An undistinguished party-boy from far West Houston settles into the Lege--then jumps to D.C. Who'da thunk it?
If you lived in Sugar Land in the seventies, maybe you got a good look at the guy from Albo Pest Control, and ever since you’ve been wondering how he climbed his way to the top of Capitol Hill. You’re not the only one scratching your head over the ascent of Tom DeLay.
“All of us are amazed,” said Democratic Representative Debra Danburg, who has represented an inner-city Houston district since DeLay served in the Texas House. “He was not looked to for leadership.” Maybe a glimpse of greatness? Some indication of future success visible through the lens of hindsight? “Not a glimmer,” said Babe Schwartz, an Austin lobbyist who at that time served as state senator for DeLay’s district. “He was just a quiet, nice guy without any particular activist activity.”
DeLay wasn’t groomed for politics. After growing up in Texas and Venezuela (his father worked in the oil fields), he went to the University of Houston. Instead of going into medicine as his father wished, DeLay went to work for a pest control company.
In the extermination business, DeLay discovered what was to become his political raison d’être: opposition to government regulation. In the seventies the Environmental Protection Agency banned Mirex, a pesticide used to fight the fire ant. The E.P.A. found Mirex (a probable carcinogen that becomes more concentrated as it moves up the food chain) to be highly toxic to marine crustaceans, and also discovered its presence in mothers’ milk in Southeastern states. DeLay calls the Mirex ruling his first exposure to the E.P.A.’s blundering ways.
DeLay’s aversion to regulation might have pointed to a Congressional career built around an anti-environmental agenda. Yet very little that he did in Austin suggested that DeLay would become a Christian right ideologue and a Congressional leader almost as ruthless as he is effective in the consolidation and exercise of power. In fact, most who served with DeLay in Austin describe him as a “nice guy” who didn’t have a great deal of focus.
DeLay began his political career as a Republican precinct chairman. In 1978, after reading a how-to book on campaigning, he became the first Republican to represent Fort Bend County in the Texas House – where he accomplished very little. Looking back to 1983: DeLay’s in his third and final session, serving on the Public Health, Transportation, and House Administration Committees, in no significant position of leadership. If you sat in on the Legislature on the right day, you might have caught a rare glimpse of DeLay engaged in the Christian-right crusade for which he is now known, signing on as co-author of a bill to make abortion the legal equivalent of murder. Like many of the other bills he files, the anti-abortion bill will never make it out of committee. On most days, though, DeLay worked on lucrative trucking deregulation.
In Austin, DeLay lived at “Macho Manor,” a rental house owned by Bill Ceverha, now a lobbyist but then one of the more right-wing Republican state reps. Macho Manor housed six male legislators: three Democrats and three Republicans – “Two Toms, two Bills, and two Jerrys” Ceverha remembers. (The other Tom was Bay City Democrat Tom Uher, now speaker pro-tem of the House.) “I was a real jerk,” DeLay says of his Macho Manor years. “Me, me, me. My job was my religion, and I was mistreating my wife and daughter.”
A jerk, maybe, but by all accounts an affable one. Former colleagues describe DeLay as well-liked, and a friend to legislators on both sides of the aisle. Schwartz recalls DeLay as “a quiet, nice guy. We got along fine; there was never any clamor or controversy.” Chet Brooks, a lobbyist who also served as a Democratic senator and whose district also overlapped DeLay’s, agrees with Schwartz. “He knew he didn’t know it all,” Brooks said of DeLay. “He was very eager to learn and work with you.” Neither of the former Senators seems to be describing the man known as “the Hammer,” for his role in keeping the Republican house in line – or DeLay’s own favorite, “the Exterminator,” which describes his eager use of corporate PAC money to eliminate Democrats.
While he was liked, DeLay was hardly admired for his effectiveness. “He carried little legislation and never had any leadership roles,” Danburg said. “When he used to go to the microphone – and he didn’t very often – people would start chanting ‘De-lay, De-lay,’ because we knew it was usually just a waste of time.”
Ceverha pointed out that DeLay’s low visibility was natural in a Democratic House: “As a Republican, you were limited as to what role you could play.” The Texas House in the early eighties could not have been more different from today’s partisan war zone on Capitol Hill – or even today’s often divided Texas Lege. “We didn’t have nearly as rabid a partisan division in the State Legislature,” remembers political consultant Ed Martin, who served as executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. In the “go-along to get-along Lege,” Democrats and Republicans worked and socialized together, so it was rare that someone would use confrontation to build power.
To keep his district happy, DeLay would sometimes have to align himself with liberal Democrats – as he did in 1981, when he joined forces with Houston-area Democrats to oppose a big garbage dump that would have crossed over into his district. The dump battle was part of a greater legislative effort to rewrite the solid waste code – a pro-environment, pro-consumer bill sponsored by Democrats.
In 1984, when Ron Paul left his seat in the 22nd Congressional District (Paul has since returned to Congress from a neighboring district), DeLay decided to run and easily defeated his Democratic opponent. He was led to religion by Reverend James Dobson, head of the politically active conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. DeLay says watching a Dobson video “turned my life around when I first came to Congress. He brought me back to Christ.” His timing was impeccable: his Christian rebirth coincided with the rise of the Christian Coalition, and DeLay became a mouthpiece for the well-funded group.
At first, DeLay didn’t find Washington to his liking. “Tom liked the camaraderie of the State Legislature; when he first went to Congress he was pretty frustrated that a lot of people didn’t even get to know each other,” Ceverha said. “He had resolved that he was either going to be a player or just get out.”
DeLay set out to become a player, securing an appointment as freshman representative to the Republican Committee on Committees – a position that allowed him to help his Republican colleagues get the committee assignments they wanted. By his second session he was serving on the Appropriations Committee, and had shed his quiet, friendly Texas persona.
In 1989 DeLay suffered a temporary setback when he ran the campaign of Edward Madigan for Minority Whip against Newt Gingrich (Gingrich wasn’t conservative enough for DeLay). Gingrich won 84-82.
Undeterred, DeLay successfully ran for chairman of the Republican Study Committee (now known as the Values Action Team, a Christian Coalition vehicle). The committee was a research group founded to combat big government, and DeLay used his chairmanship to help orchestrate the 1990 defeat of President George Bush’s tax increase.
In 1994 DeLay was elected majority whip.
“There’s no question that he was ambitious and sincere and energetic, but to say you could predict that he’d be majority whip or the chief up there, I think that would be ridiculous,” Ceverha said. “So much of that is just being in the right place at the right time.”
Julie Hollar is, from time to time, an Observer editorial intern.