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.
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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 as “Trim-pack”). DeLay positioned himself as chairman of the honorary board, appointed Ellis its director, and ordered him to make sure their plan was carried through. To get things rolling, ARMPAC gave the new baby its first $50,000. Everything was to be modeled on the way ARMPAC raised money and jammed it into congressional races that conservative Republicans could win. And TRMPAC’s fundraisers went back to the same proven feed troughs. Forty-three percent of the contributions came from interests outside Texas that had no business pending with its state Legislature. Certain transactions just seemed bizarre. Why would the Mississippi Choctaws give $6,000 to TRMPAC? Because well-connected Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff represented the tribe, and he took credit for convincing DeLay, a few years earlier, that their casino revenue should not be taxable. The largest contribution, $100,000, came from the Boston-based Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care. Why on earth? Some claims were later made that a couple of Texas companies were part of the organization, but the middleman of that transaction was one Haley Barbour, the drawling old party warhorse, who was then lobbying for the consortium of nursing home companies seeking to block Medicare cuts while mounting a campaign for governor of Mississippi that he later won—lending more evidence that in American politics all ambitions and reputations are redeemable short of the grave. Barbour had been quite thick with DeLay and ARMPAC. In Kansas City, Westar Energy sent $25,000 to TRMPAC in hopes of achieving, as one executive put it, a “strong position at the table” at the House of Representatives in Washington, not the one in Austin.
And so it went for TRMPAC through the election year of 2002. Bacardi USA: $25,000. Phillip Morris: $25,000. Old Country Store: $25,000. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway: $25,000. Sears, Roebuck & Company: $25,000. Constellation Energy Group: $27,500. Diversified Collection Services—a California company that helps the IRS collect taxes—$50,000. In a stunning memo in September, a fundraiser named Susan Lilly recorded the breathless day that she and state representative Beverly Woolley spent drumming up support and bucks in Houston: 7: 15 a.m.: “Wheels Down” at a Houston airport; 9 a.m.: Moran Resources; 10 a.m.: the mega law firm Vinson and Elkins—in all, five appointments squeezed between traffic and a one-hour lunch break before the 4:10 p.m. “Wheels Up” of the flight back to Austin. Handwritten notes around the itinerary reported “36K day +25 Reliant [the Houston-based energy firm].” More than $60,000 in one day’s work was quite an impressive haul. Lilly’s compressed notes expressed in varying specificity what the money-givers expected in return. After Compass Bank (“want to clean up home equity lending”), they visited the conglomerate Maxxam, where they encountered CEO Charles Hurwitz, whose passion was a better climate for betting on horses. “Thoroughbred & Qtr. hrs. [quarter horses],” she scribbled dutifully. “Best horse racing, Best farms . . . $1 billion, Polls 83% in favor.”
Hired to be TRMPAC’s executive director was a Texas consultant and longtime pal of Karl Rove’s named John Colyandro. “He didn’t raise a nickel personally,” Colyandro said of DeLay. “But he gave us instant credibility.” DeLay sat in on planning sessions, but it is not clear whether, as honorary chairman, he had a legal obligation to know how the money was being spent. Still, the idea that DeLay maintained an arm’s length relationship with TRMPAC would choke a shark. His daughter, Dani Ferro, was paid to organize fundraising events for TRMPAC, including one in Austin featuring Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a GOP heroine in the Bush-Gore standoff in 2000. Ellis, Colyandro, and others identified 21 House districts and 2 Senate seats in Texas that they believed were in play. TRMPAC raised $1.5 million during the 2002 campaign cycle and spent almost all of it. But help from TRMPAC was just a fraction of the Republican largesse. Bob Perry, a Houston construction magnate (not related to Governor Rick Perry), contributed $642,500 to candidates endorsed for the swing seats. Six donors, including TRMPAC, ARMPAC, and Bob Perry, reported contributions of $2.88 million, and on top of that, the Texas Association of Business, which made no bones about being a devoted patron of the Republican party, poured $1.9 million into “issue ads” designed to help the chosen few. An average bump of $200,000 is a huge advantage in any race for the Texas Legislature.
Apart from the money, the Republicans had some attractive candidates. They tended toward young, spruced-up white guys with an ability to quote Scripture. They knew who was helping them and why. In mid-October Colyandro e-mailed TRMPAC’s accountant that he should expect a check from a donor in San Antonio. Fourteen Republican candidates were to share a total of $152,000, and the accountant was told to send the checks to Craddick at his office in Midland.
With Bush in the White House and Republican strength from the top to the bottom of the statewide ballot, the 2002 election was a wipeout for Democrats. The Republicans held 27 statewide offices in Texas, the Democrats zilch. In the postscripts and analyses of election night, it became a verity that Texas no longer had a Democratic party. By a margin of 8862, at long last the Republicans controlled the Texas House of Representatives. Eighteen of the 21 candidates backed by TRMPAC and 5 other big donors won. At the polls, it was by far the biggest victory in Tom DeLay’s life.
The triumph set off a frenzy of backslapping and credit-taking for the Republicans’ grand day. The Texas Association of Business issued a boastful press release: “There was a unique opportunity to change the face of the Legislature. TAB made a decision to participate on an unprecedented level. That is why at the close of the session in 2001, TAB devoted all its efforts to raising money to promote pro-business candidates in key House and Senate races.” Two days after the election, Craddick called a press conference. Everything was in place for him now to oust Laney as Speaker. The invitation to the press conference and tacit kickoff of Craddick’s race for Speaker contained a line of small print at the bottom: “Paid for by Texans for a Republican Majority.”
When Craddick walked into the lovefest, his supporters broke into wild cheering and applause. Everything between Craddick’s bifocals and chin folded into the joy of his grin. It had been such a long time coming. Now that the prize was in his grasp, he moved quickly. The Speaker’s race in the Texas Legislature is run and won behind closed doors, as it is in Congress. Craddick brushed aside the challenges of two moderate Republicans with the help of a handful of black and Hispanic Democrats, who were rewarded by Craddick with choice committee assignments and chairmanships; they saw the way it was going and believed, or at least rationalized, that they could help their constituencies by jumping off the sinking ship of Pete Laney. The old-style Democrat who had stood up for a fellow Texan and beleaguered Republican president made calls and counted heads until he saw it was useless. Laney released his pledges; Craddick’s ascendance was assured. The new Legislature convened in January 2003. On the first day, Craddick was sworn in as Speaker of the House. Seated in the front row was the old friend who’d refused to give up and had finally made Craddick’s dream come true. That man was Tom DeLay, who had recently become House majority leader.
FOR MUCH OF THE 2003 legislative session, talk of redistricting was downplayed. Governor Perry dismissed it with a football metaphor: “It’s like, ’Do you want to go run your wind sprints again?’” The new lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, was working hard to transform his image from that of a street fighter who bought his elections with his personal wealth into that of a consensus-builder with some bright ideas. Dewhurst grumbled that redistricting was a distraction from the more pressing business of the Senate, likening it to “the flu.” The new Republican attorney general, Greg Abbott, issued an opinion that the congressional districts drawn by the three-judge panel were valid and that the state had no legal obligation to revisit the issue until after the 2010 census. Even Craddick was pessimistic that there was enough time to get a redistricting bill through the Legislature. Those disavowals may have been genuine. But DeLay was an alumnus of the Texas House, and he had plenty of arms that he could twist.
Jim Ellis shuttled in and out of Austin. He kept DeLay meticulously informed of the progress being made by TRMPAC. In one February memo he described Mike Krusee, an ambitious representative from the Austin suburbs in Williamson County, as being eager to carry a redistricting bill. “To me, the Krusee strategy of moving a bill out of the House seems a good one,” Ellis wrote DeLay. “I think we should encourage early hearings and a vote in the House during the regular session. Your opinion? We may have to work the Speaker pretty hard to convince him of this course, but I think it is very doable.” In the same memo, Ellis relayed an apology from Dewhurst’s chief of staff concerning the lieutenant governor’s remark equating redistricting with the flu. Ellis said the aide had assured him that it didn’t mean that Dewhurst was opposed to doing redistricting.
Driven like mules under the cracking whip of an old-time teamster, Republicans in the Legislature were being pressured to eliminate white Democrats from the state’s congressional delegation by giving them no winnable district in which to run. Despite suffering a blowout in the 2002 statewide races, Democrats had won 17 of 32 congressional elections in Texas. DeLay’s gerrymandering maneuver was risky, for it would alienate, energize, and bring fully out of the margins skillful young Hispanic and black legislators in the Democratic ranks. But Republicans were confident that if they drew the map right, there was little chance that the Justice Department of John Ashcroft would rule that the plan diminished minority voting strength or that the inevitable legal challenges would sway a federal judiciary dominated by conservative Republicans. High on the Republican hit list were Austin’s Lloyd Doggett, Dallas’s Martin Frost, and Waco’s Chet Edwards. The Republicans also wanted to get rid of a crew-cut East Texan named Max Sandlin and even Charlie Stenholm, a conservative West Texan who was one of the original and most prominent Boll Weevils—Democrats who’d rallied to the economic policies and leadership of Ronald Reagan. Of course, if loyalty for past bipartisan service wasn’t going to protect Laney, it wasn’t likely to reach far enough to help Stenholm.
Confident that his lieutenants were capable of pulling off the coup in Texas, DeLay continued to go his way and make his estimate of himself known in Washington. According to the Washington Post, one night in early May DeLay was participating in a fundraiser at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. The majority leader, who for years had been trying to kick a nicotine habit, was smoking a cigar. The restaurant manager came over and said the gentleman would have to put it out. The building was owned by the federal government; even in the private restaurant the federal no-smoking policy applied. In the disagreement, DeLay was reported to have roared, “I am the federal government!” Sent along afterward to cover for the boss, a DeLay spokesman said that the manager and the newspaper were mistaken; the congressman had just said that he was with the federal government.
On a more positive note for DeLay, a few days later the House redistricting committee in Austin suddenly kicked out a bill and a proposed map. To Democrats like Elliott Naishtat, this gerrymandering was an outrage and an insult. Naishtat had migrated to Texas as a federal volunteer social worker after growing up in Queens, New York; he had ridden Ann Richards’s coattails into the Texas House in 1990, and he represented one of the state’s most liberal districts, in Austin. Naishtat was agog at what the Republicans were trying to do to congressional representation in Central Texas. The state capital would be divided into three districts so that the GOP could get rid of Lloyd Doggett. Austin’s historic and ethnically diverse south side would be handed to Republican Lamar Smith, a near-nativist who had engineered a massive overhaul of immigration law and who lived in San Antonio, eighty miles away. Austin was always being punished for its snooty airs and liberalism. But what to make of Lockhart? Southeast of Austin, the little town would also be cut into three congressional districts. “They want to split the high school off from its football stadium!” Naishtat cried.
Waco, a city that had remained entirely within a single congressional district for a century, would be divided at the Brazos River. The purpose was to separate Chet Edwards from the black community’s vote. Edwards was also to be cut off from the sprawling Army base to the west of Waco. Fort Hood was the largest employer in the area, and Edwards was a member of the House Armed Services Committee. The Republicans wanted to put Edwards in a stacked-deck race against state representative Arlene Wohlgemuth, whose obsession was controlling health and social services costs.
The plan voted out of the committee was hurtling toward passage like a runaway train. The Republicans weren’t even going to hold public hearings. The only way to stop this, Democrats realized, was to run out the clock on the 2003 legislative session. If 51 of them left the state and stuck together, they could break the quorum (100 out of 150) and bring the House to a standstill.
However brief and futile, the revolt of the Killer D’s was a national sensation. The House had adjourned for Mother’s Day, and most Republicans had left Austin for the holiday weekend. Consequently, Craddick and his team were caught flat-footed Monday morning. Seeing that the House had too few members to attain a quorum, he ordered a lockdown of the chamber. Nobody could leave. Capitol staff started hauling in cots so the captured House members could sleep. It was quickly noted, though, that most of the hostages were Republicans, who were not happy sitting at their desks and twiddling their thumbs. Capitol staff quietly returned and hauled away the cots. Craddick banged his gavel and ordered the House to stand at ease. At a press conference, reporters hooted and asked him where the Democrats had gone. The best Craddick could do was sneer that the runaways were “Chicken D’s.”
Judging from the behavior of his aides, DeLay was livid. A lawyer on his staff called the Justice Department to inquire if the FBI had the authority to arrest the Democrats. The state Department of Public Safety set up a command center in a room next to the Speaker’s office in the Capitol. From Austin, DeLay got a report that a bunch of Democrats were aboard Pete Laney’s plane. Laney’s craft was a Piper turboprop; how many fugitives could there have been? But they didn’t need to bring in all the Democrats. A few were on the Craddick team—notably a flamboyant black entertainment lawyer from Houston named Ron Wilson—and had reported for the vote. One more Democrat on the floor would give Craddick his quorum; turning Laney’s plane around would do the trick. A caller from DeLay’s office helpfully provided the Federal Aviation Administration with the tail number of Laney’s plane, and a DPS investigator implied to the Department of Homeland Security that an “overdue” plane carrying state officials might have crashed or might even have been the victim of terrorists. The plane landed uneventfully in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
The Democrats knew the jig was up the first night, when they saw reporters in the lobby of their hotel. They were approached by a nervous DPS trooper, who acknowledged that he had no authority to arrest them. He asked if he could give any of them a ride back to Austin. Ever sure of himself, DeLay told the Houston Chronicle that calling in federal marshals or FBI agents to arrest the fugitives was justified because redistricting involved congressional seats, which made it a federal matter. Ardmore swarmed with the national press. CNN’s Judy Woodruff demanded of one legislator if he didn’t feel “a little silly doing this.” That was an arguable point of view, and it was hard for Democrats to tell their story and make their case in a twenty-second soundbite. But the Killer D’s stuck it out in Ardmore for four days. They forced Craddick to gavel the regular session to a close without a vote on redistricting.
The episode was farcical, no doubt about it. But another CNN commentator, Bill Schneider, reported that “Texas authorities had followed up on DeLay’s suggestion and asked the feds to help round up lawmakers on the lam.” Even before the Democrats climbed onto their buses and came back across the Red River, state troopers in Austin were clearly anxious about the implications of what they had done; one DPS official ordered all field notes, photos, and computer records of the manhunt destroyed. Investigations were also under way at the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice. In an internal Justice Department report, an official wrote that DeLay’s requests to call in the FBI had gone unheeded because they were, in a word, “wacko.”
AS IN OTHER WARS THEY had waged, the Republicans had trouble managing the peace. Democrats watched in delight as the victors fell snarling, snapping, and yelping over the spoils in one special session, and then another, and then another. Final resolution of the Republican map got so hung up in a fight between West Texas Republicans that Perry was just days away from having to call a fourth special session, which would have prolonged the agony into the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. Lubbock’s state senator, Robert Duncan, wanted to make sure his hometown’s freshman congressman, Randy Neugebauer, had a safe GOP seat, but he also begged to differ with those who wanted to rid Congress of Democrats. Duncan thought highly of Abilene’s Charlie Stenholm and believed the farmers and ranchers and small-town chambers of commerce out in the mesquites did not want to sacrifice him. But Craddick insisted on creating a new district around his hometown of Midland. The seat was tailored so that Mike Conaway, an old friend and oil-patch business partner of President Bush’s, could fulfill his dream of serving the nation in Congress. So intricate is the process of redistricting that every jiggle of district boundary lines sets off a clatter of dominoes throughout the state. “We’re fighting over Deaf Smith County,” said one Republican negotiator, “a place most people couldn’t find with a map.”
Recognizing that his master plan might yet come to nothing, DeLay hurried to the pink granite statehouse and set about proving who ran this joint now. As he shuttled between meetings with the leadership teams of Craddick, Dewhurst, and Perry, reporters knew he was in the Capitol but could never get close to him. An aide of one House Democrat looked across an atrium and saw DeLay, wearing a dark blue suit, rocking thoughtfully in the office chair of a Republican member. He must have felt her gaze. DeLay looked around, saw her through the window, and smiled at her briefly; then the blinds dropped so hard they bounced and snapped shut.
Naturally, DeLay’s friend Craddick won and Duncan lost. (Duncan emerged from one meeting and pantomimed a routine in which his wrist was twisted toward his shoulder blade.) Midland got a new district customized for the pal of the president, while in Lubbock and Abilene the incumbents Neugebauer and Stenholm had to run against each other. The last few days, DeLay hovered over maps, reviewing every tweak. Later, when Democrats challenged the new districts in court, Republican state representative Phil King, of Weatherford, said in a deposition that DeLay told the legislators to forget one nudge of the lines of his Twenty-second District; it would take away too much of his base.
Two days after Perry signed the redistricting bill into law, in October 2003, DeLay downplayed his role at one of his tightly controlled press briefings on Capitol Hill. “I am a Texan,” he said of his great redistricting victory. “It’s a process that affects Texas. I am also a leader in the House, and the Republican Conference’s point of view, I felt strongly, should be represented. It’s an open process, and I have every right as a citizen of the United States to participate in the process.”
He had subjected government in Texas to seven months of acrimony and gridlock, and the bill for the special sessions was passed on to taxpayers in the amount of $5 million. As Christmas approached, the battleground in Austin shifted from the Capitol to a nearby federal courtroom. Before a three-judge panel, several advocacy organizations joined in a suit to have the congressional districts thrown out on the grounds that they violated the Voting Rights Act. (The plan was upheld, and the case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.)
During the trial, reporters learned one day that DeLay was in town raising money for his perpetual revolution at a closed affair in the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel, downtown. Security officers wouldn’t allow the reporters near the stairs to the chandeliered room, but they milled about in the lobby, craning their necks and joking. This time they thought they had him cornered. He would have to run their gantlet as they hammered him with questions. But once more, DeLay was ahead of the game. He shook hands and basked in the adulation and gratitude of GOP donors and raked in the dough. Then his heels rang and his short legs pumped as he and his aides jogged down a fire escape and gave those liberal clowns the slip.