Democrats Seize on Indictments

Posted September 22, 2004 at 6:40pm

Just 24 hours after the indictments of three close political allies of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) were made public, Democrats sought to turn the news into a campaign issue in the key Congressional battleground of Texas.

With five Democratic incumbents in Texas facing extremely difficult races as a result of new Congressional lines shepherded through the Legislature by DeLay in 2003, Members and party strategists insisted that he would become an issue in the campaign’s final six weeks.

“Tom DeLay has certainly made both redistricting and his illegal fundraising an issue,” said Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas).

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a backlash,” added Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas), who has filed a complaint pending with the House ethics committee against DeLay. “It will remind people of what took place during a very ugly redistricting process.”

Bell lost a redistricting-forced primary race against former Houston Justice of the Peace Al Green (D) earlier in the year.

Guy Harrison, chief of staff to Rep. Pete Sessions (R), summed up Republicans’ response to the possibility of a campaign based on DeLay’s role in the remap.

“I would encourage [Democrats] to run on redistricting,” he said. “I look forward to having a growing Republican majority if they do.”

While Democrats were crowing about the issue they believe had been handed to them, the endangered Members took varied approaches when asked to comment on the impact of the indictments.

Rep. Martin Frost (D), who is running against Sessions in the new 32nd district, said his opponent “has spent the entire year hiding from Tom DeLay” but confessed he had “no idea” about the potency of the Republican leader’s maneuvers on the campaign trail.

Sandlin, who faces former state Judge Louie Gohmert (R) on Nov. 2, was more blunt.

“DeLay’s arrogance hasn’t worked according to his plan,” Sandlin said.

Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for DeLay, attributed the relative silence among endangered Texas Democrats to a realization that this is not a winning issue for them.

“Making this a partisan race is not in their best interests,” said Grella. “Going after a national conservative leader will not likely accrue to their benefit.”

At issue are donations made by corporations to Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, a group founded by DeLay in 2001. During the 2002 election cycle, the organization led Republican efforts to take back control of the Texas state House.

According to indictments handed down Tuesday, John Colyandro, former head of TRMPAC, Jim Ellis, head of DeLay’s Americans for a Republican Majority PAC, and Warren RoBold, a D.C.-based DeLay fundraiser, helped funnel corporate contributions into those state legislative races.

Under Texas law, corporations are banned from contributing to state races.

With the help of TRMPAC donations, Republicans seized control of the state House, a victory that allowed them — after three special sessions called by Gov. Rick Perry (R) — to pass a Congressional redistricting plan that led to the defeat of Bell and Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) in primaries, and severely jeopardized the Congressional careers of Democratic Reps. Nick Lampson, Charlie Stenholm, Chet Edwards, Frost and Sandlin.

Both state and national Republicans insisted Wednesday that any attempt to make DeLay an issue either in Texas or in House contests nationally would be a major misstep.

“It is totally irrelevant to the local issues being discussed in House races,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti. “People could ultimately care less.”

That sentiment was echoed by Ted Delisi, an Austin-based Republican political consultant.

“Tom DeLay may arouse the passions of partisans on both sides,” Delisi said. “I don’t think that undecided voters are going to vote one way or another in a Congressional race based on what may or may not be happening in a partisan investigation.”

Rhetoric aside, it remains unclear whether a campaign to make DeLay a factor in races nationally would be practicable given his relatively low name identification.

While even Republicans admit that DeLay’s role in redistricting significantly raised his profile in Texas, they argue that most voters nationwide do not even recognize his name.

“In order for Democrats to make Tom DeLay the next Newt Gingrich, people would have to know who he is,” said one Republican House leadership aide.

National polling has shown that DeLay is known by, at most, 33 percent of any given sample.

Despite DeLay’s relatively low name identification, Democrats believe he can be used not only in Texas but also nationwide as a winning issue.

“We have been ratcheting this up,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “Over time people are beginning to recognize him more and more.”

As evidence, Democrats note that Goli Ameri, a Republican House candidate in Oregon, is currently running television ads mentioning the GOP leader by name.

“When Tom DeLay is wrong I will look him in the eye and let him know that,” Ameri says in the ad. “When he is right, I will let him know that too.”

Other Democrats are seeking to take advantage of the TRMPAC indictments by calling for their Republican opponents to return money contributed by DeLay.

Attorney Lois Murphy (D), who is challenging Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) in the southeastern Pennsylvania 6th district, issued a release asking her opponent to “reject DeLay’s extreme agenda and return these tainted funds immediately.”

Greg Speed, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, predicted that more calls for the return of DeLay contributions would be coming shortly.

“There are dozens of Republicans outside of Texas who have tainted money in their coffers,” said Speed. “That is a very real issue.”