DeLay hustles to replenish his voter pool
By Rick Klein, Globe Staff | October 17, 2005

RICHMOND, Texas -- At a two-story community college across the street from a Wal-Mart, US Representative Tom DeLay jumped out of the back seat of his town car Wednesday morning, grinning wide and eager to shake some hands.

He greeted trustees and shared a joke with maintenance workers. He introduced himself to a group of students who were sharing cigarettes, drinking Red Bull, and listening to a friend strum a guitar.

''Hi -- Tom DeLay," he said, smile fixed and hand outstretched. ''Thanks for letting us interrupt you."

This is DeLay Country, the Republican exurbs of Houston, and the embattled former House majority leader is trying to renew his claim here. But DeLay is scrambling for more than just beating two indictments related to allegedly illegal campaign activities and returning to his plush leadership office in the Capitol: He's fighting for his political life in next year's congressional election.

And he has only himself to blame for it.

DeLay's bold plan to redraw Texas' congressional districts was a ringing success for Republicans. But it came with a mean bite for its architect. Creating more Republican districts meant watering down the GOP vote in any one district, including his own.

And so, more than a year before the next election, DeLay is working his district like he's never had to in his two decades in Congress. No TV cameras followed him to Fort Bend Technical Center; many of DeLay's public events are kept small and somewhat private, to keep away Democratic hecklers. His entourage in Richmond -- population 13,000 -- consisted of a single aide and a two-man security detail.

''What goes around definitely does come around," said Arthur Schechter, a prominent Democratic fund-raiser from Houston who served as ambassador to the Bahamas during the Clinton administration. ''He's overreached so much, and the perception of that overreaching is so broad. He's vulnerable."

Because of the redistricting plan pushed by DeLay, his district is one-third new to him and decidedly more Democratic. In the 2006 election, he's set to face a former congressman with a score to settle: Democrat Nick Lampson, who was bounced from office last year as a direct result of the new electoral map and moved into DeLay's district this year specifically to take him on.

DeLay acknowledged that he has a bigger challenge ahead of him because of his redistricting plan. But, when asked if he has any regrets about pushing it, he responded with an emphatic no and an attack on the Democrats who he said have sought to demonize him.

''Not at all -- are you kidding?" DeLay told the Globe after the Richmond event. ''It's amazing to me the strategy of Democrats. The politics of personal destruction isn't working. In fact, it's backlashing."

But it is DeLay's own brand of cutthroat politics that Democrats hope will be his downfall. Texas had already redrawn voting districts after the 2000 census, but DeLay insisted that the state do it again, to boost the prospects of Republicans. He started by raising money to get a Republican majority in the Legislature. According to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, that fund-raising involved the funneling of corporate donations to candidates, which is illegal in Texas.

Then, when Democratic lawmakers fled the state to stop legislative action on the redistricting proposal, DeLay had the Federal Aviation Administration track them down. That move drew him one of the three ethics committee rebukes he received last year.

DeLay's redistricting plan worked: Texas elected five additional Republican congressmen last year. Without the Texas gains, the GOP would have lost ground in the House last year. Yet the machinations surrounding the deal clearly took a toll on DeLay's reputation, adding to an air of scandal surrounding him.

He fell under a cloud of suspicion for his ties to indicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and exacerbated his reputation as a shrill and shrewd operator who punishes enemies. Lampson called DeLay ''a bully" who has changed the way politics works at the state and federal levels -- for the worse.

''People are fed up with the swirl of controversy that's followed him," Lampson said. ''People realize the role he played in changing the way our government works, and they'd like to see it changed."

DeLay and his defenders insist that he should win a 12th term easily and are confident that he won't be convicted of illegal campaign activities. Texas' 22d district remains overwhelmingly Republican, and DeLay remains popular in his hometown of Sugar Land, a booming, manicured suburb of 74,000 where DeLay once ran a pest-control business.

''I think everybody in this district that supported him continues to support him," said Phyllis Worsham, a government and economics teacher in Sugar Land. ''We know the truth here, and we know what he's done for the district."

Still, DeLay's district isn't quite the same as the one that sent him to Congress through much of his career. The redistricting plan that went into effect with last year's elections stripped him of some reliably Republican enclaves in his home county of Fort Bend and replaced them with areas heavy with Democrats and independents, including portions of Galveston County. He now also represents the Houston neighborhood of Clear Lake, home to NASA's Johnson Space Center, which was previously represented by Lampson.

A district that was once about 65 percent reliably Republican is now a shade under 60 percent GOP-leaning. Last year, against a badly outspent Democrat, DeLay won 55 percent of the vote, the lowest of his career and down sharply from the 65 percent and 70 percent majorities he won through much of the 1990s.

DeLay ran nine points behind President Bush in his district, a statistic Democrats cite to suggest that Republicans started defecting from the congressman even before the indictments and other controversies gained prominence.

''There are moderate Republicans here who are sick and tired of DeLay, and his embarrassments to the county," said Don Bankston, a former Democratic Party chairman in Fort Bend County. ''Part of his base is abandoning him, and the changing demographics give him less of a base. . . . Right now, I think he's dead in the water."

Beverly Carter, a local Republican precinct chairwoman who broke publicly with DeLay by endorsing his opponent last year, said the negative national attention has begun to erode DeLay's support.

''It's like being kicked to death by a duck," said Carter, who is publisher of a countywide weekly newspaper, referring to the drumbeat of controversies involving DeLay. ''Even people I know who are right-wing conservative have pretty much had it with him."

But Carter said she considers next year's race to be a toss-up because DeLay's base will come out in force and many moderates may be loath to replace a powerful House member with an outsider. (Lampson has deep family roots in Stafford, a town in DeLay's district, but has lived most in his life in Beaumont, more than 100 miles to the east.)

The race is expected to draw record sums from outside the district, with DeLay calling in chits from conservative allies across the country and Democrats eager to take down one of the nation's most powerful and prominent Republicans.

DeLay's campaign raised about $920,000 in the three months that ended Sept. 30, the Associated Press reported. DeLay aide Shannon Flaherty said yesterday that the fund-raising set a new record for DeLay. His previous three-month top haul was $800,000, she said.

With both sides energized, the race could come down to the district's new constituents. The independent-minded voters who don't have long-lasting ties to DeLay could be particularly influential, said Sonny Flores, a Houston engineer who is active in local Republican politics.

''There's a lot of independent people in the district who could probably be persuaded to vote against Tom -- not necessarily for someone else -- and they will make the difference," said Flores.

Flores said that at this point, he considers DeLay a favorite to hold on to his seat. ''You may be unhappy with him, but why would you knock off probably the most powerful person in the House?" he said.

That person has been far more active in his district of late, with small photo-ops and meet-and-greets that seem more typical of a first-time challenger. He's been showing up at local barbecues and ribbon-cuttings, and recently had his photo snapped with an Elvis impersonator at a senior citizens' home.

Eric Thode, chairman of the Fort Bend County Republican Party, said last year's election results were ''a lesson" for DeLay to concentrate more time and energy helping his district. He predicted that the congressman will top the 55 percent he got last year because of his increased attention to local issues, including military base closings, transportation, and Hurricane Rita preparations.

DeLay pronounced himself unconcerned about the challenge.

''We're just going to keep doing our job, and people know me," he said as he got back in the town car to get to the next event on his schedule. ''I've come home every weekend. I have relationships here. They know what's going on, and they're rejecting it."

Rick Klein can be reached at [email protected].

Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.