By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Thomas Dale DeLay was born in 1947 in Laredo, but spent his early childhood in Venezuela, where his father, a wildcatter, had moved the family of five. They later relocated to the rapidly growing suburban town of Sugar Land, southwest of Houston. DeLay reacted to his domineering father, who pressured him to attend medical school, by developing a rebellious streak. After attending Baylor University, DeLay completed a B.S. in biology at the University of Houston. When he couldn't get accepted to medical school, he took a job behind the counter at Redwood Chemical, a firm that sold chemicals to the pest control industry.
In 1974, DeLay struck out on his own with a small pest control company that he later merged with a company called Albo. For DeLay, business was a struggle: During the next dozen years he sought to expand Albo by acquiring two more companies. In both instances, his deals produced lawsuits. In one suit, DeLay was forced to pay a judgment of $30,000. The second was settled last year, with both parties agreeing to keep the terms confidential. [See "Buggy Business," page 6.]
In recent years, DeLay has often told reporters that it was his frustration with government regulation of his pest control business that led to his entering politics. He didn't see, for example, why the state licensed exterminators when a city license should be sufficient. He also objected to the EPA's banning of Mirex, a chemical he used to fight fire ants, and which he believed was perfectly safe.
In 1978, DeLay was elected to the Texas House, becoming the first Republican state legislator his district had sent to Austin since the Civil War. DeLay was more or less drafted by the newly organized Republicans to run, and he swept into office on the coattails of Republican governor Bill Clements. But drafted or not, Betty Cox, DeLay's first campaign manager, remembers her old boss' taking to politics immediately.
"He wasn't a very effective speaker at the beginning," Cox says, "but he had a good way of saying he was a businessman, not a lawyer, and he called for less regulation."
In DeLay's largely white, suburban district, the message worked well. In Austin, recalls Houston state Representative Debra Danburg, he was sometimes teased on the floor with shouts of "De-Lay, De-Lay," because he would take a lot of time at the microphone. But it wasn't long before DeLay had learned to work the system. He had a feeling for negotiating compromise, Cox says. Even Billy Clayton, then Democratic speaker of the Texas House, was extremely fond of him, she adds.
Democrat Craig Washington, a politician distinctly on the other side of the ideological fence from DeLay, says he respected DeLay as a man who kept his word. "DeLay blossomed, I think," says Washington, who served with DeLay both in the Legislature and in Congress, "because he's smart and he's good at consensus-building. We would meet in the back and talk through issues sometimes, and he would come to me on a sticking point between Democrats and Republicans, and if he thought I could help, he would ask me to intercede. He's a good guy as far as I know."
After six years in state government, DeLay moved up to Congress, succeeding libertarian Republican Ron Paul in the 22nd district. The 22nd was a perfect district for DeLay, drawing on largely white suburban and rural areas in Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties. After taking the Republican primary, DeLay trounced his Democratic opponent, whom he outspent $527,000 to $82,000, with 65 percent of the vote. He hasn't faced major opposition since.
From the beginning of his time in Congress, DeLay was a hard-core free-market conservative with a dislike for government regulation. Though he's taken money from the tobacco industry, he's voted for the repeal of tobacco crop subsidies. He's also voted against rice subsidies that benefit farmers in his own district. No isolationist, he's been a fervent supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
This ideological purity may have helped him during his first term in Washington, when he became the only freshman on the GOP's Committee on Committees, giving him clout on committee assignments. He maneuvered well with not only the Republican leadership, but also the majority Democrats, winning assignments to House committees on transportation and space. NASA and Clear Lake are part of DeLay's district, and he vigorously defended NASA's multibillion-dollar space station from attempts to kill it. From his post on the transportation committee, he also helped Mayor Bob Lanier kill federal funding for Metro's expensive monorail proposal, and then restored federal money to Metro that might have gone to other cities.
Not all these positions necessarily jibed with DeLay's stated philosophies, but then, he's no ideologue when it comes to the political benefits of delivering federal dollars back to his district. On environmental issues, though, DeLay's voting record has been consistent. In 1987, DeLay was the only member of the Texas delegation to vote against a measure that forbade U.S. vessels from dumping plastic trash at sea and foreign vessels from similar dumping on the Great Lakes and within 200 miles of the U.S. coast. That same year, when 401 members of the House voted to override Ronald Reagan's veto of the Clean Water Act Amendments, DeLay was one of 26 members to side with the veto. DeLay has voted against a federal coastal management plan, which passed 391-32; against the Clean Air Act of 1990, which passed 401-25; and in 1987, he was one of 16 House members to vote against the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act. In 1992, the League of Conservation Voters, which ranks legislative voting records, gave him a rating of zero on conservation issues.