Although Texas has long been known as a conservative state, the rise of Republicans took some time to get off the ground. Although John Tower was elected to the Senate in 1961 in what at the time was considered a major fluke, this fluke translated into four terms. However, the Congressional delegation didn’t match the state of Texas in the Senate, with Democrats dominating. From 1901 to 1963, Texas only had elected three Republicans to the House: Harry Wurzbach of San Antonio, Ben Guill of the state’s panhandle, and Bruce Alger of Dallas. The year, however, in which Republicans truly started to ascend in Texas politics was 1978. It was in that year that Texas elected its first Republican governor since Reconstruction in Bill Clements, John Tower won a close reelection in a Senate race in which the Democratic Party was not considered handicapped by party infighting (as in 1961 with William Blakley and 1966 with Carr Waggonner) or having a deeply unpopular presidential nominee, and Tom DeLay was elected to the Texas State House.
DeLay was known as being a go-along, get-along sort as the nature of the Texas Legislature at the time was more laid back and agreeable. He was also known as a party animal in his early days, being known as “Hot Tub Tom” for his alcoholism and his admitted adultery. However, in 1985 he cleaned up his act by ceasing adultery, quitting hard liquor, and became “born again”. He was elected to Congress in 1984 representing a district based in Sugar Land as part of the “Texas six-pack”, a group of Congressional Republican freshmen that included future Majority Leader Dick Armey, Joe Barton, Beau Boulter, Mac Sweeney, and Larry Combest. All were staunch conservative supporters of President Reagan and his agenda. DeLay reserved special opposition to EPA regulations, as such regulations had caused Mirex, a chemical used in his pest extermination business, to be banned. He condemned staunch environmentalists as “BANANA environmentalists”, standing for “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything”. He was also noted for his staunch opposition to campaign finance laws. During the late 1980s, he keenly observed Democratic Majority Whip Tony Coelho of California, who he admired as a model for fundraising. In a portend of DeLay’s future, Coelho would resign in 1989 after reports came out that he received a loan from a savings and loan executive to buy junk bonds (Oreskes).
The Republican Revolution
DeLay was among the most conservative legislators in the 1980s and 1990s, and the ascendency of the House leadership triumvirate of Gingrich, Armey, and DeLay in 1995 with the victory of the Republicans in the 1994 midterms solidified further the House GOP as not just conservative, but conservative AND combative. The predecessor to Gingrich as the leader of the House Republicans, Bob Michel of Illinois, was while conservative, much more reserved in rhetoric and more amenable to compromise with the Democrats. He had throughout his entire career served in the minority. DeLay described his role thusly, as “the ditch digger who makes it all happen” as opposed to Gingrich the “visionary” and Dick Armey the “policy wonk” (Dreyfuss). Becoming known as “The Hammer”, he proved immensely effective as whip. DeLay successfully got to passage 300 out of 303 bills in the 104th Congress (Dubose & Reid, 98). He would also build up relationships with members of the House and help them and thus build up a base of support. As Helen Thorpe (1999) wrote in Texas Monthly, “Essentially, he runs the whip’s office like a service organization. Whatever the members need, he gets. “If you need a golf game, we help you get on a course,” explained [Michael] Scanlon. “If you need reservations somewhere, we find them. If you have a problem with a vote, we fix it. If you need a fundraiser, we do it for you.”” He would use both favors and personal relationships as a base of power. DeLay described his tactics for winning votes thusly, “I tell them how I feel. I’m honest with them. I never ask a member to vote against his conscience or his district. Of course I also have to know him and his district well enough to know when somebody is trying to jerk me around” (Thorpe). The leadership triumvirate of Gingrich-Armey-DeLay, however, was not necessarily a happy one as DeLay viewed Gingrich and Armey as insufficiently committed to Christian values in addition to dissatisfaction from some political miscalculations from the former. Speaker Gingrich by the 1996 midterms had gotten representatives including members of the GOP leadership questioning his Speakership and there was a sense that he had harmed his public image and that of the Republican Congress.
An Attempted “Coup”
In July 1997, DeLay participated with Republican Leadership Chairman Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) and future Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in an effort to oust Gingrich by presenting a united front for him to resign or be voted out as speaker, but Majority Leader Dick Armey was not happy with the plan of making Paxon Speaker and thus had his chief of staff inform Gingrich about the attempted coup. This resulted in the resignation of Paxon from the Republican leadership. Gingrich would resign from Congress after the Democrats gained seats in the 1998 midterm elections.
In October 1998, DeLay, as part of his efforts to consolidate Republican Party power in Congress, lambasts the Electronics Industries Alliance for hiring former Democratic Representative Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma as its president. For lobbying firms to successfully operate in Washington, DeLay holds, they need to have Republican representation in their firms. This approach contributes to the increasing partisanship of Washington.
Propping Up a Figurehead
In 1999, DeLay engineered making his deputy, Dennis Hastert of Illinois to be speaker after the original choice, Bob Livingston of Louisiana, was found to himself have a sex scandal. Hastert had better relations with both sides of the aisle than DeLay and he figured that if he were speaker, it would be too heated an affair. The grave moral crimes of Hastert were of course not known at the time.
Relations with Bush
Tom DeLay and George W. Bush didn’t exactly get along, with the former resenting the latter for saying while campaigning in 1999 that Congress was attempting to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and in 2003 when Bush called for Congress to pass a tax benefit to help low-income families with children, he responded, “Last time I checked, he didn’t have a vote” (NBC News). However, DeLay did push some measures that the Bush Administration championed, including Medicare Part D. He was essentially an ally without being a friend.
The Great Texas Redistricting of 2003 and Admonishment by the Ethics Committee
Tom DeLay was for Republicans in Texas what Phil Burton was for Democrats in California in his influence on securing party dominance. The 2002 midterms produced two things: a Republican controlled Texas House and a Texas House delegation to Congress that was 17-15 Democrat despite the state’s vote going Republican for members of Congress 53.3% to 43.8%. This redistricting largely kept the districts that had been put in place in the 1991 redistricting, when Democrats had majorities in the state legislature as well as Governor Ann Richards. In 2003, DeLay ascended to the post of Majority Leader with the retirement of Dick Armey, and he masterminded another redistricting, and his efforts were not met without a fight. 52 Democrats fled the state to deny the legislature a quorum to vote on this proposal, requiring a special session of the legislature to be called. The Federal Highway Patrol was put on watch for the fleeing legislators, so they traveled to Oklahoma by plane. DeLay’s office contacted the FAA to track the flights of the Democratic legislators, an action that would get him a unanimous admonishment by the House Ethics Committee along with his hosting a fundraiser for an energy company while Congress was considering energy legislation. The latter he was dinged on for giving the impression that the energy company was paying him to push such legislation, although the committee found no evidence that he had been bribed. DeLay would again be admonished unanimously by the House Ethics Committee in 2004 for offering his endorsement of Rep. Nick Smith’s (R-Mich.) son to succeed him in exchange for his vote for Medicare Part D. Part D was passed by only one vote in the House in its first go-around and by five votes on its final passage, and DeLay had to navigate discontent from a minority group of conservatives which included future Vice President Mike Pence of Indiana over projected cost. Smith ultimately voted against Part D and his son didn’t succeed him to Congress.
The results of DeLay’s efforts spoke for themselves: in 2004, Democratic incumbents Max Sandlin, Nick Lampson, Jim Turner, Chris Bell, Charles Stenholm, and Martin Frost either retired, lost reelection, or lost renomination as a consequence of DeLay’s redistricting. Incumbent Ralph Hall, the most conservative Democrat at the time, avoided this fate by switching party affiliation. His redistricting resulted in a 21-11 Republican delegation. The Republicans turned a map that lopsidedly favored Democrats to one that lopsidedly favored them. In 2006, the Supreme Court upheld most of the redistricting as constitutional except the 23rd district which was found to be a racial gerrymander in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This district was crafted to protect Republican Henry Bonilla, who would lose reelection in 2006. I see DeLay’s actions here as speeding up a process that was already underway in Texas. This was also meant as a move to help preserve a Republican majority.
The Terri Schiavo Case
In 2005, DeLay got himself involved in the case of Terri Schiavo, a comatose woman on life support whose husband wanted to discontinue it and her parents who wanted to keep her on it. He of course got on the side of the parents but they lost the court case. On the day she died, DeLay said, “The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior” (NBC News). This was interpreted by his critics as a threat to judges, and he subsequently apologized, holding his rhetoric “inartful”. An autopsy proved that Schiavo was indeed brain-dead.
Scandal: Jack Abramoff and Charges of Money Laundering
Tom DeLay as a master fundraiser straddled the line between legal and illegal. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle charged that he had crossed this line in his fundraising for Texas state candidates, charging him with money laundering and conspiracy to do so. On September 28, 2005, DeLay and two associates were indicted on these charges after another jury had declined to indict. The charges were brought by Travis County DA Ronnie Earle, a Democrat with a maverick reputation. That day, he stepped down as House Majority Leader. DeLay subsequently wrote with Stephen Mansfield No Retreat, No Surrender: One American’s Fight in 2007 in which he blasted the indictment. He regarded it as a “criminalization” of politics. DeLay was also connected to Jack Abramoff as the latter was a prominent lobbyist connected to Republicans, and two former DeLay aides, Michael Scanlon and Tony Rudy, pled guilty to corruption. He was also a close friend of Abramoff, but DeLay was never charged regarding the man’s corruption.
In November 2010, DeLay was convicted of money laundering for funneling $190,000 in corporate contributions to candidates in Texas legislatives races in 2002 from funds raised by Texans for a Republican Majority PAC through the RNC to state legislative races, contravening a Texas state law that prohibits corporate money entering such races. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment. He condemned the verdict as a “criminalization of politics” (Langford). This was appealed and on September 19, 2013, an appeals court overturned the conviction 2-1 on the grounds of insufficient evidence to establish a crime, and this result and its reasoning was upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals 8-1 on October 1st the following year.
What to Make of Tom DeLay?
A self-admitted partisan and ideologue, DeLay was a lightning rod and he knew it. His lifetime ADA score of 1% and ACU score of 96% certainly reinforce this view. Despite being for most of his leadership career the party whip he was the base of power among House Republicans and he was de facto leader. DeLay was not averse to pushing some measures backed by the Bush Administration that caused some discontent among hardcore conservatives, including Medicare Part D. He was a guy who pushed through by making use of loopholes and much like the man whose methods he had admired, he was forced to resign for issues surrounding his methods of fundraising. His approach did contribute to a growing partisanship, particularly with his mid-census redistricting and his approach to Washington lobbyists.
Burka, P. (1996, September). National Politics – Tom DeLay. Texas Monthly.
Chronology: Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. (2006). The New York Times.
DeLay apologizes for Schiavo rhetoric. (2005, April 14). NBC News.
Dreyfuss, R. (2000, February 4). DeLay, Incorporated. The Texas Observer.
DuBose, L. & Reid, J. (2004). The hammer: Tom DeLay: God, money, and the rise of the Republican Congress. New York, NY: Public Affairs.
Langford, T. (2014, October 1). Court Backs Decision Reversing DeLay Convictions. The Texas Tribune.
Oreskes, M. (1989, May 27). Coelho to Resign His Seat in House in Face of Inquiry. The New York Times.
Russonello, G. (2016, July 6). Where are they now: Abramoff edition. Politico.
Thorpe, H. (1999, April). The Exterminator. Texas Monthly.