Dirty Tommy DeLay

Tom DeLay, who has wielded political power with uncommon efficiency, looks into the mirror and sees a victim of politics.

Others are less charitable.

With allegations of questionable ethics swirling around him, the House majority leader finds himself a target of a great Washington sport: tearing down the titans.

In Washington, though, there’s always an alternative spin. DeLay is no victim, his detractors say, but the latest in string of leaders who climbed to the top and arrogantly abused the power that awaited them.

Either way, the man known as the Hammer is taking a pounding.

His troubles began last fall, when three political fund-raisers with ties to him were indicted in his home state of Texas. Then the House ethics committee admonished him, not once but three times. Since then, questions have been raised about whether he knew about the dubious sources of money behind trips he took to Britain and South Korea.

He blames politics.

“It is very unfortunate that the Democrats have no agenda. All they can do is try to tear down the House and burn it down in order to gain power,” he said in defending himself.

Not quite, replied the House’s top Democrat, Rep. Nancy Pelosi: “Tom DeLay’s embarrassment springs from his own behavior and has nothing to do with the Democrats.”

Either way, there’s no doubt DeLay has been drawn into a Washington blood sport that gets going when the scent of scandal touches someone mighty and divisive.

“Tom is the kind of guy that people want to go after because he plays politics to the hilt, and politics is a game in which every dog has his day,” said former GOP Rep. Bill Frenzel, now with the Brookings Institution. “Clearly, Tom is in the eye of the hurricane, and a lot of people would love to see him out of Washington. But they can’t run him out just because they don’t like him. They’re going to have to find a good reason.”

DeLay fights government regulation at every turn, a position hardened during the years before he came to Washington when he ran a pest control business and railed at “Gestapo” environmental regulators. He’s also a leader among religious conservatives, pushing for a more God-centered nation.

Ahead of the 2001 presidential race, he outlined a vision where “we march forward with a biblical worldview, a worldview that says God is our Creator, that man is a sinner, and that we will save this country by changing the hearts and minds of Americans.”

“We have the House and the Senate. All we need is the presidency!”

Despite a growing ethics cloud over the past year, he remains enormously influential.

He jumped into an issue with religious overtones last week, taking up the cause of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman in Florida whose feeding tube was removed after a long court battle between her parents and her husband.

DeLay attacked Democrats for resisting a bill in the House aimed at giving Schiavo’s parents the right ask a federal court to intervene, but he reached out to Democrats for help when it became clear that was the only way to prolong Schiavo’s life.

DeLay, 57, was first elected to Congress in 1984, representing Houston suburbs. He rose to prominence after Republicans captured control of the House in 1994. Elected whip, the No. 3 spot in the leadership, he was responsible for lining up votes for the GOP agenda. By all accounts, he did it remarkably well, winning close votes and knowing when to pull a bill from consideration when it might lose.

Lawmakers say he corralled votes by building loyalty, offering personal and professional help to members and assisting with projects important to their districts. He also took a hard line with lobbyists, openly pushing trade associations to hire Republicans and donate to the GOP.

He might have become House speaker in 1998 after Newt Gingrich stepped down, and his would-be successor, Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston, abruptly bowed out. But he said his leading role in impeaching President Clinton made him “too nuclear.” Instead, he backed his deputy, little-known but better-liked Rep. Dennis Hastert, for the job.

Now he finds himself in a situation similar to what Gingrich faced.

In September, three political fund-raisers tied to DeLay were indicted by a Texas grand jury in a case involving a political committee that DeLay helped create. The committee is accused of illegally using corporate donations for political purposes. Documents in a related civil trial suggest DeLay played a substantial role in the group’s corporate fund raising.

DeLay has denied wrongdoing, accusing the chief prosecutor of “trying to criminalize politics.”

Then the House ethics committee admonished DeLay for pressuring a congressman to vote for a Medicare bill by promising to support his son’s run for Congress.

A week later, the panel again rebuked him for enlisting the Federal Aviation Administration in a search for Texas Democratic lawmakers during a battle over a redistricting plan he engineered. He was also admonished for creating the appearance of favoritism when he discussed pending energy legislation with lobbyists at his fund-raising golf outing.

DeLay again dismissed the panel’s findings as politics. Even so, both parties are preparing for what could be future charges.

Republicans tried and failed to change House rules so DeLay could remain majority leader in case he is indicted. They then replaced the panel’s GOP chairman, who presided over the rebukes, along with two GOP members who supported them.

Still, even with Democratic pressure, the collection of small charges against DeLay won’t necessarily add up to a big one.

“Tom Delay’s a polarizing figure, and he plays hardball,” said Eric Denzenhall, a consultant who specializes in damage control. “Whether hardball equals malfeasance is a huge, huge question.”

On the Web: DeLay’s site: http://tomdelay.house.gov/

© 2005 The Associated Press