|Tom DeLay- Corporate Whore|
Cracks appear in DeLay's home district
By Howard Witt
Tribune senior correspondent
Published May 15, 2005
SUGAR LAND, Texas -- Local Republican leaders insist all is well here amid the new million-dollar homes, upscale shopping malls and glistening megachurches that have come to characterize the suburban prosperity and bedrock conservatism of Congressman Tom DeLay's home district.
But beneath the well-manicured lawns and pristine artificial lakes that abound in planned communities that comprise much of DeLay's district, rumblings of discontent are beginning to be felt in this area south of Houston as turmoil grows back in Washington over the House majority leader's alleged ethical lapses.
Several recent polls, as well as last November's election results, suggest DeLay's core support among Republican voters is slipping as the allegations against him mount. Some outspoken local Republicans have braved rebukes from party leaders and publicly spoken out against him. Credible Democratic challengers have begun to test the waters in preparation for next year's race. And DeLay himself has stepped up the frequency of his speeches and appearances back home.
Party leaders here say that the loyal Republican voters in House District 22 who have offered DeLay safe harbor for 11 consecutive terms in Congress are untroubled by the controversies swirling around him over his close connections to lobbyists, his foreign trips and his use of campaign funds.
"I think everything here is fine," said Eric Thode, the chairman of the Ft. Bend County Republican Party. "This district is not going to be won by a Democrat."
But Beverly Carter, a Republican precinct chairwoman and publisher of the Ft. Bend Southwest Star, thinks Thode is whistling past the golf course when he pronounces himself untroubled.
"I guarantee you he is just pretending. Eric knows better than that," said Carter, who endorsed DeLay's Democratic opponent in last year's election. "Most people won't say anything bad about Tom because they are afraid of him and what might happen to them. ... But the fact that he was admonished by the ethics committee three times last year, all of that is starting to be noticed."
District 60% Republican
No one here, not even the most optimistic Democrat, is predicting DeLay's imminent political demise in a district that is 60 percent Republican. Instead, the talk is of "trends" and "dynamics" and "worst-case scenarios" for the powerful congressional leader.
"Tom DeLay does not suffer from hubris about his own political fortunes," said Robert Stein, a political scientist who is dean of Rice University's social sciences department. "He's back in the district doing the things you have to do to shore up support....
"The evidence is not there yet that the bad news about Tom DeLay has eroded enough of his support to make a difference," Stein added. "But it's moving in that direction."
Stein divines that direction in part from a Houston Chronicle poll in April that showed 49 percent of those surveyed would vote for someone other than DeLay in the next election. A SurveyUSA poll this month showed that 51 percent of those questioned in DeLay's district disapproved of his performance as a congressman.
DeLay's critics contend the slippage actually started last November, when he beat his Democratic challenger, Sugar Land environmental lawyer Richard Morrison, by a margin of 55 percent to 41 percent. DeLay's numbers were down from previous elections, when he often pulled more than 60 percent of the vote in his district.
"This is a man who first ran for Congress saying we need a congressman who is not beholden to lobbyists," said Morrison, who recently decided against another challenge because his mother has fallen ill with cancer. "Now he's become what he campaigned against."
But DeLay's defenders say his support is solid and that he actually engineered the export of some of his loyal Republican voters into neighboring congressional districts, as part of the controversial 2003 Texas redistricting that helped unseat four incumbent Democrats in last November's elections.
Some in DeLay's home district say they are most concerned by the allegations of unethical conduct that are due to be examined by the House ethics committee. DeLay stands accused of having taken trips underwritten by lobbyists, in violation of House ethics rules, and he is under fire for his ties to one lobbyist in particular who is under federal investigation.
DeLay has vigorously denied that he ever broke any rules.
"The ethics issues are sort of icing on the cake, or dirt on the grave," said Patricia Baig, a substitute teacher in DeLay's district and self-described lifelong Republican who bought an advertisement in a local paper last month urging protesters to attend an anti-DeLay rally.
Others were troubled by DeLay's drive to have Congress intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose husband sought to have her artificial feeding tube removed but whose parents fought to keep her alive. Schiavo died March 31, nearly two weeks after the courts ordered the feeding tube removed.
The Chronicle poll in April showed that nearly 58 percent of those questioned disapproved of DeLay's decision to get Congress involved in case.
"DeLay's district has got an eastern part that is strongly religiously conservative, but much of the district has got sort of upscale professionals, and the Schiavo case hurt him with a lot of these more traditional, economic Republicans who are not the religious right," said Richard Murray, director of the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston.
Wife, daughter paid $500,000
Still others in the district were angered over revelations that DeLay had paid his wife and daughter more than $500,000 from campaign funds since 2001 for their work on his political campaigns--a practice commonly employed by many others in Congress.
"What grabs people's attention the most was the fact that Tom had paid his wife and daughter over half a million dollars in the last four years," said Carter, the Republican precinct chairwoman. "They see them all the time, and they know they are not working."
DeLay's defenders roundly dismiss all of the criticism as partisan sniping engineered by those who oppose DeLay's strongly conservative leadership in the House.
"Congressman DeLay's constituents know him best, know where he stands on the issues and know he's been working hard to deliver for them," said Dan Allen, DeLay's spokesman in Washington. "The constituents are seeing these attacks for what they are, which is a highly partisan attack by the Democrats and their allies."
Thode, the Ft. Bend County Republican chairman, acknowledged that DeLay's intervention in the Schiavo case may have alienated some voters. But he said that anger will have dissipated by the time voters really begin focusing on next year's congressional race.
"Clearly, that's one of those that had a visceral response for a lot of people," said Thode. "Six months, twelve months from now, it's a non-story."
Not, however, if the Democrats can help it. They sense an opening created by DeLay's troubles in Washington, and they fully intend to exploit it.
Two weeks ago, former U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, who lost his seat last year as a result of the redistricting orchestrated by DeLay, announced his intention to move into District 22 and challenge the Republican leader.
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