When he went to Congress, however, he was a man on a mission. The former owner of a pest control business, DeLay distinguished himself as a frequent and hyperbolic ranter against EPA regulations, even calling the environmental agency the Gestapo of government. His colleagues laughingly dubbed him “The Exterminator.”
Then he found his real calling in politics, becoming an ethics-free floor leader who unabashedly demanded campaign cash for the GOP from corporate lobbyists – in exchange for moving their legislation. His pay-to-play demands were as subtle as a sledgehammer, but they worked, making him the most powerful and feared member of Congress in the first half of this decade. This earned him another sobriquet: “The Hammer.”
The only thing fiercer than the The Hammer’s power was his cosmic-scale arrogance. “I AM the federal government,” he once barked to a waitress who had requested that he comply with a federal no-smoking rule.
With an ego more voracious than a black hole, DeLay hit upon a dandy idea in 2001 to suck up more power for himself, his party and his corporate co-conspirators. “I’ll just run down to Texas,” he exclaimed in a eureka moment, “and unilaterally force the legislature to gerrymander the state’s congressional districts.”
By dictating a crassly partisan re-redistricting of the Lone Star State, he could force six Democrats out of Congress and replace them with Republicans, thereby tightening his grip on the sausage grinder of Washington lawmaking.
To get this dirty deed done, however, he first had to help Texas Republicans win a handful of state legislative seats in the 2002 elections so they could take control of the legislature. No problem – he simply hammered Sears, Reliant Energy, AT&T and others to put up the $190,000 it took to win those races and take charge.
But there was one little hickey: Texas law bans corporate contributions in state campaigns. Again, no problem – DeLay and cohorts merrily funneled the corporate cash into the Republican National Committee, which dutifully passed it along to the designated Texas candidates as “legal” donations.
That would have been that, except – whoopsie daisy – three forces interrupted Tom’s flight of hubris. One was Texas for Public Justice, a feisty research group in Austin that tracks the nefarious nexus of corporate power and public policy. In October of 2002, TPJ noticed that the RNC had taken $190,000 from DeLay’s group, then turned around and doled $190,000 to the Texas candidates. Coincidence? TPJ thought not.
Next came Ronnie Earle, the district attorney in Austin with jurisdiction over state electioneering crimes. TPJ asked Earle to investigate. The DA was promptly and loudly advised by both friends and foes to let this political hot potato be. Instead, the day after that 2002 election, Earle picked up the steaming spud, daring to challenge the mighty Hammer.
After three years of political smack and legal dodging by DeLay and his blue-ribbon lawyers, the Little-DA-Who-Could won an indictment against DeLay for money laundering and conspiracy.
Third, after five more years of squealing and squirming by DeLay & Team, the trial finally began on Nov. 1 of this year, and Tom found himself face to face with 12 ordinary citizens he couldn’t buy or intimidate: a jury of his peers. Still, throughout the three-week trial, DeLay was cockier than a banty rooster, crowing to the media that there was no way he could be convicted.
At 4:45 p.m. on Thanksgiving eve, however, his crowing stopped. After three days of deliberations, the jurors nailed the Hammer, voting unanimously to convict him on both charges.
As each of the 12 stood to affirm their vote, DeLay was visibly stunned, unable to comprehend that someone of his importance could be treated just like a regular thief.
He’ll appeal their judgment, of course, but he’ll never escape the final nickname that he has earned: Tom DeLay, “The Felon.”
Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.