The Man With the Plan

Long before the Texas Legislature did battle over redistricting, Tom DeLay knew exactly what he wanted: the defeat of five to seven white Democratic congressmen by appropriately conservative, sufficiently loyal conservative Republicans. And he knew how to get it.

TOM DELAY HAS A RARE GIFT for planning ahead, for being able to conceive a chessboard and a sequence of moves that sprawls across years. Then the majority whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Sugar Land Republican decided he was going to get more GOP congressmen from Texas as soon as the Supreme Court put the 2000 national election out of its misery in Florida, and he may have been plotting his strategy even before that.

Elsewhere, George W. Bush might have been a minority president starting out his term, but at home he was arguably the most popular politician since Sam Houston. Republicans held every statewide office in Texas, and they had a majority in the state Senate. But in the 2000 elections, they had been turned back once more in their attempt to take over the House. The Speaker, Pete Laney, was a quiet and well-liked Democrat from Hale Center who had gotten along with Bush when he was governor and in quantum ways had made Bush’s life and work easier. Laney had been asked to introduce Bush to the nation in the Texas Capitol and vouch for him when the Supreme Court handed him his fiercely disputed presidency.

A few months after the election, DeLay was back in his old statehouse haunts, according to the Washington Post, driving around Austin with Jim Ellis, his top political aide. It was then that he and Ellis came up with a daring plan: Target a few linchpin races in 2002 where Republican victories would enable the party to break the Democrats’ lock on the Texas House of Representatives, help recruit the strongest possible candidates, and pour in money and assistance just as his national political-action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC), had done in so many congressional races in 2000. The Legislature would push through a redistricting plan that would allow gerrymandering arithmetic to accomplish what the Republicans weren’t getting done at the polls, and soon the Texas congressional delegation would include a rightful commanding majority of Republicans (who would, among other virtues, leap to show their gratitude in the event that DeLay offered himself for Speaker of the U.S. House).

DeLay’s power had reached such heights that he would soon have the entire leadership of state government and both chambers of the Legislature performing for him like dancing bears. The pandemonium that DeLay set off in Texas was the flip side of the old adage that all politics is local. By drawing the Texas map so that five to seven more seats would be handed to the GOP, he meant to perpetuate, in one brash swipe, a conservative Republican majority and agenda in the U.S. House until the roosters quit crowing and the sun stayed down. The prize of pulling off this coup amounted to a DeLay wish list: placing restrictions on abortion, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, eliminating the capital gains tax, and all but putting the hated Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration out of business. Katy, bar the door!

DeLay didn’t think that the House under Laney would vote for a map to his liking. DeLay often railed about judges interfering with the legislative process—he proposed impeachment for any activist federal judge whose record was found wanting by, well, DeLay—yet, despite his aversion to the federal judiciary, he thought that Republicans stood a better chance of getting what the national party needed from a federal three-judge panel than by trying to work out a compromise with Laney and the Democrats. (The U.S. Fifth Circuit, of which Texas is a part, is dominated by conservatives who were appointed by Republican presidents.) The House Redistricting Committee approved a congressional redistricting plan late in the 2001 session, but time ran out before it could pass, throwing the matter into the courts. Because a completely redrawn map might lead to further legal challenges and make the state unable to hold its 2002 elections on schedule, the panel chose to adopt most of the House committee plan, backed by Laney, with few revisions and little effect on the balance of power between the parties. And it was a long-standing custom that a court-adopted plan remain in place for a decade, until the next federal census. Except for suits over the Voting Rights Act, non-census-year gerrymandering had gone out with the nineteenth century. Relieved Texas Democrats were content to bide their time for the rest of the decade, knowing that Bush the Younger wasn’t always going to be president and that the next set of coattails in line would not be so daunting.

One of the few legislators who was close to DeLay and had served with him during his three terms in the statehouse was a man from Bush’s hometown, Midland. Tom Craddick was a salesman of the mud that is used to seal and lubricate the drilling of oil wells. Craddick had been coming out of the desert to the Legislature since the sixties; he had once been known as a rebel and a reformer who’d ganged up with liberal Democrats to oust a corrupt leadership team of conservative Democrats. For a long time he had been a friend of Laney’s. But since the late eighties, he had chaired the House Republican Caucus. Craddick longed to be Speaker, and as the years and sessions passed and each attempt to beat Laney failed, his partisan intensity sharpened and not so many stories were told about his quick sense of humor. Craddick had other rivals, moderate Republicans, who also aspired to the speakership. DeLay had reason to believe that Craddick was the only Speaker candidate in that crowd who would enforce discipline and push through the redistricting plan he wanted. Republicans had to take control of the House, make Craddick Speaker, and put redistricting back on the legislative agenda.

In September 2001 DeLay founded a new organization, Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC—the acronym soon made its way into the local political lexicon

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