Some Democrats still pin hopes on DeLay backlashFilm signals intention to vilify him; GOP says strategy won't fly
May 21, 2006
By WAYNE SLATER / The Dallas Morning News
HOUSTON – There on the screen was Tom DeLay – 30 feet tall, flickering in black and white like the man who wasn't there in a film noir.
For political activists intent on highlighting the message of political corruption in this year's House and Senate races, it did not seem to matter that Mr. DeLay was actually no longer a candidate and soon won't be a congressman, either.
To the crowd that gathered Friday night for the premiere of The Big Buy, a documentary about the former House majority leader's precipitous rise and fall, Tom DeLay is still big box office.
"DeLay becomes a symbol," said Glenn Smith of the liberal advocacy group Drive Democracy. "And the symbol floats free of his particular circumstance in or out of power. That's a political fact."
Democrats are counting on that as they try to wrest control of Congress away from Republicans. They hope that voters will still see Mr. DeLay, who is awaiting trial on charges that he misused corporate funds to elect Republicans to the Texas Legislature in 2002, as the personification of a wider "culture of corruption" in GOP-dominated Washington.
Republicans say that's wishful thinking and that Mr. DeLay will be a distant memory to voters by the time they cast ballots in six months. Political analysts tend to agree, though they say general dissatisfaction with Washington could hurt Republicans with or without Mr. DeLay in the mix.
Friday's premiere in Houston – the film also opened in Dallas and will soon go nationwide – was the kickoff of a national campaign to use the film as an organizing tool against corporate influence in Congress.
The lounge off the lobby of a downtown theater was wrapped in yellow crime-scene tape. The walls were festooned with black posters bearing the ominous image of a hammer, Mr. DeLay's nickname.
"Tonight, we're going to have a celebration – a celebration by a community of activists who stood up to a bully," said Craig McDonald, who heads Texans for Public Justice.
Starting with Earle
The documentary was made by two Texas filmmakers, Mark Birnbaum of Dallas and Jim Schermbeck of Lubbock. They began filming in early 2003 when Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle was in the early stages of his investigation into illegal corporate money in Texas political campaigns.
In tone and texture, the film suggests a hard-boiled mystery of the 1950s with a brassy film noir soundtrack and a Raymond Chandler feel.
The villain is Mr. DeLay, constantly trying to expand the Republican majority.
The hero is Mr. Earle, ruminating about "cops and robbers" as he drives the rain-slick streets of Austin.
In the end, a Travis County grand jury brings indictments, speeding Mr. DeLay's fall from power by forcing the Sugar Land congressman to give up the position of House majority leader.
The movie's distributor, Brave New Films, is encouraging progressive groups to host neighborhood screenings to spread the message.
But Republicans say Mr. DeLay's resignation, effective next month, has robbed Democrats of the high-profile bogeyman they were banking on to make that message stick.
"They were using Congressman DeLay across the country as their poster boy," said Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill. "When he decided not to run, that argument was gone."
Plus, Washington political analyst Charlie Cook said, voters don't believe that Democrats in Congress are more virtuous than Republicans when it comes to ethics.
But he said invoking Mr. DeLay as "code for Republican corruption" does feed a broader mood of voter discontent, which could work against the GOP in November.
"If people are angry about corruption, if they're angry at Washington, if they're angry about budget deficits, they vote for change," he said. "And they vote against the party in power, which happens to be Republicans right now."
A new poll by the Pew Research Center found an increasing sentiment to replace members of Congress. A majority of voters say they would like to see most members of Congress defeated this year and a sizable minority – 28 percent – would turn out their own representative, according to the survey. Typically, people give their own incumbents high marks, which makes large-scale turnover in Washington rare.
The poll reflects the strongest anti-incumbent sentiment since 1994, when Republicans gained 54 seats to take control of the House and six seats to cement a solid majority in the Senate.
Left-leaning groups want to sharpen that discontent into a specific desire to oust Republicans, arguing that Mr. DeLay led a GOP caucus that sold out to lobbyists and powerful corporate interests.
"He may be gone, but the corrupt machine he built lives on," said Toby Chaudhuri, a spokesman for the liberal advocacy group Campaign for America's Future.
The group plans to continue using Mr. DeLay in TV spots in contested congressional districts. On its Web site, it still features a photo of Mr. DeLay and the headline: "DeLay is Out, Now Help Expose His Cronies."
The uncertainty of Mr. DeLay's political impact is obvious in his own suburban Houston district.
Democratic nominee Nick Lampson, a former congressman who lost his seat after Texas districts were redrawn at Mr. DeLay's behest, jumped into the district to take on Mr. DeLay. He won national attention and raised more than $2 million, including contributions from Democratic luminaries such as Barbra Streisand and TV producer Norman Lear.
Democrats still hope to take the seat as one of the handful they need to win the House, but without Mr. DeLay on the ballot, it's unlikely Mr. Lampson can count on such high-profile support. Still, he's optimistic.
"Round one is clearly in my corner," Mr. Lampson said last week.
But the incumbent's departure leaves Mr. Lampson seeking election in a Republican district against a yet-to-be-determined GOP opponent not saddled with the kind of ethics problems that bedeviled Mr. DeLay.
John Cobarruvias, a local Democratic leader, acknowledged that Mr. DeLay's departure has "taken a little air out of this on the national level, definitely."
Mr. Lampson said Mr. DeLay's ethical miscues are well-known to voters in the district, which includes portions of Harris, Brazos, Galveston and Fort Bend counties.
"I don't have to go out and remind them," he said. "It's ingrained in a lot of these people in this district, and it will resonate."
At the same time, Lampson campaign manager Mike Malaise said, don't be surprised if the campaign runs TV ads this fall featuring Mr. DeLay.
Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, for one, wouldn't be, given the potential symbolism.
"He was the best thing the Democrats had," said Mr. Stein.