Thursday, March 31, 2005

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, bedeviled by a swirl of ethics problems in Washington and Austin, took refuge back home in his district this week in pursuit of friendly faces. With signs of trouble visible even here, in the heart of his Republican district south of Houston, Mr. DeLay's confidence was unwavering.

DeLay holds head high at home

But Texas no escape from pressure of ethics questions

By WAYNE SLATER / The Dallas Morning News
March 31, 2005

PEARLAND, Texas – House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, bedeviled by a swirl of ethics problems in Washington and Austin, took refuge back home in his district this week in pursuit of friendly faces.

With signs of trouble visible even here, in the heart of his Republican district south of Houston, Mr. DeLay's confidence was unwavering.

"My constituents are very supportive," he said in an interview. "They know what's going on with the liberal media and with the leftist organizations and with the Democrat party."

Questions about ethics, Terry Schiavo and a grand jury investigation followed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay home to Sugar Land this week.

In recent weeks, a growing drumbeat of unfavorable publicity about lobbyist-paid trips, questionable corporate contributions and a grand jury inquiry in Austin has hammered at Mr. DeLay.

An editorial in the usually pro-Republican Wall Street Journal accused Mr. DeLay of abandoning his conservative roots and acquiring an "odor" that "smells like Beltway." And the majority leader has come under heavy criticism for leading Congress' intervention in the Terri Schiavo case and saying her plight was God's way of shining light on attacks on conservatives – himself included.

At home, demonstrators waving placards showed up Tuesday outside the opening of his new district office in Clear Lake. A liberal group announced plans to run TV commercials in the district attacking the congressman and highlighting scandals that have embroiled former DeLay aides and advisers.

"DeLay has some fence-mending to do back here," said University of Houston political scientist Dick Murray. "But he's a very talented politician and loves power. And he ain't going to go quietly."

Analysts say the escalating series of unfavorable stories, one after another, about criminal investigations and ethical inquiries could imperil Mr. DeLay's hold on power in Washington and even his re-election chances.

Scrambling to counteract the problem, nearly two dozen conservative leaders in Washington have met in recent days to craft a public campaign defending the majority leader. They plan a grass-roots campaign targeted at conservatives in the districts of House Republican lawmakers whose support for Mr. DeLay may be wavering.

Working crowds

Mr. DeLay sought to bolster his own grass-roots this week. He worked the room at the Pearland Rotary Club luncheon. He chatted with teachers at the local high school. He posed before cameras on a military base, where he announced federal funding for a new armored truck.

Mr. DeLay said his critics won't sway voters. His constituents "know this is a concerted effort to demonize me. And they know me well enough to know that all this stuff they're reading is not true."

At Tuesday's Rotary luncheon at the Golfcrest Country Club, the questions to Mr. DeLay were mostly about Social Security, not ethics.

"We believe in Tom DeLay," said Roy Loris, an executive from Pearland whose jacket was festooned with Rotary pins.

The Rev. Max Brand, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, said Mr. DeLay's "core values" and "commitment to Christ as his savior" play well among a politically important bloc of social conservatives in the district for whom opposition to abortion and gay marriage are premier issues.

Mr. Brand dismissed a Travis County grand jury investigation in which three DeLay associates have been indicted on charges of illegally funneling corporate cash into Texas legislative races. "The gentleman in Austin has a political agenda," the pastor said, referring to District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat.

Nor was he troubled, he said, by the House ethics committee's three admonishments of Mr. DeLay last year.

"They could have censured him; they chose not to," he said. "Sometimes you may have gotten close to the edge, but they didn't say he went over the edge."

Not everyone at the lunch was so sanguine. Steven Friedman, a realtor who has lived in the district since Mr. DeLay's first race for Congress in 1984, said the majority leader's ethics problems and his reputation for hard-charging partisanship have eroded some support.

"He would have a hard time if a well-funded moderate were to run against him," Mr. Friedman said.

'He's in trouble'

Last year, Mr. DeLay beat an unknown, under-funded Democratic challenger to win an 11th term. He won with 55 percent of the vote, his lowest margin of victory in two decades, and that emboldens critics to say he's vulnerable.

"I actually think he's in trouble," said John Cabarruvias of Bay Area New Democrats, a local group. "There are a lot of people here, regardless of party, who think he needs to go."

Statistically, the district is more than 60 percent Republican, according to a Texas Legislative Council analysis. Increasing numbers of Democratic-leaning minorities, especially Hispanics and Asians, are moving in.

Mr. DeLay says one reason for his lower victory margin was that he sacrificed some GOP voters to other districts on the new congressional map that he pushed the Legislature to draw so the GOP could take more seats. State figures indicate he lost fewer than 2 percent of the district's Republicans, though.

Analysts and GOP stalwarts say that despite the changes, the district remains solidly Republican and staunchly conservative.

"The stances he takes reinforce his base vote," said Paul Bettencourt, Harris County tax assessor and a Republican activist. "For someone who will speak out on conservative principals, he expects to be a lightning rod."

Ever conservative

As he made the rounds this week, Mr. DeLay took care to emphasize conservative themes popular with the district's Republican faithful – lower taxes, less government, "an unaccountable, out-of-control judiciary," opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

When a student in a government class asked about prayer in school, Mr. DeLay offered a lengthy discussion of Judeo-Christian philosophy as the foundation of the Constitution.

In a world history class where students are studying the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, Mr. DeLay seized on a student's mention of mathematician Isaac Newton as an example of a leader under fire.

"Can you imagine being in a position where you have an idea that you know is true, but everybody around you doesn't believe it? Yeah, I've been there," he said.

"He was considered a heretic, and his life was in jeopardy," said Mr. DeLay, apparently confusing Newton with Galileo.

The Schiavo issue

Some polls indicate Americans disapprove of congressional intervention in the Schiavo case. But Mr. DeLay continued to defend the action and denounce the courts.

The new TV ad by Campaigns for America's Future, which will spend $75,000 to air the ad in Washington and in Mr. DeLay's district, starting today, suggests the majority leader used the Schiavo case to distract from his ethics problems.

"Tom DeLay can't wash his hands of corruption by involving Congress in one family's personal tragedy," an announcer says. "But Congress can certainly wash its hands of Tom DeLay."

A DeLay spokesman described the commercial, and three companion spots by another group, as partisan attacks.

For his part, Mr. DeLay put on a good face this week as he toured the district, dismissing his foes as if swatting gnats.

"In the 1970s, I owned a pest-control business," he said. "Actually that was pretty good experience for what I do now."


On top of a Travis County grand jury investigation into campaign contributions to his political-action committee, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been swept into other events in recent weeks:

Mr. DeLay came under criticism in some quarters for pushing Congress toward legislation allowing a federal court to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case. Democrats launched a television ad that suggests the majority leader used the Schiavo case to distract from his ethics problems.

The Senate Finance Committee opened an investigation into allegations that a lobbyist used nonprofit organizations to pay for improper activities, including overseas trips for Mr. DeLay and other lawmakers.

Government documents showed a 2001 trip to South Korea was paid for by a registered foreign agent despite rules prohibiting the practice. Mr. DeLay said he didn't know the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council had registered as an agent of the South Korean government four days before his trip.