Sunday, June 22, 2003

As the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Texas Republican Tom DeLay carries considerable clout among GOP politicians nationwide.

DeLay's funding boosted GOP's cause in Texas

By Maria Recio and John Moritz
Star-Telegram Staff Writers
Sun, Jun. 22, 2003

As the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Texas Republican Tom DeLay carries considerable clout among GOP politicians nationwide.

But when it came to building loyalty and gaining influence in his home-state Legislature over the past few years, DeLay relied on more than the power of his position. Perhaps more than any of the political tools at his disposal, DeLay used his legendary money-raising prowess to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to elect Republicans to the Legislature.

"DeLay's kind of the Huey Long of the right wingers," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, referring to the late Louisiana populist. McDonald, whose group is a nonpartisan watchdog of money in politics, credits DeLay's success to "the power of his money."

But DeLay has repeatedly argued that he and his political allies are motivated not by money but by doing what they believe is the right thing -- regaining control of the Texas House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction.

"There may have been elected officials who tie money to their actions. We believe in what we're doing. Money has no influence on it whatsoever," DeLay recently told reporters.

Thanks largely to major contributions from political action committees, including more than $1.5 million from the DeLay-backed Texans for a Republican Majority, the GOP in November snatched more than a dozen seats from Democrats and won control of the Texas House for the first time in more than 130 years.

Republicans also swept all statewide offices, giving them domain over government bodies at every level in Texas but one -- the state's U.S. House delegation, which Democrats still control, 17-15.

That's when DeLay set his sights on pushing the Legislature to redraw the state's congressional districts even though the traditionally once-a-decade task of redistricting had been completed only two years ago. The job was done not by the Legislature, which is responsible by law for redistricting, but by the federal courts, which stepped in after lawmakers didn't even vote on a plan.

DeLay pushed the new Republican leadership in the Legislature to use its power to redraw the maps, going so far as to leave his leadership duties behind in Washington, D.C., to travel to Austin more than once to lobby for his cause.

Many Capitol insiders initially scoffed at the effort, contending that the Legislature was too busy trying to balance the state budget to deal with the political sideshow that redistricting would bring.

But DeLay kept pushing, and when it became clear that a new Republican map that would guarantee a GOP majority in the Texas congressional delegation would make it to the House floor, more than 50 Democrats bolted for Oklahoma. Their absence halted business in the Legislature because it prevented the House from having a quorum.

The runaway Democrats generated extensive national attention as they remained holed up until redistricting died a procedural death under House rules.

But the issue is now back because Gov. Rick Perry has called a special session beginning June 30 to take up redistricting.

"The only reason redistricting is being done is because Tom DeLay was pushing," said U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, an Arlington Democrat and a longtime outspoken foe of DeLay. "I guess it involves money. I don't think it's very complicated."

Frost is one of the Democrats considered to be most threatened by Republican redistricting efforts. GOP leaders long have targeted Frost.

Texans for a Republican Majority poured more than $700,000 directly into tight Texas House races, according to Internal Revenue Service records, and another $700,000 into consultants, phone banks and other election infrastructure to win 14 of 19 targeted Texas House races.

"In lower-level elections, money is critical," said Allan Lichtman, an election expert at American University. "It makes an enormous difference."

When Texas Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, was sworn in as Texas House speaker in January, DeLay was there. And DeLay was back in Austin at least two more times in the spring to talk about redistricting. Some Republican lawmakers at the time acknowledged that they sought favors from DeLay in return for their support on redistricting.

DeLay didn't do it alone. Although he was the public face of the effort, his goal of gaining five to seven congressional seats for the GOP has some powerful allies in the White House, where President Bush, a former Texas governor, and senior adviser Karl Rove, a longtime Austin operative, were keeping close tabs on the situation.

In the U.S. House, the Republicans hold 229 seats to the Democrats' 205 seats, and there is one independent.

"It's still a slim margin for the Republicans," said Larry Sabato, campaigns and elections expert at the University of Virginia. "One good year for the Democrats is enough to dislodge the Republicans."

"Rove, who is intimately familiar with Texas lines, is determined his president in a second term will have a Republican majority," Sabato said.

Lichtman, who testified as an expert witness on redistricting for Texas Democrats during a Texas House hearing in May, said that if Republicans prevail in the Legislature and in court challenges, "It would have implications far beyond Texas."

"It would make it almost impossible for Democrats to regain the majority" in the U.S. House, he said.

DeLay had been seething since 2001, when the Legislature failed to agree on a map redrawing congressional districts after the 2000 Census.

A three-judge panel ruled on a map that largely favored incumbents, and the 2002 elections resulted in the U.S. Texas congressional delegation with a majority of Democrats -- 17 to the GOP's 15 members -- despite the state's election of Republicans to every statewide office.

But DeLay had been laying the groundwork since September 2001, when his associates registered Texans for a Republican Majority, a name playing off his well-known Americans for a Republican Majority. Fund raising went into high gear in 2002 with big contributions from big names, such as $50,000 from Dallas oilman Boone Pickens and $100,000 from Houston home builder Bob Perry. DeLay's daughter, Danielle Ferro, was the chief fund-raiser.

McDonald's watchdog group has filed a complaint with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle about Texans for a Republican Majority, saying that the PAC did not report corporate contributions in Texas, where giving corporate money directly to candidates is prohibited. The DeLay-backed PAC maintains that corporate contributions were used for consultants and fund-raising costs, not for direct contributions to candidates.

Earle is already investigating the Texas Association of Business, which spent $1.9 million in advertising on essentially the same slate of candidates in Texas House races as the DeLay group.

A Travis County grand jury is looking into whether the advertisements were legal pro-business issue ads, as the Texas Association of Business claims, or whether they were political ads.

Two Texas lawmakers in the eye of the redistricting storm that DeLay brought to the state Capitol this spring offer contrasting accounts on the Sugar Land Republican's influence in Austin.

"Yes, you could say that redistricting probably would not have been brought to the front burner had it not been for Tom DeLay," said state Rep. Phil King, the Weatherford Republican who is chairman of the committee that will redraw the congressional boundaries.

"But it wasn't only Tom DeLay. There were a lot of people, including myself and [Texas House Speaker] Tom Craddick, who wanted to do redistricting this year," King said. "As a Republican, I have always thought that we were four, five, six seats short in Congress. And that's why I asked to be on the redistricting committee -- to do something about it."

But Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, who led the House Democrats' flight to Oklahoma last month to scuttle redistricting in the regular legislative session, said the issue was nowhere near the radar screen until DeLay parachuted in from Washington.

"Redistricting would have never come up if had not been for Tom DeLay," said Dunnam, the chairman of the House Democratic caucus. "And what surprised me was how the leadership did whatever he asked. It used to be that if a congressman tried to tell us what to do, we'd say, 'Mind your own business.' "

But he definitely paid to play, and now it's payback time for him," Dunnam added, referring to the majority leader's Texans for a Republican Majority.

Dunnam's remark was disputed by freshman Republican Rep. Martha Wong of Houston. Wong said she was encouraged by DeLay to run for the House and was assisted by his PAC, but she flatly rejected any suggestion that the backing had come with a price tag attached.

"I never felt there was any payback, or anything like that," said Wong. "I never got a call from him to say 'Do this' or 'Do that.' All of us [GOP House members] thought we should do redistricting."

For his part, DeLay has contended that there's nothing sneaky about his intentions. "I'm the majority leader, and we want more seats," he told reporters in the spring after the fight over redistricting began.

This month, DeLay discussed his views on money and politics when asked about a controversy involving the Westar Energy, a Kansas company that is the subject of numerous federal investigations into corporate fraud. Westar gave $25,000 to Texans for a Republican Majority.

"It never ceases to amaze me that people are so cynical they want to tie money to issues, money to bills, money to amendments," DeLay said.

The money, he explained, "is going to people who think the same way we do" in the first place.