Brothers of the Road

'The I-69 "NAFTA Highway" is supposed to create thousands of jobs. Thanks to your tax dollars, it's already provided a very good one for the underemployed brother of Tom DeLay.

Back in April 1994, Roger Hord, the transportation policy director for the Greater Houston Partnership, heard some troubling news from North Texas. Envisioning a river of trucks running from Mexico to Canada because of the North American Free Trade Agreement, officials along Interstate 35 had banded together in Dallas and declared I-35 to be the first "NAFTA highway" and a top priority for federal highway improvements.

Nothing had changed about I-35: It still began at Laredo on the Mexican border, ran straight through San Antonio, Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth, then cut through the Midwest and forked into tributaries to the Canadian border. What was different was the packaging, and the fact that cities along I-35 were promoting the highway for the NAFTA designation was alarming to Houston boosters like Hord. If they didn't come up with their own NAFTA marketing plan, billions of federal highway dollars might disappear down the wrong route.

They could argue that U.S. Highway 59, which goes from Texarkana south to Houston and then southwest to Laredo, also would be overrun with Mexican trucks. U.S. highways 77 and 281 run straight south from U.S. 59 through the King Ranch to the southernmost point of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, where several small cities have built toll bridges to carry the predicted river of trade from Mexico. That corridor to South Texas, and 20 others around the nation, were already being considered by federal planners for upgrading to interstate status. Clearly the nation couldn't afford to upgrade all 21 proposed corridors to interstate standards. How would the nation's highway planners and legislators decide? What Houston needed was priority, a NAFTA priority.

By that December, Hord and the Partnership had formed the Alliance for I-69 Texas. A nonprofit organization of approximately 75 Texas counties, cities and corporations with an annual budget of $500,000 in 1996, the coalition has received $100,000 from Houston taxpayers during the last three years. The I-69 route would link the impoverished towns in the Valley to Houston and points north by upgrading U.S. 59 to a controlled-access interstate at the cost of roughly $5 million a mile. The new NAFTA highway would end in Indianapolis, where the existing Interstate 69 feeds into Michigan and Canada. And making the new route even more politically palatable, I-69 would pass through Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi, the home states of the president, vice president and Senate majority leader.

Regardless of which alignment I-69 took northeast of Texas, it had one obvious supporter in Congressman Tom DeLay. The second-ranking Republican on a House subcommittee for appropriations that is crucial for highway spending, DeLay has always been effective in bringing federal transportation dollars to the Houston area, and U.S. 59 runs straight through his hometown of Sugar Land. But as Congress prepared to renew a six-year, $175 billion highway spending package, the Texas alliance needed someone in Washington to push its proposals. It needed a lobbyist.

One name that surfaced -- no one seems willing to say exactly who recommended him or how his name became known -- was that of a lawyer with no previous lobbying experience and no background in the highway bureaucracies: Randy DeLay, Tom's younger brother.

Before Tom DeLay was elected House majority whip in January 1995, Randy DeLay had spent the previous ten years in a series of failed business ventures in Corpus Christi and Houston that eventually led to his filing for bankruptcy in 1992. But within three months after Tom DeLay's ascension as the third most powerful Republican congressman in the country, Randy DeLay emerged as a six-figure-a-year Washington lobbyist whose clients have included the Mexican cement monopoly Cemex, the city of Houston, Houston Lighting & Power, Union Pacific Railroad and the Alliance for I-69 Texas.

Randy DeLay has been unsurprisingly successful in winning support for his clients' causes from his brother. Although a Washington watchdog group has filed a House ethics complaint about the DeLay brothers' lobbying relationships and Tom DeLay's strong-arm tactics with political contributors, the complaint seems to be going nowhere.

The NAFTA highway is, however, going somewhere, with its supporters predicting a nearly billion-dollar appropriation in the next several months, even though the existing highways are not being overwhelmed by Mexican trucks as predicted. But the NAFTA highway is not a means of getting from Mexico to Canada so much as a rationale for drawing highway money to one route and away from others. It will eventually pour billions of dollars into the depressed economies of South Texas, the Mississippi Delta and rural Arkansas. It's not a transportation project so much as an economic development project. And if Randy DeLay is a beneficiary? What can you say except God knows, and so does Tom, that Randy needed the work.

"Do you have a big brother?" asked Randy DeLay last August in an interview with Knight-Ridder reporter Frank Greve. "Does your big brother ever listen to you or believe anything you tell him?"

Randy DeLay's attempt to downplay his influence on his brother seems a strange message to send to potential clients. According to Fort Bend County Republican sources, during the last several years Randy DeLay has often substituted for Tom at civic functions when his brother was unavailable, and said a few words on the congressman's behalf.

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