Rep. Tom DeLay, the once powerful and feared Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, announced this week that he is resigning from Congress and will drop his bid for reelection this fall. Indicted by a Texas grand jury last year for illegally funneling “laundered” corporate contributions to fellow Republicans in 2002 in violation of state law, DeLay is the highest-ranking politician to go down so far in the wave of corruption scandals sweeping the nation’s capital. His demise, however, raises a locally larger question: How long it will be until Conrad Burns follows suit?
It is unlikely that Montanans will shed many tears over the well-deserved fate of this brutal politician, but as detailed in this column when he was initially indicted, none other than our former Gov. Marc Racicot just happened to be the chair of the Republican National Committee at the time DeLay’s corporate contributions were allegedly laundered (see “The Montana connection,” Oct. 6, 2005).
In statements to the press, DeLay said he made his decision after “weeks of prayerful thinking and analysis,” but some speculate the move may have been hastened by last week’s plea agreement in the Jack Abramoff corruption probe by DeLay’s former deputy chief of staff and “close adviser” Tony Rudy. As part of the plea agreement, Rudy admitted his guilt and acknowledged his complicity in taking tens of thousands of dollars as well as gifts and favors in return for influencing legislation on Abramoff’s behalf. Following in the footsteps of DeLay’s former press secretary Michael Scanlon, Rudy is the second of DeLay’s top aides to plead guilty and agree to cooperate in the widening federal investigation.
Only weeks ago, DeLay beat three Republican challengers to win his primary election, but admitted that a recent internal poll taken by his campaign showed him running even with his Democrat challenger. “I refuse to allow liberal Democrats an opportunity to steal this seat with a negative, personal campaign,” DeLay told reporters.
What’s mystifying is how any Democrat could possibly “steal” a congressional seat in Texas, given that DeLay personally led the highly controversial and possibly illegal effort to gerrymander voting districts to specifically benefit Republican candidates. In a 2003 memo obtained by the Washington Post in December, six lawyers and two analysts in the Justice Department wrote that DeLay’s redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act by illegally diluting black and Hispanic voting power in two congressional districts and eliminating several other districts in which minority votes influenced elections. They were overruled, however, by “senior officials” who approved the plan.
DeLay’s redistricting plan was launched after Republicans took control of both houses of the Texas Legislature and the governor’s office in 2002, but was temporarily stymied when Democratic legislators fled the state to deny Republicans the two-thirds quorum required to pass redistricting. Those with good memories may recall that DeLay was rebuked by the House ethics committee over the issue for his part in employing the Federal Aviation Administration to track down the missing Democratic legislators.
Eventually, after three special legislative sessions, the redistricting plan was approved, but only with significant changes insisted upon by DeLay that were added during a conference committee without opportunity for public input. “The Hammer’s” new voting plan worked so well that the next election resulted in the loss of five Democratic seats to the Republicans, which cemented Republican control of Congress. Although upheld by a panel of three Texas judges, the plan remains on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Though DeLay’s plan produced the congressional majority he sought, he also wound up with the indictment for allegedly laundering the corporate money that went to Republican candidates. In an ironic but just twist of fate, that indictment resulted in DeLay’s loss of his own powerful position as Majority Leader last year when the House passed a measure that prohibited any member from holding leadership positions while under indictment.
DeLay has announced that he will step down from his congressional seat sometime before July, at which time Texas’ Republican governor could call for a special election to fill the vacancy—and give his Republican replacement “incumbent” status in the November elections.
For their part, the Democrats are losing their leading poster child in what they call the Republicans’ “culture of corruption” in Washington. DeLay’s race was widely expected to be one of the most expensive and high-profile campaigns in the nation. His long list of ethical violations included reprimands from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for “improperly pressuring” a Republican congressman on the controversial Medicare prescription drug bill and “creating the appearance” of giving an energy company “special consideration” in return for campaign contributions. Now, however, the Democrats won’t be able to drag out DeLay’s mud-stained record of impropriety for all the nation to see.
But even with DeLay going down, there are still plenty of Republicans to hold up to the spotlight of ethical scrutiny. Montana’s Sen. Conrad Burns, for instance, must be sweating bullets as the list of those who have agreed to cooperate with the Abramoff corruption investigation continues to grow. And somehow, it seems poetic justice that the very perpetrators of the scandals are now ratting on the public officials they once bribed, just to shave a few years off their own prison sentences.
Like DeLay, Burns continues to profess that he did nothing wrong—but the headlines refuse to go away. If DeLay called it quits because his internal polls showed him running even with his Democrat challenger, what must Burns be thinking when the most recent public polls show him trailing both of his potential Democratic challengers?
With John Morrison at 48 percent and Jon Tester at 46 percent to Burns’ anemic 43 percent (especially for an incumbent U.S. Senator), Burns might want to have a little chat with DeLay about the political cost of the ongoing corruption scandals—but he better hurry, because DeLay, thank goodness, is almost gone.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.