When Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan held their now infamous meeting in the Texas Capitol in June, a lot of names came up.
Bonnen suggested that Sullivan target a group of Republicans in the 2020 primaries, according to a recording of the meeting released Tuesday. He also spoke disparagingly about multiple Democrats, calling one House member “vile” and suggesting that another’s “wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”
Sullivan runs Empower Texans, a group largely funded by oil money that’s a hybrid political lobbying firm, news outlet and political action committee.
Here’s who was at the meeting, and what they talked about:
In the room for the conversation
After a drama-free legislative session as House Speaker, Bonnen met with Sullivan and then-GOP caucus chair Dustin Burrows on June 12. Sullivan recorded the hour-long conversation. The people below are heard on the recording.
Speaker of the House
After being unanimously elected speaker of the House in January, Bonnen presided over what was widely lauded as a successful, low-drama legislative session. When the session wrapped up in May, Bonnen warned House members not to campaign against each other — or else, he said, there would be consequences. But his conversation with conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan has pulled him into political hot water.
Former House GOP Caucus chair
Burrows was a top lieutenant of Bonnen’s in 2019, helping usher a property tax reform package through the Legislature. Bonnen said he asked Burrows to come to the meeting with Michael Quinn Sullivan. Burrows stayed silent on the allegations for weeks and eventually resigned as chair of the House GOP Caucus, but remains a member of the House.
CEO of Empower Texans
Sullivan is a hardline conservative activist and a longtime thorn in the side of state House leadership. His group, Empower Texans, grades lawmakers on their conservative bona fides and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on primary campaigns against GOP lawmakers not deemed conservative enough.
The target list
Bonnen told Sullivan that Burrows would list members to potentially target in the 2020 primaries. Bonnen could be heard leaving the room before Burrows listed off the names of Republicans Sullivan’s group could target in 2020. Burrows did not explicitly endorse primary challenges against the 10 members but made clear in at least one case that he didn't want to see one of them return.
Allison replaced Joe Straus, a five-term speaker and Bonnen’s predecessor, in the lower chamber. Allison received nearly $20,000 in in-kind polling from Bonnen’s new political action committee earlier this year.
Ashby was included in the list for voting against the controversial taxpayer funded lobbying bill. In 2018, Ashby won 79% of the vote in his district against his Democratic opponent. He was uncontested in the primaries.
Shortly after Bonnen publicly denied he was targeting House members, Bailes criticized Burrows for not addressing Sullivan’s claims of such a list with GOP caucus members. "The deft silence only solidifies truth within the allegations,” Bailes said in a July email to House Republicans.
Kacal was included in the list for voting against taxpayer funded lobbying. In 2018, Kacal won 67.6% of the vote in his district against his Democratic opponent. He was uncontested in the primaries.
Lambert listened to the recording in August, according to the Abilene Reporter News. The paper said he addressed the matter briefly that month and said, "The speaker made it very clear at the end of the session that nobody should be campaigning against incumbents. So it [seems] weird."
Raney was included in the list for voting against taxpayer funded lobbying. In 2018, he won his district’s primary at 57.7% against three other candidates. In the general election, Ashby won 56.4% of the vote in his district against his Democratic opponent.
Stephenson was included in the list for voting against taxpayer funded lobbying. In 2018, Stephenson won 56.5% of the vote in his district against his Democratic opponent. He was uncontested in the primaries.
Parker is a former candidate for House speaker and former chair of the House GOP Caucus. At the end of 2018, when Bonnen emerged as the likely next speaker, Parker exited the speaker’s race and threw his support behind his colleague.
Lawmakers who were mentioned
Bonnen and Burrows also disparaged a number of people in the conversation, including both Democratic and Republican House members.
When Sullivan asks about targeting Bell, Burrows says, “leave him alone. He’s just a dumb freshman.”
Bonnen said in the tape that Rosenthal “makes [his] skin crawl” and is “a piece of shit.” He also said that his chief of staff, Gavin Massingill, suggested to him that the Democratic legislator is gay. Rosenthal said in a joint statement with Bonnen over the summer that he had forgiven the speaker for his comments.