature to fully understand what we go through to provide those services and work with us and welcome information from us so we can work together,” Cortez said on Tuesday. “For someone to say they’re going to close their ears and shut their eyes when we’re the ones on the ground every day, that’s discouraging to me because I am the county judge for the seventh largest county of our 254 counties.”
Cortez, the former mayor of McAllen, was aligned with Darling, who succeeded Cortez in McAllen. They both described a state legislature unwilling to help improve local government, and Darling added that the recent moves by the state legislature have put Texas on a path “toward unregulated development. And that’s going to come back and haunt everybody.”
Martinez said he empathizes with the reaction from cities and counties.
“I know exactly why he said that,” Martinez said of Bonnen’s remarks about cities and counties, citing a failed bill that Bonnen previously carried, which would harm revenues for cities and counties. “Ultimately, the ones that he hurts is the constituency that we all represent. I’m glad to not have voted for that bill.”