IT WAS EARLY IN January when Eric Thode got the phone call from a member of Tom DeLay’s staff. Thode was a little surprised to hear from DeLay. As the chairman of the Fort Bend County Republican party, Thode was responsible for running the March 7 primary election, but that was two months away, and he expected DeLay to win easily against three opponents. Surely DeLay wasn’t concerned about it. So what could the eleven-term congressman from Sugar Land, the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, want to know?
As Thode remembers the conversation, the staffer said DeLay was “contemplating his possibilities.” What if he were to win the primary with a less-than-solid showing? What if Ronnie Earle, the Travis County district attorney who had secured two felony indictments against DeLay involving the misuse of corporate funds to help Republican state legislative candidates in the 2002 election cycle, was able to win a conviction before the 2006 election? What if something happened in the federal corruption investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whom DeLay had once described as one of his closest friends? If any of these circumstances came to pass, the Democrats could win the seat. His seat.
Where was this leading? The answer wasn’t long in revealing itself. At what date, asked the staffer, could DeLay withdraw as a candidate? Was there a way for the GOP to replace him on the ballot after the primary? Thode explained the complicated procedure that allows the Republican county chairmen from the four counties in DeLay’s district (Fort Bend, Harris, Brazoria, and Galveston) to pick a replacement for a seat that becomes vacant due to death, resignation, or ineligibility. When he hung up, Thode knew what no one else in America would know for three months: The end of Tom DeLay’s political career was at hand.
DELAY UNDERSTOOD ALMOST everything about power in Washington except the insidious power of scandal. He had plenty of precedents to learn from; in his career, he had seen two Speakers brought down by ethics violations, Democrat Jim Wright, of Texas, and Republican Newt Gingrich, of Georgia, as well as his own handpicked successor to Gingrich, Bob Livingston, of Louisiana, who confessed to an extramarital affair and quit the House. Three lessons were to be drawn from the dethroning of Wright and Gingrich. The most obvious was that they were intense partisans whose political style—Wright’s stretching of parliamentary rules to run roughshod over the opposition, Gingrich’s (and the entire Republican leadership’s, including DeLay’s) loathing of Bill Clinton—made the minority party hate them and look for ways to bring them down. The second lesson was that if you’re going to make yourself a target, you’d better not give the opposition a reason to shoot—and in today’s Washington, that reason is usually ethical transgressions. The third was that scandal, once contracted, is a virus with no known cure. The only safe course is to stay within the rules, but DeLay lived on the edge. He painted the target on his own back.
With the possible exception of John McCain, no member of Congress had been so much in the news over the past three years. The difference, of course, was that the media’s treatment of the senior U.S. senator from Arizona (and presidential aspirant) had been almost universally favorable, while the opposite was true of the 59-year-old DeLay. Nicknamed the Hammer for his mastery of the dark arts of persuasion, the man who had arguably been the most powerful figure in Congress for a decade had taken so many hits from Democrats and the media, and faced so many perils for so long, that what’s amazing is not that he fell but that he survived as long as he did. Indeed, at the end, every political reporter in Washington seemed to be on the DeLay obituary beat. Under attack in his district, under indictment in Austin for money laundering of campaign funds by a political action committee he created, under scrutiny in Washington in connection with the Abramoff scandal, under an ethical cloud that earned him repeated admonishments from peers charged with enforcing the rules that he flouted, and unseated (voluntarily, though with much prodding) as a high-ranking member of the House leadership, DeLay nevertheless retained influence, as he demonstrated when he said in February that Congress would overturn the Dubai ports deal, ruining the White House’s efforts to salvage it.
This is the point in the eulogy where we say of the dearly departed scoundrel, “No one really knew him.” And outside the Beltway, it’s true. A feeding frenzy engulfed DeLay with such intensity that the public came to regard him as a cartoon character: a one-dimensional caricature of the corrupt, devil-may-care pol. They saw him as a crook. A cheat. A right-wing fanatic whose motivation never changed. Like Elmer Fudd, he wanted only to kill the wascally wabbit (who pwesumably was a Democrat). An entire industry sprang up—manned not just by leftist operatives but also bloggers, investigative reporters, and watchdog groups—for the purpose of shining a light on his and his associates’ every move. The one-dimensional DeLay so completely obscured the 3-D version that few could see, through the facade, one of the ablest politicians of our time and an essential benefactor to his region and his state.
But DeLay’s fall is not a tragedy, for he was not a victim of fate. He has no one to blame but himself. The fatal wounds were entirely self-inflicted. Even as he faced the likelihood of a trial in Austin that could send him to prison and the strongest electoral challenge of his life in November from former Democratic congressman Nick Lampson, he could not restrain himself from reinforcing his own caricature: He assailed Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor for airing their concerns about the independence of the judiciary in the face of attacks by DeLay and other politicians, and he lashed out at society for treating Christianity “like some second-rate superstition.” The cartoon was building toward its climax—would he be vindicated? would he be ruined?—when three words abruptly appeared on-screen: “That’s all, folks.”
THREE DAYS BEFORE the Republican primary, I drove into Fort Bend County to survey the political landscape. I expected to find evidence that DeLay was fighting for his political life. But as I drove around, there was no sign that he was running for reelection—literally. Dozens of candidates for local offices had posted their campaign placards at major intersections, but as I navigated through the county on U.S. 90A, and then onto Texas Highway 6, DeLay’s name was nowhere to be found. Nor did I come across a billboard displaying his likeness. No rallies were scheduled. No public appearances. I turned into the sprawling Sugar Creek subdivision and headed down a major artery. Aha! A DeLay yard sign. And another. After half an hour of driving, my count reached 21. It occurred to me that perhaps DeLay did not want to remind the people of his home county that he was on the ballot, lest they be reminded to vote against him.
In retrospect, the invisibility of DeLay—he even left town on primary day to cast votes in the House and hobnob with lobbyists at a Washington fundraiser—reflected the attitude of a dispirited candidate who was only going through the motions of his last campaign and didn’t have enough respect for his constituents to quit in time to let them, instead of some backroom politicians, pick his successor. Michael Stanley, who was the campaign chairman for Tom Campbell, the most serious of the three challengers for the Republican nomination—and who is also a law partner of Chris Bell, the Democratic nominee for governor, who, as a lame-duck congressman in 2004, successfully pursued ethics complaints against DeLay—likewise found DeLay’s absence inexplicable. “The incumbent is hiding from the press,” Stanley told me as I headed for a meeting with Campbell. “He would not appear at any forum where he did not control the venue entirely—two-minute speeches and no Q&A allowed. The League of Women Voters ended up having to cancel their debate.” I wasn’t having much luck finding DeLay either. I had tried repeatedly to get an audience with him, sending e-mails to his lawyer, visiting his Capitol Hill office, going to his District 22 office in Stafford only to find the door locked, and pleading with his press assistant. Not a chance. DeLay wasn’t talking to reporters, period, not even to one from the Weekly Standard, a conservative journal.
Campbell was. I caught up with him at a restaurant after he had spent a morning block walking in a new subdivision. Thode had told me that Campbell was a credible candidate but didn’t have good Republican credentials: He wasn’t a regular primary voter, for one thing. When I asked Campbell about this, he bristled. “I was general counsel for NOAA”—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—“under George Herbert Walker Bush,” he said. “The Exxon Valdez oil spill happened on my watch. I brought the CEO of Exxon and the governor of Alaska together and facilitated a settlement. I’ve been involved with the Republican party since I was nineteen. I debated on college campuses as a surrogate speaker for Nixon in 1972. I was national rapid response director for the 1988 Bush campaign.”
Why had he been willing to give up a successful law practice to take on DeLay? “It started in the voting booth last time around,” he said. “I looked at the ballot and I didn’t like my choices.” He threw in a few well-chosen phrases, as even nascent politicians will: “Win-at-any-cost, slash-and-burn politics”; “When you cut corners to achieve victories, victories fall apart”; “He has bartered our party’s principles on K Street [the generic name for the lobby in Washington] for campaign contributions.” Then he stopped for a moment. “I did it because somebody had to,” he said.
What a great answer. Campbell knew, as I did, that it is almost impossible to beat an entrenched officeholder in a congressional race. “You don’t beat an incumbent,” he told me. “He falls of his own weight.” But in a less than obvious way, Campbell did beat DeLay. He beat him just by getting in the race, by putting a national spotlight on DeLay’s troubles at home. He beat him by making sure that DeLay’s character would be laid before the voters, by proving that all of DeLay’s power and money couldn’t keep an honest man from running, and by being the standard-bearer for thousands of good, solid Republicans who didn’t want to be represented by Tom DeLay anymore. He beat him by being a person of unimpeachable integrity against whom Tom DeLay could be measured and found wanting. Reporters from around the country, aware of a Houston Chronicle poll showing that DeLay had a 60 percent unfavorable rating against only 28 percent favorable, had swarmed into Sugar Land, DeLay’s hometown. Never mind that the poll was not limited to GOP primary voters: The numbers sounded sufficiently grim that the reporters, no fans of DeLay, could suggest that he was in trouble.
In fact, Campbell never had a chance. DeLay had a 22-year head start in fund-raising, in identifying regular Republican primary voters, in compiling lists of supporters he could reach by mail, both snail and electronic. There were 257,140 registered voters in Fort Bend County—many of whom, no doubt, were distressed that their congressman was ethically challenged. But how could Campbell, on a shoestring budget, identify them, reach them, and motivate them to go to the polls? And if the task was daunting in Fort Bend, where Campbell had some name ID and organization, it was hopeless in the other three counties in the district. He was David without a slingshot.
On election night the end came quickly, though not unexpectedly. DeLay won the early vote, 8,310 to Campbell’s 3,064, and finished with 62 percent of the overall vote to Campbell’s 30 percent in a four-way race. The firestorm of anger at DeLay that had been Campbell’s only hope failed to materialize; the Harris County portion of the district had produced a three-to-one margin for DeLay despite the Chronicle’s endorsement of Campbell. Still, one feature of the vote was significant: Campbell, with a little help from the two other challengers, had held DeLay to 55 percent in Fort Bend. In the general election, with Democrats voting, DeLay was in jeopardy of losing his home county and the election. I had been asked to talk about the returns on Fox News the next morning, and I would have mentioned the Fort Bend results, but a predawn phone call from a producer informed me that they had moved on. “DeLay won,” she explained. “It’s not news.”
IF ONE OF DELAY’S colleagues in the Texas House had been told in 1983 that on the floor sat a future majority leader of the U.S. House, DeLay would not have been among the first hundred choices. His well-remembered nickname (Hot Tub Tom) and that of the residence he shared with other lawmakers (Macho Manor) attested to his priorities. Nothing in his behavior suggested that he had a genius for politics, as DeLay has been the first to admit.
“When I was elected to Congress, I was a self-centered jerk,” DeLay told Time in the April 3 interview in which he revealed his intention to give up his seat. He went on to relate the tale of his religious conversion, of how a Republican colleague went door-to-door to visit each freshman, invite him to Bible study, and show a James Dobson video called Where’s Daddy? “And every bad thing he was talking about was me,” DeLay said. “That’s when I came back to Christ.” Perhaps his newfound seriousness of purpose kindled his ambition as well, because following his election in 1984, DeLay was elected the freshman representative on the panel of House insiders who handle committee assignments. His job was to make sure that his fellow freshmen got the slots they coveted; only after theirs had been secured did he get to pick from the dregs that remained. But his sacrifice paid off: Two years later, when committee assignments were handed out again, he was first in line for a plum vacancy on the House Appropriations Committee.
He had acquired a taste for power and position, and his timing was perfect. He had arrived in Congress at the midpoint of the Reagan presidency, at precisely the moment when the Main Street Republicans, who had been bred in the Taft and Eisenhower years, were retiring, to be replaced by suburbanites like DeLay, to whom government was not a tool but a nuisance. (An exterminator by trade, he hated the burdens imposed by federal regulations.) The newcomers were impatient with the traditionalist Republican leadership in the House, which they saw as doing little to loosen the Democrats’ grip on power. “We have a small faction, and they are a minority, who believe they are there to govern,” he explained to the Chronicle several years later. “Then there is the majority of us who believe that … we are there to be an opposition to the Democratic philosophy, and the only way to do that is through confrontation.”
His course was set. When the time came for the Republicans to take over, he intended to be part of the leadership. And so he sought and won whatever position was attainable: president of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservatives who worried that President George H. W. Bush was too moderate, followed by secretary of the House Republican Conference, making him the fifth-ranking Republican in the House. He announced his candidacy for minority whip in late 1993, but when the Republicans took control of the House in the 1994 midterm elections, the prize then became majority whip, the right position at the right time to undo the effects of forty unbroken years of Democratic rule. To win his post, DeLay had to defeat Pennsylvanian Bob Walker, the choice of the new Speaker, Newt Gingrich, which he did by forming his own political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC), and raising $2 million, which he doled out to dozens of GOP House candidates. He went into their districts to campaign for them, visiting 25 states. Walker made one $1,000 contribution. Money, DeLay learned—if he had ever had any doubt—made all the difference. “We keep a very close eye on the money,” DeLay told me back in 1996, when I went to Washington to write about the Republican revolution. DeLay’s job as whip was to get the votes to pass the Republican agenda and to get money from lobbyists and their corporate clients to keep his party in the majority, and he was very open about how he intended to dispose of those who weren’t willing to go along. “We don’t like to deal with people who are trying to kill the revolution,” he had told the Washington Post a year earlier. “We know who they are. The word is out.”
His record was still clean at that point—no ethics problems, no criminal prosecutions—but he had begun to draw attention with his aggressive attitude toward the lobbyists of K Street. He had forged an alliance with Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, whose goal of shrinking the size of government until you could “drown it in a bathtub” DeLay shared. The two conceived the now-notorious K Street Project, which was designed to pressure lobbying firms and trade associations to fire their Democratic lobbyists and replace them with Republicans, who would direct their clients’ contributions toward the GOP. (“There can be no lasting revolution in policy without a revolution in fund-raising,” DeLay told me during our interview.) To this day the K Street Project’s Web site tracks lobbyists’ comings and goings with names highlighted in red and blue to represent their partisan affiliations.
But the K Street Project was not just about Republicans; it was also about Tom DeLay, who ended up controlling a sizable chunk of the contributions. A recent news report indicated that he donated $3.5 million to GOP congressional candidates over a ten-year period. These contributions enhanced DeLay’s power in two ways: They bought loyalty, of course, but they also bought fear, the realization that the hand that giveth can also taketh away. When DeLay asked for a vote in a tight situation, the member knew that more than public policy might be riding on the answer.
DeLay didn’t invent the idea of a high-pressure campaign to align the lobby with the majority party. That had been the brainchild of Democratic congressman Tony Coelho, of California, who had taken charge of his party’s fund-raising efforts in the early eighties and recognized that the explosion of corporate political action committees, which preferred supporting free-market Republican candidates, posed a serious threat to the long-standing Democratic control of the House. Without PAC money, Democratic candidates would not remain competitive in elections, which were becoming increasingly expensive. So he brought powerful Democratic congressmen with the ability to dispense—or withhold—favors to meetings with the PACs, pointed out that the Democrats held a solid majority in the House and were likely to continue to do so, asked for their contributions to Democratic candidates, and left it to the PACs to deduce the thinly veiled but unspoken threat: Access to decision makers depended on financial support. On the strength of his fund-raising skills, Coelho rose to be whip and had his sights set on majority leader, but in 1989, amid questions about his personal finances, he resigned suddenly to take a job on Wall Street. (There is a cautionary tale here about how a leader’s hardball fund-raising tactics can succeed so well that he makes himself a target of the opposition. Evidently DeLay did not see the parallel.)
Now DeLay was following in Coelho’s footsteps, bringing the lobby to heel with such enthusiasm that he acquired his now-famous nickname—which, DeLay told me, is “kind of cute. I’m just a very gentle guy.” Keeping “a very close eye on the money” meant tallying the contributions of the four hundred largest PACs to members of each party and classifying every PAC as friendly or unfriendly. “There’s been a Democratic mind-set in this town for forty years,” DeLay told me. “Lobbyists were Democrats because they had to be Democrats to succeed. Do you think they want us to be in power? They’re telling their organizations, ‘We’d better hedge our bets. Democrats might take back the House.’”
There were two major differences in the way Coelho raised money for the Democrats and the way DeLay raised money for the Republicans. In Coelho’s era, lobbyists remained supplicants. DeLay embraced them as partners; they participated in the writing of legislation behind closed doors. The other difference had to do with style. Coelho stayed out of the limelight. His threats were never explicit. He never bragged about his hits. He was Vito Corleone in The Godfather, making PACs an offer they couldn’t refuse. DeLay was Al Capone in The Untouchables, saying of Elliot Ness: “I want him dead!” And he wanted everybody to know who was responsible.
OF ALL THE QUESTIONS about Tom DeLay, the most puzzling is, Why did he thumb his nose at proprieties that were meant to ensure respect for the institution he led when he had everything to lose and so little to gain? Well, maybe not so little. There was the much-talked-about golfing trip to Scotland in June 2000, when Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist who pleaded guilty in January to charges of fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials, picked up the $14,001 first-class airfare for DeLay and his wife, Christine—a clear violation of House rules, which prohibit a registered lobbyist from paying a member’s travel expenses and limit the value of any gift to $100. DeLay’s office has said that he thought the payment came from the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy Research. That sounds innocent enough, except that Abramoff was on the board of the NCPPR, and he steered a total of more than $1 million in contributions from the Choctaw Indians in Mississippi, a client interested in gaming, to the organization. Some of the earliest Choctaw contributions helped pay for DeLay’s golf trip to Scotland. The president of the NCPPR testified before a Senate committee that Abramoff asked that she send $450,000 of the Choctaw contribution to his nonprofit Capital Athletic Foundation, an operation that, according to the Washington Post, spent less than one percent of its revenue on its stated purpose, youth athletics. Instead, Abramoff used the contributions to his foundation for his own purposes—to help fund a Jewish school he founded, to pay for another golf trip to Scotland, and to make a $25,000 contribution to the DeLay Foundation for Kids.
The details of DeLay’s relationship with Abramoff are breathtaking in their brazenness. Take the short (1996 to 2001) history of the U.S. Family Network, a nonprofit political advocacy organization that became a personal playpen for several DeLay associates. The Post has detailed how the USFN didn’t have to scramble to raise funds; most of its $3.02 million in contributions came from Abramoff clients: $1 million reportedly from Russian oil executives by way of a London law firm, $650,000 from a textile magnate in the Northern Marianas Islands, and at least $250,000 from the poor Choctaws. And how did the USFN promote family values? It did quite nicely by the Buckham family—Edwin, DeLay’s former chief of staff and the organizer of the USFN, and Wendy, his wife—who extracted more than $1 million from the nonprofit through a monthly retainer of at least $10,000 and commissions on donations, the Post reported. And the DeLay family too: Christine DeLay received three years of monthly payments of at least $3,200 from the Buckhams’ consulting firm for compiling a list of the favorite charities of members of Congress.
The dots connect: Abramoff to the USFN to DeLay and his associates. A consulting firm set up by Tony Rudy, a DeLay staffer, got $86,000. The USFN paid for radio ads against Democrats, for a town house near the Capitol (which became the headquarters for the nonprofit as well as for the Buckhams’ consulting firm and DeLay’s ARMPAC), for a vase worth $20,000 and art worth $62,000, and for more than $250,000 in travel expenses. The whole scheme looks like a ruse in which Abramoff directed his clients to contribute money to various nonprofits in order to lavish favors on DeLay and other lawmakers. (In late March, Rudy became the third DeLay associate to plead guilty to federal corruption and fraud charges; the other two are Michael Scanlon, a former press aide who went to work for Abramoff, and, of course, Abramoff himself.)
Time for the obligatory disclaimer: There is no clear indication that any of the USFN’s expenditures were illegal or that DeLay knew about any of the above payments (other than those to his wife, which were within House rules). Just because his associates have been charged with crimes doesn’t mean that DeLay had knowledge of their activities. Indeed, the Post, citing court papers, has reported that Abramoff and Rudy solicited donors to the Capital Athletic Foundation by telling them—“falsely”—that DeLay wanted them to contribute. DeLay wouldn’t be the first politician who was hurt more by his friends than by his enemies.
The crucial question in these situations is whether DeLay did anything to help Abramoff’s clients. On one occasion, DeLay put a statement in the Congressional Record praising the chief of the Choctaws for “hiring quality lobbyists.” Smarmy, but no big deal. But a bigger deal was a letter DeLay and other House GOP leaders—including Speaker Dennis Hastert and majority whip Roy Blunt—wrote to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton in 2003 opposing an Indian casino that might compete with one operated by the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, another Abramoff client. A lobbyist for the tribe whose casino the leadership had opposed told the Post, “It was incredibly unusual for that group of people, who do not normally weigh in on Indian issues, to express such a strong opinion about a particular project not in any of their home states.” (Another obligatory disclaimer: The line between influence peddling, which is plain old politics, and corruption, which is not, can be difficult to discern. A DeLay spokesman told the Post, “The majority leader has been consistent in his opposition to the expansion of gambling.”)
The harm to DeLay’s reputation done by the Abramoff investigation came on top of a long history of ethical infractions. While some are weightier than others, the overall impression created by DeLay’s dealings is one of a public official who repeatedly and knowingly tested the limits of the allowable. The first such occasion arose in 1997, when he received a letter from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, better known as the Ethics Committee. The letter admonished him for creating the impression among potential donors that political contributions would bear fruit in “official action or access.” (A second admonition warned against helping his brother Randy get lobby clients.)
The following year, DeLay tried to block a major trade association, the Electronics Industry Alliance (EIA), from hiring a former Democratic congressman, Dave McCurdy, as its president. When the EIA refused to cut McCurdy loose, DeLay pulled an “I want him dead!” maneuver, removing from the House calendar a major bill backed by the EIA: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which protected intellectual property on the Internet from theft in cyberspace. It was a good, necessary, noncontroversial bill, and it needed only a final House vote and the president’s signature to become law. Still, the EIA would not back down, and neither would DeLay. When the posturing ended, the EIA hired two GOP lobbyists—a prominent House staffer and Bob Walker, DeLay’s onetime adversary for whip—and McCurdy stayed on. Only then did DeLay allow the bill to pass the House.
A year later, out of the blue, the Ethics Committee admonished DeLay over the EIA incident. No complaint had been filed; no official investigation had been announced. On its own initiative, the bipartisan panel of four Republicans and four Democrats had voted unanimously to cite DeLay for his actions toward McCurdy and the EIA. The committee also wrote every member of the House, reminding them that they were prohibited “from taking or withholding any official action on the basis of partisan affiliation.”
In 2003 DeLay was in the ethics spotlight again. By that time he was majority leader, and he was trying to pass the president’s contentious Medicare prescription drug bill. DeLay brought it to the floor knowing he didn’t have the votes to pass it. The House voted it down, but he kept the tally open for almost three hours after the normal fifteen minutes of voting plus a two-minute grace period while he tried to persuade Republican members to change their votes. Sometime in the wee hours, the bill passed by a slender margin. The next day, retiring representative Nick Smith, of Michigan, posted on his Web site that “bribes and special deals were offered to convince members to vote yes.” He claimed that he had been offered a $100,000 campaign contribution from the National Republican Congressional Committee for his son, who was running to succeed him, in exchange for his vote. Smith later said that “no House member” had made the offer. The Ethics Committee found that DeLay had offered to endorse the younger Smith in exchange for the father’s vote. This drew another admonishment: “It is improper for a Member to offer or link support for the personal interests of another Member as part of a quid pro quo to achieve a legislative goal.”
Compared with some of DeLay’s other transgressions, these two incidents fall in the “not particularly serious” category. They seem like politics as usual for a legislative leader. In the EIA case, no lasting harm was done. The bill passed, as it had been destined to do all along. As for the “bribery” incident, if all DeLay did was offer to endorse Smith’s son in return for a vote, well, I’m shocked, just shocked, that politics is being practiced in Congress.
But another episode, which resulted in yet another admonishment of DeLay, had lasting repercussions. Chris Bell, who lost his congressional seat in the 2004 Democratic primary as the result of DeLay’s midcensus congressional redistricting plan passed by the Legislature in 2003, had filed an ethics complaint containing multiple charges. The most serious questioned DeLay’s participation at a spring 2002 fundraiser for various Republicans hosted by, among others, Westar Energy Corporation at the Homestead, a posh golf resort in Virginia. The fundraiser occurred just before a House-Senate conference committee met to resolve differences on a major energy bill. Westar, a Kansas utility company, had several billion dollars riding on getting a provision in the bill that would allow the costs of deregulation of electricity to be passed on to its customers. One of Westar’s vice presidents came up with the idea of having the provision inserted in the conference committee. To that end, it hosted a fundraiser for Republican causes and invited DeLay.
The majority leader apparently wasn’t very subtle. “Mr. DeLay asked the group to advise him of any interest we had in federal energy legislation,” a counsel for the Westar contingent at the conference wrote the Ethics Committee in response to a query for information. “The following day, [the company’s vice president] provided a staff aide to Rep. DeLay a bound briefing book that Westar had put together on this issue.” DeLay told the committee that he had no recollection of his specific remarks but “it would not be typical” for him to have made such a statement at a fundraiser. (The provision sought by the company was accepted by the conference committee, only to be removed when Westar became the subject of unrelated investigations.)
The Ethics Committee wrote DeLay that his actions “were objectionable under House standards of conduct because, at a minimum, they created an appearance that donors were being provided special access to you regarding the then-pending energy legislation.” The best light that can be put on this incident for DeLay is that he told the Westar people what they wanted to hear while taking home a $25,000 contribution for one of his PACs and didn’t give a flip how it might look. The worst light is that Westar got what it paid for with its $25,000 contribution. DeLay had behaved like the cartoon version of himself: He didn’t care how blatant he came across, as long as he got the money.
But somebody else cared. Westar’s $25,000 contribution went to a new DeLay PAC, called Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), whose purpose was to help the GOP take control of the Texas House in the upcoming 2002 election. And the person who noticed the transaction was Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle, whose Public Integrity Unit was charged with keeping Texas politics honest.
SOON AFTER ELECTION DAY in November 2002, Earle heard rumblings of a massive infusion of corporate money into House races around the state. Voters in districts with contested races had received multicolored mailers lambasting the voting records of Democratic candidates. The election returns produced a mammoth swing toward the Republicans; a 78—72 Democratic majority became an 88—62 GOP majority. Bill Hammond, the executive director of the Texas Association of Business, bragged to the Austin American-Statesman that his organization’s role in the campaign “blew the doors off the November 5 general election.”
Hammond’s comment was the genesis of Earle’s ongoing investigation into the use of corporate funds in the 2002 election, which eventually led to TRMPAC and Tom DeLay. As a Democrat, Earle has come under heavy attack from Republicans for acting with partisan motives—in particular, for trying to avenge the carving up of Travis County in DeLay’s redistricting plan. DeLay himself, ever the pot, has accused the kettle of being “an unabashed partisan zealot.” Earle’s standard defense is that he has prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans, but Republicans will never forgive him for going after then—state treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison in 1994 on felony charges that seemed trivial: using state employees for personal and political tasks and destroying evidence on state computers. The case ended in total vindication for Hutchison, who went on to win a special election for the U.S. Senate.
His party affiliation notwithstanding, Earle directs his primary animus not at Republicans but at corporate money in politics. His rhetoric comes straight from nineteenth-century populism. He takes issue with what he calls the U.S. Supreme Court’s “bizarre ruling” in 1886—one of the most settled principles in American jurisprudence—that corporations have the same rights as persons under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. “Corporations are not people,” he has said. “They are things that exist solely for profit with, in the words of Judge Learned Hand, ‘neither an arse to kick nor a soul to damn.’” In a speech to the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas—a trade association of Capitol lobbyists—last September, Earle laid out his case against corporate money.
“I submit to you today that the problem is the corruption of representative democracy by large amounts of money, both corporate and private,” Earle told the lobbyists. “It would surprise no one that the root of all evil of our political system is money. Large moneyed interests pay $10,000, $25,000, and up for ‘face time’ with a powerful politician so that big corporations and rich individuals can get special deals. But there’s no face time for John and Jane Citizen, who are raising three kids, holding down two jobs apiece, and they have no health insurance. Something is wrong with this picture. It is corrupt. It is a corruption made possible by corporate money. We must do something about corporate money in politics… . It is our job—our fight—to rescue democracy from the money that has captured it.”
Tom DeLay is the adversary of Ronnie Earle’s dreams. The speech makes a perfect argument to a potential jury, to twelve John and Jane Citizens who have a chance to “do something about corporate money in politics” by making an example of the Hammer, the enforcer of the K Street Project, the indefatigable solicitor of corporate funds. That motivation underlies Earle’s case, not partisanship.
DeLay faced three charges relating to the misuse of corporate funds (by law, corporate contributions to a PAC can be used only for administrative expenses and cannot be given to candidates). The first indictment—for conspiracy to violate election laws by using corporate funds in campaigns—was quashed by trial judge Pat Priest on the grounds that the crime of conspiracy to violate election laws was not on the books in 2002; the Legislature did not pass such a law until 2003. The judge rejected the prosecution’s contention that the general conspiracy law, which has been on the books forever, applied to election law violations.
Part of the frustration for DeLay and his lead lawyer in this case, Dick DeGuerin, the high-profile Houston defense attorney, is that victories such as this one came at a price, and the price is measured not in money but in time. From the moment last September that DeLay was forced to step down temporarily as majority leader due to a Republican Conference rule that prohibits a member accused of criminal conduct from holding a leadership position, he had been in a race with the clock to achieve vindication before the loss of his position became permanent. DeGuerin succeeded in getting the original trial judge replaced by Priest, a highly regarded senior judge from San Antonio, on the basis of partisanship, but time slipped away. When Priest quashed the conspiracy indictment, Earle appealed. More time passed. At the oral argument in a packed courtroom near the Capitol in late March, DeGuerin began his presentation by saying to the three-judge panel, “I don’t mean to make a pun, but in this case, justice delayed is justice denied. Please make a ruling with dispatch.”
At the time, DeGuerin had to be concerned about DeLay being on trial during the fall campaign season, but his client’s exit from public service makes the trial date irrelevant. The case cannot proceed in the trial court until the appeal is resolved, and even then the losing side is likely to seek a review by the Court of Criminal Appeals. Only after the case returns to Priest’s court can two major defense motions be dealt with—one alleging prosecutorial misconduct (for bullying a grand jury into an indictment), the other seeking a change of venue. With DeLay out of politics, a plea bargain is possible, but both Earle and DeLay say that they want to go to trial.
Priest has refused to throw out the remaining two counts against DeLay, which involve money laundering and conspiracy to money launder. These arose from a transaction in which TRMPAC sent $190,000 in corporate funds to the Republican National State Elections Committee, in October 2002, and then the RNSEC cut checks, totaling $190,000, to seven Republican legislative candidates from a different account consisting of individual contributions, which can legally be used in campaigns. Does this meet the definition of money laundering, which is the conversion of dirty money to clean money? Priest laid out what the state will have to prove in order to get a conviction for money laundering: “If funds were sought and obtained from corporations [by TRMPAC or its agents] in order to channel the funds to individual candidates, or if the money was so channeled though originally lawfully received, the crime was complete.” In other words, if it was the plan from the beginning to use the funds in campaigns, and the state can prove it (through e-mails, for example), that’s a crime, because the funds were given to TRMPAC for an illegal purpose. If, however, the funds were legal at the beginning but became illegal when they were used for something other than administrative expenses (the $190,000 swap at the RNSEC, to be exact), then once again, a crime was committed. In both cases the key question will be whether Tom DeLay was involved in the decision to send the money to the RNSEC with the understanding that it would be distributed to these candidates.
The problem that the prosecution faces is that what TRMPAC did sounds more like politics as usual than money laundering, which is ordinarily associated with an ongoing criminal conspiracy involving illegal activity such as drug dealing or gambling. Earle’s case against DeLay rests on his belief that Texas law does not allow corporate contributions to campaigns, period—just to PACs for administrative purposes only. In this view, corporate funds could legally be used to pay for, say, TRMPAC’s rent and utilities but could not be used by a political campaign. Technically, a crime may have been committed, but will the jury care about the intricacies of the election code? Can Ronnie Earle make them care? When I put this question to DeGuerin, his response was “First we have to get a fair jury.” And he doesn’t mean in Austin.
TEXAS’S TWENTY-SECOND Congressional District is one of the more oddly shaped creations of DeLay’s redistricting plan, which is no accident, since it is his home district. It somewhat resembles a steam shovel: Fort Bend County is the cab, the southern portion of Harris County is the boom, and Highway 6 in Galveston County is the connection to La Marque, the shovel. Nick Lampson, on the other hand, thinks the district resembles the perspective one would have if one were looking straight down on the head of a man who is having a terrible time tying a bow tie. I’ll have to defer to Lampson here: The former Democratic congressman from Beaumont has gotten to know the district since he volunteered for the mission of sending Tom DeLay into retirement. Unfortunately for Lampson, he may have achieved his goal too soon.
Lampson was one of six Texas Democrats to lose his congressional seat in the redistricting battles of 2003. DeLay’s map obliterated Lampson’s old district, the Ninth, and moved it into Southwest Houston; it also created a new district, the Second, in Southeast Texas. Lampson gamely ran in the new Second, but the district was drawn to elect a Republican, which it did: Ted Poe, who won 55 percent of the vote. Lampson then moved into the Twenty-second and set his sights on DeLay. Instantly, this race became the Democrats’ top priority nationwide. Even before the uncontested Democratic primary, Lampson had raised more than $2.3 million. When I saw him, shortly after the primary, in his Clear Lake campaign headquarters, he was buoyed by the news that Congressional Quarterly had just changed its estimate of the race from “leans Republican” to “toss-up.” But when DeLay announced that he would give up his seat in Congress and his position on the November ballot, Lampson went from even money to underdog. He now faces a race against a yet-to-be-determined (but sure-to-be-well-known) Republican, who has no ethical baggage.
Lampson is the kind of person Texas used to send to Congress back in the Johnson-Rayburn days: a slightly left-of-center Democrat whose background is courthouse politics. He was Jefferson County tax assessor-collector for eighteen years before winning his congressional seat, in 1996. He served four terms, tending mainly to district concerns (air pollution, trade policies that could hurt labor, and the Johnson Space Center), before redistricting sent him home. Now he was going door-to-door in subdivisions. “I’ve been in the neighborhoods,” he said. “I went to New Territory [in Sugar Land] Saturday, door knocking. I visited thirteen-hundred, fourteen-hundred homes. I’ll be in the neighborhoods this summer. Buy a pair of shorts, be where the people are.” He ended with a line that he won’t be using anymore: “They deserve to have a congressman who makes headlines for the right reason.”
Although Lampson never represented Fort Bend, he does have roots here. His grandparents settled in Stafford, just outside the Harris County line. “I learned about work ethic pulling a cotton sack,” he told me. “I rode horses in the fields here. I hunted here. I’m going to carry Fort Bend County.” He comes across as earnest but not self-important, a persona that would have made him exactly the right contrast to DeLay, who famously said, when asked by a restaurant manager in the Smithsonian to stop smoking a cigar because the restaurant was on property owned by the federal government, “I am the federal government.”
Can Lampson win the district? Before DeLay left the race, I would have said yes. Two years ago, DeLay got only 55 percent of the vote against an unknown, unfunded Democrat. Nothing good, and a lot of bad, had happened to him since that election. Lampson is neither unknown nor unfunded. But the fundamentals change without DeLay in the race. The anti-DeLay Republican vote that was the equalizer in this 57 to 60 percent Republican district has vanished. Now the Republican nominee will be the default choice for most disaffected DeLay voters.
A special election to fill the rest of DeLay’s term, which expires in January, would have helped Lampson. The Republican vote would have split among several candidates, allowing Lampson to win—which is why Governor Perry chose to leave the seat vacant for now. The GOP nominee on the November ballot will be chosen by the method Eric Thode explained to DeLay’s staffer: The county chairs of the district’s four counties, along with one precinct chair from each county, will choose the nominee. If this were an ordinary Republican primary, the front-runners would be David Wallace, the mayor of Sugar Land, and Robert Eckels, a former state legislator who is now county judge of Harris County. But only eight votes matter, so anything could happen. For example, there has already been some discussion of the three non-Houston counties ganging up on the big city. Thode told me on the night DeLay quit that he expected the county chairs to meet fairly soon so that the chosen candidate could start campaigning.
Is there a scenario for a Lampson victory? His best hope now is that Steve Stockman, the Republican whom Lampson defeated ten years ago in his old upper Gulf Coast district, sticks with his previous plan to run as an independent. (He’ll need just five hundred signatures on a petition to qualify for the ballot.) Then the Republican vote could still split, allowing Lampson to win with less than 50 percent of the vote. It’s a long shot. But even if he loses, Lampson will have won: He drove the Hammer into retirement.
LAST JUNE, AROUND four hundred people showed up for a lunchtime tribute to Tom DeLay at Houston’s Westin Galleria hotel. “Tom, we’re proud to be here for you today,” said county judge Eckels. Mayor Bill White, a Democrat, praised DeLay via videotape. The Houston Chronicle quoted Ed Young, the pastor of Second Baptist Church, in his own taped tribute describing DeLay as “a man who stands straight and tall for God and for good.”
This is the alternative universe in which DeLay was and is regarded as a hero and where the cartoon character is a distant speck in the firmament. Here DeLay is respected and admired in the way Democrats once talked about LBJ—as a figure whose flaws can be forgiven because he has such an uncanny aptitude for politics. (“It’s in his bones,” GOP congressman Kenny Marchant, of Coppell, says of DeLay.) The inhabitants of this alternate universe range from Republican activists who see DeLay as a victim of partisan politics to GOP members of Congress from Texas whose careers he has nurtured to Houston business leaders who dread a future that does not include Tom DeLay.
When DeLay ceased to be majority leader, Texas found itself without a member of the House leadership for one of the rare times since the thirties. Does this matter? You bet it does. Two years ago, DeLay won for Texans—for the first time since the mid-eighties—the right to deduct sales taxes on their income tax returns. (That provision is set to expire soon; get ready to pay more taxes.) Also in 2004, DeLay held up the transportation funding bill to get more money for Texas. He won an increase from 86 cents of every dollar in federal gasoline taxes paid to 92 cents; no one else could have done it. Work has begun on Interstate 69, whose economic benefits will be felt from the Rio Grande to deep East Texas. The Greater Houston Partnership says he is “solely responsible” for blocking a $1.1 billion cut in funding for NASA in 2004. That represents a lot of jobs. And there’s more: nine-figure funding for the Port of Houston and eight-figure funding for medical research and eight-figure funding for area colleges and universities, all since 2000. One reason Texas fared so well is that DeLay, as majority leader, was able to make sure that Texas Republicans got on the committees that matter to the state. Four, plus DeLay, currently sit on Appropriations. Who will nurture the careers of the next generation?
Make no mistake about it: Texas will suffer from the departure of Tom DeLay. But America won’t. His legacy includes many actions that have been bad for the country and bad for the political system. He was a man given to excess. He was that way in the Texas House, when his excess was partying. He was that way as overseer of the K Street Project, when his excess was doing favors for lobbyists. He was that way during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when many Republicans and most Democrats wanted to put the unseemly episode behind them with a censure of Bill Clinton but DeLay insisted on putting the country through the ordeal of impeachment, saying words that may come back to haunt him: “No man is above the law, and no man is below the law.” He was that way when, in order to increase his Republican majority in Congress, he resorted to a midcensus redistricting plan that will surely be a precedent in any state where majority control changes hands. He was that way when he disagreed with judges’ decisions, such as in the Terri Schiavo case, when his excess was, again, to hint at impeachment. He was that way when he wanted to elect a Republican majority in the Texas House in 2002 and his excess was to run afoul of campaign finance laws. The machinations with TRMPAC that led to his indictments were totally unnecessary; a solid Republican majority in the House had already been ensured by the map drawn in 2001 by the GOP-dominated Legislative Redistricting Board.
Call it lack of self-restraint. Call it delusions of grandeur. Call it an unslakable thirst for power. No political system can allow it to rage unchecked. More than the Democrats, more than the media, more than any ethics committee, excess is what brought Tom DeLay down. And it could bring him down further still.