One of the most powerful political figures in America in the early 2000s, Tom DeLay (born 1947) rose through the ranks in the United States House of Representatives to become the leader of the majority Republican party. He seemed a strong candidate to attain the still more powerful position of Speaker of the House until he was indicted on charges involving violations of Texas campaign finance law in 2005.
DeLay was motivated to enter the political arena by a strong dislike of government regulation that he developed as a small business owner in Texas in the 1970s. He was also a strong social conservative, aligned with political initiatives supported by evangelical Christian figures. As important as these two aspects of his political personality seem, however, they are dwarfed by DeLay's sheer mastery of the machinery of politics, particularly fundraising. Expanding his own influence, DeLay assembled a vast money-raising machine that he used to help other Re-publicans as the party took control of Congress during the presidency of George W. Bush. "Tom has solid-gold status," former Representative Bill Paxon told Julie Mason and Karen Masterson of the Houston Chronicle. "He has spent the last 25 years networking with the business community, the Republican partisan community, and conservative interest groups. He has performed again and again and again. There is not a month that goes by that his imprint (on policy) is not clear and distinguished."
Spent Part of Childhood in Venezuela
A native of Laredo, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexican border, DeLay was born on April 8, 1947. His strongly religious parents were members of the Baptist church, but his oil-worker father, Charlie Ray DeLay, was a violent alcohol abuser who often consumed a quart of Scotch whiskey in the course of a single evening. "My father was a wildcatter straight out of the movie 'Giant,'" DeLay said in an interview quoted by Chuck Lindell in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He was a boisterous, domineering alcoholic." Charlie Ray DeLay was also a fluent Spanish speaker, and an oil field supervisor job led him to move the family to Venezuela when DeLay was nine. Venezuelan cowboys showed the youngster how to crack a bullwhip, a skill DeLay retained years later when he became U.S. House Republican whip and kept an actual bullwhip in his office.
DeLay's experiences growing up in Latin America also had more serious effects. Several times the family was caught in the crossfire as leftist rebels fought against Venezuelan government troops, and the young DeLay saw local villagers gunned down. According to his official House website, "DeLay points to this early exposure to political violence as the source of his lifelong 'passion for freedom.'" The adult DeLay became a lifelong enemy of left-wing regimes around the world.
Back in the U.S., the family settled in the suburbs of Corpus Christi, Texas. DeLay played lineman for the football team at Corpus Christi's Calallen High School, from which he graduated in 1965. There, he met his future wife, cheerleader and athlete Christine Furrh. The pair married in the late 1960s and had a daughter, Danielle, born in 1972. Planning a career as a doctor, DeLay enrolled at Baylor University, a Baptist school in Waco, Texas. But he ran afoul of school authorities after several alcohol-related incidents and a vandalism incident at Baylor's sports archrival Texas A&M. DeLay was not welcomed back to Baylor after finishing his sophomore year, and he transferred to the University of Houston.
Majoring in biology and nurturing a student draft deferment and a lucky draft lottery draw though the years of peak U.S. troop strength in Vietnam, DeLay graduated in 1970. For three years he worked as a chemist for a pesticide manufacturer, mixing the ingredients for rat poison among other products. By 1973 he had enough money to purchase a small exterminator business in the Houston area. He did not like the company's name, Albo, but decided to keep it after market research showed that its similarity to the name of a leading dog food brand might help further the firm's name recognition.
Angered by Outlawing of Fire Ant Poison
DeLay's company flourished. Settling in the newly upscale Houston suburb of Sugar Land, he benefited from the need for extermination services in Houston's burgeoning housing developments, many of them built on landfilled swamps. But the pest control business also brought DeLay face to face with an unusual degree of government regulation, in the form of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). DeLay rebelled against business taxes and against the paperwork necessary to gain approval for the use of pest control compounds. Several times he was hit with Internal Revenue Service liens in disputes over payroll taxes. DeLay's anger grew with a decision by the state of Texas to license exterminators. Becoming involved in local Republican politics, DeLay ran for and won an open Texas State House seat in 1978, running on a platform favoring business deregulation and becoming the first Republican elected from his district since the Reconstruction era. Continuing to fight what he considered unreasonable government rules, he was outraged by a new EPA regulation outlawing Mirex, one of the few pesticides effective against the Texas scourge of fire ants. According to Lindell, DeLay called the EPA "the Gestapo of government."
In the late 1970s, DeLay shared an Austin apartment with several other state representatives, some of them Democrats. The apartment was a party spot dubbed Hot Tub Heaven. "He was one of the most fun, humorous guys I hung around with …, former Texas Representative John Sharp told Mason and Masterson. Reflecting on DeLay's later highly partisan stance, Sharp said, "I just think either Washington is a really bad place, or somebody really pissed this guy off." (DeLay rejoined that he did not think he had changed, and that "I don't see myself as mean-spirited. I'm just passionate.") In 1984, after deciding to run for the U.S. House, DeLay shaved off his moustache on the advice of political image researchers.
Few observers of Texas politics picked DeLay as a future leader. But after winning his House race, once again becoming the first Republican elected from his district, DeLay grew as a politician. At least two forces were at work. One was his arrival in Washington during the long ascendancy of conservative thought during the presidency of Ronald Reagan; DeLay had enjoyed campaign support from national Republican figures. Another factor, perhaps even more important, was a new dedication to evangelical Christianity, inspired by a videotape made by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. DeLay gave up alcohol and, later on, tobacco use. He grew closer to his wife and daughter Dani, who worked in his political organization when she grew to adulthood, but, according to a Vanity Fair profile by Sam Tanenhaus, he grew apart from his mother and siblings. DeLay's father died in 1988, and DeLay has said that he learned little from his father other than the value of hard work. DeLay became involved with child welfare issues, and he and his wife opened their Sugar Land estate to three foster children. Later, in the midst of bitter partisan struggles in Washington, DeLay would work with Democratic New York Senator Hillary Clinton on child welfare legislation. He often used his skills as an auctioneer to raise money for charities in his district.
Criticized Bush Tax Measure
DeLay's identification with the right wing of the Republican party became complete in 1990 when he criticized a group of new taxes agreed upon by Congress and President George H.W. Bush as the federal deficit ballooned. DeLay had a knack for campaign-style moves that gained attention at the national level, passing out Red Tape Awards for what he regarded as particularly overbearing examples of federal regulation, and once spraying Raid insecticide in the halls of the U.S. Capitol building as layers of bureaucrats filling out forms struggled to obtain the proper materials to combat a cockroach infestation. At a less public level, DeLay became known as one of the Republican party's most reliable workers in the trenches at election time. In 1994 he had a consultant identify Republicans in close races nationwide and pinpointed those races with extensive fundraising efforts. The Republicans took control of the House in the 1994 elections, and newly elected Republican House members, not all of them sharing DeLay's staunch conservative philosophy, reacted with gratitude, electing DeLay majority whip—the member responsible for enforcing party discipline in the House. DeLay assumed his new position on what he called (according to Mason and Masterson) "the first day of the rest of the revolution."
Although during this time he tried unsuccessfully to restrict the power of the EPA that he had fought earlier in his career, he was effective in mobilizing Republicans to frustrate the legislative initiatives of Democratic President Bill Clinton, and his influence grew. He acquired the nickname "the Hammer" for his hard-edged attitude and iron party rule. In 1996 DeLay overreached and failed after trying to engineer the removal of an archrival, House speaker Newt Gingrich. DeLay was a major mover behind the impeachment of Clinton in the aftermath of his sexual involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in 1998. Soon Gingrich—struggling with ethics problems and weakened after Clinton's 1996 reelection and Democratic gains in 1998—resigned, and DeLay emerged as a Republican king-maker. He engineered the selection of Robert L. Livingston as the next House Speaker, and then, after Livingston was ensnared in a sex scandal, the choice of another close associate, Representative Dennis Hastert of Illinois.
By the time Republicans retook the White House in 2000, DeLay was considered the party's real leader in the House. His fundraising efforts on behalf of fellow Republicans were only magnified during the 2000 and 2002 elections, and he played key roles in shepherding President Bush's agenda, including the Congressionally authorized war in Iraq, through Congress. Staunchly opposed to environmental regulation, he formed a bulwark against any consideration of American participation in international programs to reduce the emission of "greenhouse" gases generally thought to contribute to global warming. Republican control was solidified with takeover of the Senate in 2002, and DeLay was elevated to the post of House Majority Leader by the new Congress the following year.
DeLay now embarked on a new challenge: the Texas congressional delegation, to DeLay's dismay, remained solidly Democratic, and he mounted a two-pronged attack designed to change that state of affairs. First, his lieutenants in the Texas legislature, despite a well-publicized walkout by Democratic lawmakers, successfully implemented an unorthodox off-year redistricting plan designed to improve the chances of Republican candidates, although the U.S. Supreme Court, in December of 2005, agreed to hear a challenge to the plan's legality. And second, DeLay mounted one of his trademark fundraising drives in advance of the 2004 election.
That effort succeeded, as the Republicans once again picked up House seats in 2004. But it also led ultimately to DeLay's indictment and resignation as majority leader in 2005. DeLay had long specialized in rolling up corporate donations to Republicans in Washington. Texas law prohibited direct corporate contributions to political campaigns, but Texas grand jury indictments on September 28 and October 3, 2005, alleged that DeLay had improperly funneled corporate monies through his political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) and then through an account at the Republican National Committee. DeLay denied that the funds returned to the Texas races had originally come from Texas corporations, and he maintained that the indictments constituted a partisan vendetta on the part of prosecutor Ronnie Earle, a Democrat from more liberal Austin, Texas. Earle, however, had a long record of prosecuting Democrats as well as Republicans. Under indictment, DeLay was forced to resign his leadership post.
One of the two indictments, on a conspiracy charge, was thrown out by a judge in December of 2005, but the other, describing alleged money laundering, was allowed to stand. DeLay's future was unclear as of the end of 2005. Moderate Republicans in the House, many of whom had always disliked DeLay, had begun to criticize him, and rivals were angling for his leadership post. A host of other ethical issues, some involving controversial lobbyist and DeLay associate Jack Abramoff, loomed as legal threats. But DeLay had amassed an enormous network of friends over more than a quarter century as a masterful and ideologically committed politician, and no one was counting him out.
Dubose, Lou, and Jan Reid, The Hammer, Tom DeLay: God, Money, and the Rise of Republican Congress, Public Affairs, 2004.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 10, 2005.
Houston Chronicle, June 22, 2003; December 9, 2005.
New Republic, February 19, 1996.
Time, March 21, 2005.
U.S. News & World Report, October 10, 2005.
Vanity Fair, July 2004.
"About Tom," Official Tom DeLay House Website, http://www.tomdelay.house.gov/Biography (December 13, 2005).