Second Thought: Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Nailing the Hammer

Even Tom DeLay’s friends don’t want to stand near him these days.


In politics, there’s a saying about “an issue whose time has come.” It’s usually a proposal that’s been introduced, that didn’t pass, and then has been the topic of one or more studies. It finally develops enough consensus to become law.
There’s also a reverse political corollary: a politician whose time has come — and gone. That’s someone so insensitive and controversial that people beyond the political in-crowd begin to notice.
That happened to former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright in 1989, when a questionable book royalty deal mushroomed enough that Wright stepped aside to keep from being a cross his fellow Democrats didn’t want to bear in the 1990 election.
In 1994, fury at President Bill Clinton over issues like gays in the military and a secret healthcare plan caused many Republicans running for Congress to run ads linking Clinton to their Democratic opponents. Republican U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich led that attack and became House speaker in 1995. But Gingrich’s outspoken ideology and brashness had so soured by 1998 that he stepped aside because his fellow Republicans felt he was hurting them.
Which brings us to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land. The Republican’s acid criticism of judges who didn’t stop removal of life support from Terri Schiavo — a woman in a vegetative state for 15 years — put the hard-charging DeLay on the public’s front burner.
DeLay brought renewed attention to his ideological crusade, plus tactics that, even should they pass the legal test, flunk the smell test. The result has been a storm of negative publicity.
DeLay’s nickname “The Hammer” came from his hard-charging vote-counting and arm-twisting, both of Republican House members and corporate lobbyists, while he was majority whip and later majority leader.
He has leveraged his control over legislation to persuade corporations to contribute millions of dollars for Republican political races. In doing so, DeLay earned the indebtedness of lawmakers he helped get elected and stay elected. But his in-your-face arrogance is making him so hot that he may do in not only himself, but several of his GOP colleagues as well. (One group has the web site
DeLay has been criticized by the House Ethics Committee four times. DeLay retaliated by pulling enough of the committee’s teeth that House Democrats on the committee boycotted, to avoid acquiescence in DeLay’s dentistry. But recently, after the Democrats had a continuing run of publicity on the issue, Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert got his colleagues to put the previous ethics committee rules back in place.
DeLay’s close running buddy for years, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is being questioned not just for taking tens of millions of dollars from Indian tribes in connection with gambling casinos, and then working both sides of the issue, but for arranging money for posh DeLay trips abroad that are now being questioned.
DeLay has put his wife and daughter on his political payroll for more than a half million dollars since 2001. And that money was raised largely from those seeking legislative or regulatory favors.
His involvement with establishing the Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee (TRMPAC), and raising corporate money for it that found its way to 2002 legislative campaigns, has already brought indictments of three DeLay aides, plus several companies. Even if DeLay escapes indictment in what he derides as a “political dirty trick,” the spotlight on his activities carries a price not just for him, but for his supporters. And it could have a backwash on Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, a big participant in the 2002 election effort.
One Republican congressman said people in his district had no idea who DeLay is. But that is rapidly changing due to a steady stream of headlines, cartoons, strongly critical opinion columns, and television programs about the Hammer.
“I think he’s hurting the Congress, I think he’s hurting the Republican majority, and I think he’s hurting individual Republicans who are up for re-election,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a frequent DeLay critic.
There is talk now in Washington of an event honoring DeLay. It will be interesting to see how that plays in Houston and Sugar Land. In his district, DeLay’s actions are not inviting just Democratic opponents — at least one effort to draft a moderate Republican to run against him is under way. The former bug exterminator may have created an environment toxic enough that he gases himself.
Meanwhile, Democrats pray that DeLay will refuse to step aside. They want him as a Republican poster child for ethical arrogance in the 2006 elections, to show why Americans should return not just the House, but the Senate, to Democratic hands. In fact, the campaign has already started: This week, a Howard Dean-founded political action committee announced plans for billboards to go up in Galveston and Houston. The slogan: “Lobbyists sent Tom DeLay golfing; all you got was this billboard.”
Dave McNeely, a longtime reporter on Texas politics, can be reached at

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