BY Cassandra Pollock and Julián Aguilar
EL PASO — On Thursday night, as Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s political fate continued to hang in the balance, some of the most influential Democrats were in El Paso for a town hall and were split on whether the first-term leader should immediately resign from his post.
“That decision, ultimately, isn’t mine,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, a top Bonnen ally. “Like all other situations, that decision is best left up to the voters in the state of Texas, I trust them.”
“There is this urgency to respond in kind with negativity or delight in this situation,” Moody added. “[But] I am sad about this, I am disappointed in it. I don’t delight in this.”
Others were less measured.
“He’s done damage to the body,” state Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, the new head of House Democrats’ campaign arm, told a Texas Tribune reporter. “And for that reason, I think he should resign.” (Just months before, at the end of the legislative session, Israel had said Bonnen was “the right man at this point in Texas history.”)
Those two answers — and that vast departure from where most members stood earlier this year — provide a glimpse into a caucus that’s navigating how to respond as the minority party to the drama that has dogged Bonnen over the past few months.
On Tuesday, hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan released his secret recording of a June meeting with Bonnen, confirming that the new speaker, fresh off a unifying legislative session, had behind closed doors offered Sullivan’s organization media access to the House floor and asked for the group to target a list of 10 GOP members in 2020.
Bonnen was also caught on tape making belittling remarks about Democrats, calling one “vile” and another “a piece of shit.” About one Democrat, Bonnen joked that “his wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay,” repeating a joke that Bonnen said his chief of staff had told him.
Bonnen, after the recording’s release, had urged members that the chamber could “finally move on.” Still, a faction of those 150 members have voiced the opposite, with a small but growing number of Republicans and Democrats calling for the speaker to resign from his post.
So far, much of the noise has come from Republicans. Of the 17 House members who have called for Bonnen to step down, 13 are from the GOP. And since Republicans control the chamber, Bonnen’s political future could largely depend on what next steps, if any, GOP members take.
The House GOP Caucus as a group hasn’t yet publicly responded to the drama since Tuesday’s release — nor has it indicated plans to do so any time soon, though that could change Friday when members gather in Austin for an already-scheduled afternoon meeting.
But Democrats, who are effectively nine seats short of a majority, have shown before that they can affect a House speaker’s fate, especially if they band together. Democrats united with a faction of Republicans could have the power to seriously threaten or solidify a speaker’s position.
On Wednesday evening, roughly half the caucus met in Austin for a meeting that was already on the calendar. The Bonnen issue, of course, took center stage, and while no formal action was taken, multiple members there said there was talk of calling another meeting sometime soon to discuss potentially further actions to take.
“I think there’s a desire to bring the entire caucus together with a specific agenda to have a discussion that could result in a vote,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, told the Tribune on Thursday. “Certainly [Wednesday’s] discussion was clear that there was no one in the room who felt anything but anger and betrayal and disappointment.”
“The general consensus … was that people should feel free to put their own messages out there and that we should be united as a caucus moving forward,” Howard said. “So far I’ve heard nothing that would indicate that we’re not all on the same page.”
But there has been variation in Democrats’ public positions. There’s also the question of whether it would be politically advantageous for Democrats to act beyond what the caucus chair, state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, has already said — that the latest “revelations are incompatible” with Bonnen serving another term — before Republicans have a chance to move on the issue themselves.
Democrats are hoping to win control of the House in 2020, and Republican disunity brought by the scandal could be advantageous to a minority party that has worked to cast the issue as the latest sign of corruption in the GOP.
Some Democrats have adopted the mindset that, at this point, it’s a matter for the GOP to work out among themselves — or to at least wait until the ongoing criminal investigation into the issue by the Texas Rangers wraps up. On top of that, some Democrats have long-running, deeply personal ties with Bonnen, who after being elected unanimously by the chamber in January tapped numerous members to hold leadership positions or to chair high-profile committees.
One of those Democrats, state Rep. Mary González of Clint, was also at Thursday evening’s town hall in El Paso. She was among those who offered a more measured response when asked about whether the speaker needed to resign.
“I think he should consider everything,” said González, who also chairs the House’s first-ever LGBTQ Caucus and who spoke in favor of nominating Bonnen for speaker in January. “Maybe resigning, maybe saying he’s not going to run for speaker. Nothing should be off the table during the time of crisis.”
Asked whether she was personally offended by Bonnen’s suggestion that a member was gay, González said: “Am I upset about the comments he made? Sure. I am more upset still about the anti-LGBTQ legislation that passed through the House. I am not going to be less upset about legislation than I am about [Bonnen’s] words.”
Others are ready to act now.
State Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton, one of the Democrats disparaged by Bonnen on the recording, has re-upped her call for the speaker to step down. So has state Rep. Ramon Romero Jr. of Fort Worth, who told the Tribune after an event in Dallas on Thursday that if Republicans think that a majority of Democrats plan to support Bonnen in the future, “they’re wrong.”
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
Julián Aguilar reported from El Paso. Cassi Pollock reported from Austin.