Time's Up for Tom DeLay
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"I am the federal government."
– Tom DeLay, responding to a government employee who tried to prevent him from smoking on government property. The New York Times, June 13, 2003
Think of Tom DeLay as that snotty, privileged kid on the playground. He's already gotten at least four strikes, blames the ump, threatens those who suggest he sit down, and then tells his friends that he hit a home run. Oh, and he's got all the candy.
Now imagine that kid as the House Majority Leader and head of a political action committee that distributes money and assistance to Republican incumbents and candidates – 241 out of 246 Republicans in the House to be exact.
The 10th term Republican from Sugarland, Texas – known as "The Hammer" for his vindictive politics – was served a subpoena last week and faces a forehead-slapping fourth letter of admonition next week from the bipartisan House Ethics Committee.
The latest has the committee investigating whether or not he illegally funneled corporate money into Texas statehouse races through TRMPAC, his political action committee. It just may be the one that sticks since, according to the Center for American Progress, "criminal indictments for alleged illegal fundraising have (already) been issued by a Texas grand jury against three of DeLay's cronies." One faces 99 years in the pokey.
You might expect a man with such a soiled record to be headed for certain defeat in his bid for an 11th term. But the powerful Texas Republican appeared to be coasting into the November 2 election – until recently.
Once, Twice, Three times a Defendant
DeLay's special relationship with congressional codes of conduct, and ethics in general, goes back quite a way. In a 1997 letter, the House Ethics Committee wrote that his actions "create(d) the impression that official access or action are linked with campaign contributions...."
Since that time the accumulated scandals, lawsuits, and rebukes have prompted even the typically staid press to make these rather forceful comments:
"He has used his power for self-aggrandizement... he has scoffed at the law, House rules and simple propriety. DeLay has abused his position and embarrassed the House." -Austin American-Statesman, 10/10/04
"(T)he man's got a problem.... It smacks of a pattern of abuse. Worse, it reveals a contempt for how the House should work." -Dallas Morning News, 10/12/04
Even the Chicago Tribune, fresh from endorsing Bush for president, wrote:
"[DeLay's] angry reaction to being admonished by his peers shows that DeLay is too arrogant to mend his ways." -Chicago Tribune, 10/11/04
If these critiques sound extreme, they can't touch his resume. DeLay recently had a banner week during which he received two letters of admonishment from the House Ethics Committee.
The first showcased his trademark contempt for the American political process. In order to ensure that he had enough votes to pass the Medicare Prescription Drug Act, DeLay offered to endorse Republican Nick Smith's son in his race for Congress in exchange for the senior Smith's vote.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Like the head of a crime family, DeLay had others do his dirty work. In Smith's own words: "And they (Republicans in Congress) said, well, if you don't change your vote – this takes place at about 4 am on a Saturday morning – then some of us are going to work to make sure your son doesn't get to Congress." After he voted no and even though the bill did get enough "votes," the Chicago Sun-Times reported: "(Rep.) Duke Cunningham of California and other Republicans taunted him that his son was dead meat." Unsurprisingly, his son went on to lose his bid for Congress.
The second was more of a blanket admonishment, encompassing as it did two separate events. Eyebrows were raised after DeLay attended a golf tournament with energy executives shortly after receiving $25,000 from them for "a seat at the table" and shortly before deliberating on an energy bill in which said executives had a vested interest. Sounds an awful lot like that 1997 committee criticism that DeLay gives the "impression" of trading money for influence.
Also included in that single admonishment was the illegal use of the Federal Aviation Administration to track down a group of Texas Democrats who had fled the state to protest DeLay's partisan redistricting plan. FAA officials reported afterward that they were led to believe that this action was ordered on behalf of the Congress as a whole.
In the wake of this round of admonishments the Republican chairman of the ethics committee, Joel Heffley, was threatened by Republican lawmakers. Though he refused to mention them by name, his comments were somewhat less discreet: "I've been attacked; I've been threatened," he told The Hill.
The list goes on. Lou Dubose, who co-authored "The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress," drew up what amounts to a rap sheet in a recent LA Weekly article for those who thrive on the gory details. Suffice it to say that DeLay's three reprimands since 1999 is, according to Dubose, "a distinction no other member of the House not currently in prison can claim."
Given the priority of the presidential race for progressives, it's important to note just how many groups are simultaneously working toward DeLay's demise. Once considered unbeatable, recent polls show that repeated ethics violations, civil lawsuits, and increasingly firm and high profile criticism in the media are taking their toll.
It wasn't too long ago that people like blogger DailyKos, who calls DeLay "an all-around scumbag," were supporting the Majority Leader's dark horse opponent, Richard Morrison, simply as a tactic: "Morrison was a nobody. My hope was to simply force DeLay to campaign more in the district, thus keeping him from campaigning and fundraising for other Republicans. Now Morrison is a serious candidate with a legitimate chance to win."
Buoyed by recent polls, groups like Campaign for America's Future, Campaign Money Watch, and Howard Dean's Democracy for America have joined together to defeat DeLay. The groups are using a number of tactics to get the job done, including powerful TV ads, nationwide fundraising, and even a campaign to shame other Republicans into distancing themselves both politically and financially from the increasingly embattled congressman.
As a result it isn't nearly the long shot it once was. While the broad stroke wasn't especially promising as recently as early October, DeLay led 47% - 33%, it is important to recall that he typically receives around 60% of the vote.
A look at the poll's details further set the stage for an upset, however unlikely.
The most important secondary indicator of a candidate's strength is the favorable/unfavorable rating. Or, in English: Do more people love him or hate him? In this case while roughly 1 in 6 viewed DeLay "very favorably," a full 1 in 4 viewed him "very unfavorably." There were more who vehemently opposed his re-election than vigorously supported it.
But the most interesting statistic of all surrounds his ethics woes. While 34% said that they'd be less likely to vote for him as a result of his violations, this came from a poll that predated his most recent, and highly publicized subpoena. And, at the time of the poll, only half of those respondents supported Morrison – largely due to his lack of name recognition.
While there's little to suggest that Morrison's name is headed for your local marquee, the proliferation of organizations working against DeLay have increased the likelihood of an upset; enough at least to frighten the bejeezus out of the ultra-conservative Club For Growth, who have begun to throw money into pro-DeLay advertising.
Yet despite this last ditch effort to repair DeLay's Hemorrhaging public image it's beginning to look like the combined weight of the scandals and Democracy for America's TV ads are taking their toll. The latest poll shows DeLay's lead has been cut to 42% - 35% (under 50% for an incumbent typically spells doom).
But there's a final note of irony here. Due to the recent redistricting, for which DeLay lobbied so "passionately," and for which he faces a possible conviction, 30% of voters are new to DeLay's district. It's extremely difficult to predict which way they'll vote but if the ethical campaign watchdogs keep throwing strikes they may be sending this snotty kid back to the dugout.