|Tom DeLay- Corporate Whore|
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Tom DeLay Says He Will Give Up His Seat
The embattled former Republican leader tells TIME that he will leave Congress and not seek reelection
By MIKE ALLEN/SUGAR LAND, TEXAS
Rep. Tom DeLay, whose iron hold on the House Republicans melted as a lobbying corruption scandal engulfed the Capitol, told TIME that he will not seek reelection and will leave Congress within months. Taking defiant swipes at "the left" and the press, he said he feels "liberated" and vowed to pursue an aggressive speaking and organizing campaign aimed at promoting foster care, Republican candidates and a closer connection between religion and government.
"I'm going to announce tomorrow that I'm not running for reelection and that I'm going to leave Congress," DeLay, who turns 59 on Saturday, said during a 90-minute interview on Monday. "I'm very much at peace with it." He notified President Bush in the afternoon. DeLay and his wife, Christine, said they had been prepared to fight, but that he decided last Wednesday, after months of prayer and contemplation, to spare his suburban Houston district the mudfest to come. "This had become a referendum on me," he said. "So it's better for me to step aside and let it be a referendum on ideas, Republican values and what's important for this district."
DeLay's fall has been stunningly swift, one of the most brutal and decisive in American history. He had to give up his title of Majority Leader, the No. 2 spot in the House Republican leadership, in September when a Texas grand jury indicted him on charges of trying to evade the state's election law. So he moved out of his palatial suite in the Capitol, where he once brandished a "No Whining" mug during feisty weekly sessions with reporters, and moved across the street to the Cannon House Office Building, home of many freshmen.
The surprise decision was based on the sort of ruthless calculation that had once given him unchallenged dominance of House Republicans and their wealthy friends in Washington's lobbying community: he realized he might lose in this November's election. DeLay got a scare in a Republican primary last month, and a recent poll taken by his campaign gave him a roughly 50-50 shot of winning, in an election season when Republicans need every seat they can hang onto to avoid a Democratic takeover of the House.
"I'm a realist. I've been around awhile. I can evaluate political situations," DeLay told TIME at his kitchen table in Sugar Land, a former sugar plantation in suburban Houston. Bluebonnets are blooming along the highways. "I feel that I could have won the race. I just felt like I didn't want to risk the seat and that I can do more on the outside of the House than I can on the inside right now. I want to continue to fight for the conservative cause. I want to continue to work for a Republican majority."
Asked if he had done anything illegal or immoral in public office, DeLay replied curtly, "No." Asked if he'd done anything immoral, he said with a laugh, "We're all sinners." Asked what he would do differently, he said, "Nothing." He denied having failed to adequately supervise members of his staff, even though two of his former aides have pleaded guilty to committing crimes while on his staff. "Two people violated my trust over 21 years," he said. "I guarantee you if other offices were under the scrutiny I've been under in the last 10 years, with the Democrat Party announcing that they're going to destroy me, destroy my reputation, and that's how they're going to get rid of me, I guarantee you you're going to find, out of hundreds of people, somebody that's probably done something wrong."
DeLay brushed off the torrent of investigative news articles questioning the funding behind the golf, private planes and resort hotels that marked his travel at home and abroad. He even accepted a plane from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco to go to his arraignment. "There's nothing wrong with it," he said. "They had a plane available. My schedule was such that I couldn't do it commercially — that I had to get up there and then get back and do my job. And that's the only plane that was available at the time."
"You can't prove to me one thing that I have done for my own personal gain," he added. "Yes, I play golf. I'm very proud of the fact that I play golf. It's the only thing that I do for myself. And when you go to a country and you're there for seven days and you take an afternoon off to play golf, what does the national media write? All about the golf, not about the meeting that went to. I'm not ashamed of anything I've done. I've never done anything in my political career for my own personal gain. You can look at my bank account and my house to understand that."
"I don't care what history writes, " he continued. "What I care about, what's important to me is who I am, what I've done and what I can accomplish in the future. What I care about it what I believe in and how I conduct myself in fighting for what I believe in."
Appearing relaxed despite three cups of coffee, DeLay played with his petite dogs and led a leisurely tour of his home. Upstairs, he offered a frame-by-frame description of the photos reflecting his past political clout, such as a private session on the Truman Balcony with the President and First Lady Laura Bush. The first frame marks the beginning of his arc from pest-control entrepreneur to a feared and ingenious power broker. It's the front page from a local paper, the Herald-Coaster, from 1978, proclaiming, "DeLay Is House Winner." That was the Texas House; voters sent him to Washington six years later, starting him on a 21-year congressional career. During the tour, he gave an indication of his early deftness at the political game when he showed off a picture of his wife, Christine, and their daughter, Danielle, with President Ronald Reagan. "I had to withhold my vote," he said, "to get my daughter's picture with Ronald Reagan as a freshman." His wife, a formidable daily force in his office with a voice in nearly all scheduling and media decisions, pointed to a photo of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and noted, "That's when we thought she was going to be conservative."
Putting the best face on the poll taken by his campaign, DeLay said it gave him "a little bit better than a 50/50 chance of winning reelection." Asked if that didn't mean that he could lose, he replied, "Could have. There's no reason to risk a seat. This is a very strong Republican district. It's obvious to me that anybody but me running here will overwhelmingly win the seat."
DeLay said he is likely to leave by the end of May, depending on the Congressional schedule and finishing his work on a couple of issues. He said he will change his legal residence to his condominium in Alexandria, Va., from his modest two-story home on a golf course here in the 22nd District of Texas. "I become ineligible to run for election if I'm not a resident of the state of Texas," he said, turning election law to his purposes for perhaps on last time. State Republican officials will then be able to name another Republican candidate to face Democrat Nick Lampson, a former House members who lost his seat in a redistricting engineered by DeLay.
Lampson has made a major issue of the lobbying scandal, and his campaign home page has a petition headed, "Tell Tom DeLay to Return the Dirty Money!," referring to contributions from he and his political action committees have received from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a one-time DeLay ally who pleaded guilty in January to three felonies, including conspiring to defraud clients and bribe public officials.
DeLay's decision means that he no longer has to fear any further sanctions from the House ethics committee, which admonished him three times in 1994 for official conduct deemed inappropriate by members, but has been paralyzed for more than a year and has taken no action in the more recent scandal. Sources close to DeLay said he remains under investigation by the Justice Department prosecutors, who now have Abramoff's cooperation, but the lawmaker said he has nothing to fear from the feds. "I paid lawyers to investigate me as if they were prosecuting me," he said. "They found nothing. There is absolutely nothing — no connection with Jack Abramoff that is illegal, dishonest, unethical or against the House rules."
Richard Cullen, a former U.S. attorney who is DeLay's Washington lawyer, told TIME that in December, the lawmaker's legal team turned over to the Justice Department about 1,000 e-mails from his office computers. "This was to show we had nothing to hide," Cullen said. "They were everything we felt related to the Abramoff investigation. None are from DeLay. They're from staffers, showing their give and take with Abramoff. There was nothing that I said to myself or DeLay, wow, this is really bad for him. Prosecutors are looking to see whether anyone on the government payroll, whether a congressman or a staffer, performed official acts in return for a bribe or gratuity."
A Texas district attorney, Ronnie Earle of Travis County, indicted DeLay last year on money-laundering charges for transactions involving Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), a political action committee DeLay founded. Earle is a Democrat and DeLay has attacked the charges as "a political hit job." He says he did not personally carry out the transactions and that, in any case, they are standard practice for parties around the country. Regardless, DeLay was forced to vacate his post as majority leader because of a House Republican rule (known as "the DeLay rule," because it was enacted amid concern about his legal situation) that requires a leader under indictment to step down.
DeLay, a Baptist born in the border city of Laredo, said he "spent a lot of time" praying about his decision and that his personal relationship with Jesus drives his day-to-day actions. "My faith is who I am," he said. When DeLay was booked on the Texas charges, he wore his Congressional I.D. pin and flashed a broad smile designed to thwart Democrats who had hoped to make wide use of an image of a glowering DeLay. "I said a little prayer before I actually did the fingerprint thing, and the picture," he said. "My prayer was basically: 'Let people see Christ through me. And let me smile.' Now, when they took the shot, from my side, I thought it was fakiest smile I'd ever given. But through the camera, it was glowing. I mean, it had the right impact. Poor old left couldn't use it at all."
Recently, he said, he has been hearing from many people who want his help on projects outside Congress. He said his decision was cemented by the thunderous response at a conference in Washington last Wednesday decrying the "War on Christianity."
"You talk to a lot of people, give a lot of people opportunities to give you message," DeLay said. "If it's the wrong decision, doors don't open — they're closed to you, and you don't feel good about it, and you have doubts. Doors are opening already." He said he has no plans to write a book. "I'm not a very good writer, " he said. In what must be a relief to his many lawyers, he said he has not kept a diary.