A Lesson in Self-Destruction

Lines in the Sand: Congressional Redistricting in Texas and the Downfall of Tom DeLay

In retrospect, Tom DeLay’s fall from grace may seem formulaic and predictable, perhaps even inevitable.

An insatiable appetite for power. An endless font of self-righteousness. An almost maniacal disdain for Democratic foes, especially former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost of Dallas. An unbridled drive to press the boundaries of ethics laws.

The unattractive traits—all too common in the annals of disgraced, once-mighty politicos—coalesced in 2003 when DeLay seized control of the often-arcane netherworld of Texas congressional redistricting. The power play not only ended up destroying his electoral career, but jeopardizes Republican hopes of expanding minority support, especially among Hispanics.

The sordid tale is captured in Steve Bickerstaff’s richly detailed examination of the events that gave rise to the “Killer Ds,” Tom Craddick’s election as Texas House speaker, the GOP’s control of the state’s congressional delegation, and DeLay’s indictment and fall as U.S. House majority leader.

Indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay

As a longtime Austin attorney often involved in legislative affairs and redistricting, Bickerstaff knows the players and history. Familiarity can be a disadvantage in telling a complex, nuanced political story if personal relationships undermine clear-eyed analysis. But Bickerstaff puts his experience to good use, offering a carefully balanced examination of political motives and legal strategies. Apparently key players in the redistricting drama trusted him to tell the story fairly and fully: Many agreed to be interviewed to help flesh out the book’s details.

The underlying story is well known to Observer readers. (Full coverage of the scandal can be found at www.texasobserver.org) After the 2000 U.S. Census, Texas had to redraw its congressional boundaries, an always contentious endeavor as political parties and interest groups vie for maximum advantage. When Texas lawmakers couldn’t agree on new boundaries, federal judges stepped in and drew new districts for the state’s 32 congressional seats that supposedly would hold until the next census. Republicans, especially DeLay, weren’t willing to wait.

According to Bickerstaff, DeLay hatched a plan to right the wrong he saw in Democratic control of Texas congressional seats while Republicans held every statewide office: Elect a Republican majority to the state House of Representatives in 2002, install his friend Craddick as speaker and ram though a redistricting plan as partisan as the law would allow. “Redistricting by cabal,” as Bickerstaff puts it.

“Whenever given a choice between enhancing or maintaining minority voting strength or legally increasing the probable number of Republicans in Congress, the Republicans always chose to increase the number of Republicans,” writes Bickerstaff of the objective of the handful of men who secretly drew up the plan.

The scheme concentrated many minority residents into as few districts as possible that might elect Anglo Democrats. It buried other pockets of minority voters—most in rural areas such as East Texas—in heavily Republican districts, where their Democratic votes would count for little. Given the importance of minority voters to Democratic candidates, the strategy effectively limited opportunities for Democrats to pick up new seats in Texas.

“The partisan design,” Bickerstaff writes, “was masterful.”

It took money—big money—to accomplish DeLay’s goals. All Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and others had to do was follow the money. The money trail led to indictments against DeLay and two associates, though the criminal cases remain unresolved.

Like a prosecutor painstakingly making his case, Bickerstaff ties together the millions of individual and corporate dollars raised and spent by a coalition that included DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority, or TRMPAC; the Texas Association of Business; Texans for Lawsuit Reform; and the Virginia-based Law Enforcement Alliance for America, a group launched with National Rifle Association seed money.

“Just electing a Republican majority would not have been sufficient to achieve the objectives DeLay sought,” Bickerstaff writes. “The winning Republicans had to be the right Republicans—committed to the ideology and goals that DeLay thought important.”

DeLay’s plan worked. In 2002, 13 of 17 candidates for the Texas House receiving TRMPAC money in contested Republican primaries won. Each had pledged to support Craddick. All but two supported the final congressional redistricting bill.

All told, the GOP won 16 additional state House seats, forging an 88-62 majority, and Craddick became House speaker, setting the stage for DeLay to secure the most partisan redistricting plan possible. The result: Republicans transformed a 15-17 deficit into a 21-11 majority in the state’s Congressional delegation, securing the shaky GOP majority in the U.S. House.

“The Republican strategy was opportunistic and ruthless,” Bickerstaff writes. “DeLay successfully coordinated many political assets at the national and state levels to achieve an optimal final redistricting plan; redrawing Texas congressional districts was not a matter to be left to Texas lawmakers.”

But DeLay and his cohorts had a problem. TRMPAC sent $190,000 raised from corporations to the Republican National State Elections Committee, which in turn delivered $190,000 in contributions to seven state legislative candidates. State law prohibits corporate contributions to candidates.

Rep. Elliott Naishtat when the Killer D's returned from Ardmore

“The principals in TRMPAC were reckless,” Bickerstaff writes. “Perhaps intoxicated by the apparent success of their operations and the prospect of success in the coming election, they confused what was happening in federal campaigns with what was allowed for state election campaigns in Texas.”

Bickerstaff reports that major GOP donors helped pressure state lawmakers and elected Republicans to push through redistricting in the face of near-unanimous opposition from Democrats, newspaper editorial boards, and the general public.

“Several Republican senators told me in 2005 that they had received very clear messages, directly or indirectly, from these major donors in 2003 that the obstructionist Democrats had to go. These messages were delivered through telephone calls and personal visits,” Bickerstaff writes. “The senators were certain to listen to these major donors because, in the 2002 election cycle, they [using the top 10 individual contributors to TRMPAC as a measure] directly gave Republican senators over $700,000. For an elected official to offend such important Republican donors could mean virtual political suicide. Put simply, the issue for the senators had become, ‘Do I risk my political future as a Republican to possibly save Martin Frost?’ The almost universal answer was, ‘No!'”

Among the financial heavy-hitters: Dallas investor Louis Beecherl, Houston builder Bob Perry, San Antonio physician-turned-businessman James Leininger, Dallas oilman Boone Pickens, and McKinney businessman John Lattimore.

Legislative Democrats took extraordinary pains to stop the juggernaut. The trip to Ardmore, Oklahoma by fifty-one House Democrats to deny Craddick a quorum is now the stuff of legend as is the 40-day sojourn by Senate Democrats in Alburquerque, New Mexico. It wasn’t until a third special session that Democrats’ worst fears were realized: Less partisan plans passed both houses, only to be replaced in conference committee by the most partisan plan possible. The bait-and-switch was, Bickerstaff writes, part of the DeLay team’s strategy all along.

“DeLay aide Jim Ellis in 2005 claimed to me the [House] walkout unified Republicans: ‘It [the walkout] was exactly what we needed. It certainly galvanized our side,'” Bickerstaff wrote. “They challenged the Republican control of the Legislature. What had been a vote to increase Republican seats in Congress became a leadership challenge, because them running away made it a challenge to the speaker, lieutenant governor, and governor. It drew a line in the sand.”

State Rep. Jim Dunnam, head of the Democratic caucus, told Bickerstaff that Democrats probably wouldn’t have been united enough to walk out, except that Republicans ran roughshod over them during the session on issues like tort reform, school finance, and the state budget.

In effect, Bickerstaff portrays DeLay as the master puppeteer, with Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Speaker Craddick and Attorney General Greg Abbott playing important supporting roles. Bickerstaff remains puzzled by Dewhurst, who appeared determined initially to protect the Senate’s longstanding collegiality, but whose political ambition eventually gave way to the demands of the highly partisan GOP donors [who contributed over $800,000 to Dewhurst’s campaign coffers].

Bickerstaff also contends DeLay was aided by a U.S. Justice Department headed by a Republican partisan, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, and a president who could have ended the partisan bloodletting with a simple scowl.

In the Justice Department, he recalls, eight career lawyers concluded the redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting minority strength, but political appointees in the department overruled them. The career lawyers’ report was buried until 2006.

In the White House, Bickerstaff writes, political guru Karl Rove “remained largely in the shadows” but his support was obvious—”a telephone call here … a meeting there … an encouragement when needed.”

But Bickerstaff writes “the President bears ultimate responsibility for what happened,” noting Bush campaigned as a bipartisan leader, a uniter, not a divider. He also was all to willing to endorse implicitly DeLay’s cabal—insisting it was a state matter—when it served his need to expand the GOP majority in the U.S. House.

Even so, Bickerstaff contends that Democratic efforts to shift responsibility for the redistricting dispute to Bush “backfired.”

Redistricting is hardly a sexy topic except to the most devoted political junkies. Bickerstaff’s book starts slowly, reading more like a college text as he recounts Texas history on redistricting and race. When he describes Democrats’ futile attempts to thwart DeLay’s highly partisan plan, it becomes a suspenseful page-turner.

For DeLay, the final chapter is yet to be written. But it already is replete with cruel irony: Former U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson reclaimed DeLay’s congressional seat for the Democrats. And the U.S. Supreme Court ordered new boundaries in South Texas and West Texas districts that enabled former Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez to unseat Texas Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla.

Before the 2003 redistricting, Democrats owned a 17-15 edge. After, Republicans dominated 21-11. Now it’s 19 Republicans and 13 Democrats—almost precisely the numbers anticipated under a less acrimonious state Senate redistricting plan that might have averted much of the political bloodshed.

Further, Democrats may be positioned to benefit even more in the not too distant future from the growth in the state’s Hispanic vote, especially if minority voters remain agitated at the way DeLay and his crew fought to limit minority potential.

DeLay won the battle in 2003, but lost the war—personally and politically. Texas lost, too—at least temporarily. Think how much clout the state would have if Martin Frost, Charlie Stenholm and other Anglo Democrats were still in office when Democrats recaptured the House in 2006.

Arnold Hamilton is editor of the Oklahoma Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST