Rolling Stone: The Hammer Falls
Are the Democrats tough enough to bring down Tom DeLay?
By JOSHUA GREEN
After the revelations of the past few weeks, there is no longer any doubt that Rep. Tom DeLay is the most corrupt official in Washington -- which is saying a lot, given the ethical standards of Capitol Hill. The Republican majority leader, known as "The Hammer," has broken nearly every House ethics rule on the books in recent years, enjoying lavish trips paid for by corporate lobbyists and foreign agents. DeLay stayed at the luxurious Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel in Hawaii as a guest of the American Association of Airport Executives, who picked up the $52,000 tab for eight members of Congress. He went golfing in Scotland, Russia and South Korea with family members and aides, racking up $283,000 in expenses that were covered by a host of special interests, including Enron, AT&T and the Nuclear Energy Institute. His wife, Christine, and daughter Danni Ferro have received $500,000 from his campaign for their political work on his behalf -- including a late-night party for corporate donors at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where a lobbyist poured champagne over Danni's head while she was in a hot tub on the balcony of DeLay's suite. The majority leader -- a master at covering his tracks by laundering corporate gifts through seemingly innocuous groups like the National Center for Public Policy Research -- insists that his first-class jet-setting is undertaken solely for "educational" purposes.
The accusations against DeLay are hardly new. The congressman from Texas has been openly flouting the law for years, receiving an unprecedented three rebukes in a single week from the House ethics committee after he bribed a fellow Republican to vote for a bill and sold his own vote on another in exchange for a corporate donation. What is new, however, is the momentum that is gathering to oust DeLay for his unethical conduct. With more abuses coming to light each day, even members of his own party are calling for him to resign. DeLay is "an absolute embarrassment to me and to the Republican Party," Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut, said recently. The man who has long bullied supporters and opponents alike -- once going so far as to order the Department of Homeland Security to help hunt down and arrest Democrat legislators in Texas -- suddenly appears likely to face censure and even indictment.
But while the sudden downturn in DeLay's fortunes dominates the headlines, the behind-the-scenes campaign that helped bring about his downfall has gone almost unnoticed. During the past year, a small group of Democrats has been quietly working to call public attention to DeLay's wrongdoing -- and to mobilize public sentiment against him. For the first time since their defeat last November, the Democrats are proving that they too can play rough, demonstrating the kind of determined opposition that many political observers were beginning to doubt them capable of.
Even more significant, the campaign against DeLay has provided the entire party with a pointed message that it can use as a central theme in next year's elections. "The Democrats have recognized that the ethics front can be an effective assault against Republicans in the upcoming elections," says Craig Holman of Public Citizen. Indeed, word from Capitol Hill is that Democratic House leaders are going so far as to recruit "squeaky clean" candidates to run in '06 to further highlight the ethical disparity between the two parties. "The Democratic strategy right now is to make ethics the issue it should be," says Bell, whose ethics complaint sparked the crusade against DeLay. "We have to make the Democratic Party the one that stands for an ethical, transparent and accountable government." Should that happen, Tom DeLay could find himself not just out of a job but cast in a role he surely never imagined: the savior of the Democratic Party.