Dragon Slayer

A new Republican challenger steps forth to take on Tom DeLay

Tom DeLay isn't just powerful, he's scary powerful. He's so damn intimidating that only the dimwitted and suicidal will dare admit that he's never been more politically vulnerable.

DeLay's approval ratings have been in the toilet since September, when he was indicted on felony money-laundering charges and forced to step aside as House majority leader. A recent poll found that 53 percent of voters in his 22nd Congressional District would choose someone other than DeLay if the general election were held today. About 40 percent of those surveyed believe the charges against him are probably true.

It's a testament to DeLay's entrenched power and his unholy reputation for exacting revenge that no credible Republican candidate has stepped forward to challenge him in the March 2006 primary.

Tom Campbell has been quietly courting 
endorsements for his candidacy.
Daniel Kramer
Tom Campbell has been quietly courting endorsements for his candidacy.

That is, until now.

A Washington insider and Republican Party loyalist, Tom Campbell comes armed with a sparkling résumé and a BlackBerry brimming with high-level political contacts. He's a former Bush I appointee; his inner circle includes a former Republican National Committee chairman handpicked by Ronald Reagan; he already has the covert support of some big-money-raising D.C. lobbyists; and he's been quietly courting endorsements from Republican congressmen and senators who are fed up with DeLay's fiercely partisan, slash-and-burn approach to politics.

Tom Campbell's candidacy is still a long shot. But, if nothing else, it proves there's at least one brave man in Sugar Land.

Inside Campbell's law office 22 stories above downtown Houston, the shelves are lined with presidential biographies, the walls covered in photos that include a shaggy-haired shot of himself at age 17 taken with Richard Nixon inside the White House. "I wasn't that impressed, to be honest," he says, unsmiling, of the late president.

Campbell, 51, has soft, round features, perpetually moist eyes and a five-o'clock shadow that already outlines his face at 9 a.m. Picture a somewhat grayer, pudgier version of actor Jeff Daniels.

Raised in a devout Mormon household in northern Virginia, about 20 miles outside Washington, D.C., Campbell earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Brigham Young University, then went on to law school at Baylor University. He returned for several years to the D.C. area, where he volunteered for political campaigns and began a distinguished career as an environmental lawyer.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed Campbell to serve as general counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He was on the job for a matter of months when the Exxon Valdez dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off the Alaskan coast. Campbell led negotiations for what was then the largest environmental settlement in history. He has since entered private practice as a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, inducing oil and mining companies to rebuild natural habitats harmed by their activities.

Campbell wears his environmentalism on his sleeve. Since moving with his family to Sugar Land 12 years ago, he can be seen driving around town in a cherry-red Toyota Prius. "I'm a conservationist," he says. "I'm very proud to be a conservationist."

This week Campbell is announcing his first bid for elected office. Oddly enough, he decided to challenge DeLay while casting his vote for him in 2004. "I did vote for Tom DeLay, as did a lot of other people," Campbell says. "But we did it with reluctance."

He spent the next year fending off naysayers.

"Just about everyone has warned me about the potential consequences," he says. "I've been warned that DeLay can be vindictive. And I've been warned that I will be attacked both politically and professionally.

"My wife thinks I'm…," he continues, then pauses. "My wife is very concerned. I mean, she's concerned. She approaches this with dread. The question is: Should we pay the personal cost? And she is deeply concerned about the cost to our family."

Besides the mudslinging and dirty politicking that define America's political campaign process, Campbell knows that by taking on DeLay he may be kissing his political ambitions good-bye.

"If you are going to take a shot at the king, you better be sure you don't miss," Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston said recently, speculating on why others haven't come out of the woodwork to challenge the embattled incumbent.

With the January 2 filing deadline looming, the only other Davids to DeLay's Goliath are the fickle Pat Baig, a 57-year-old substitute teacher and political novice who crossed party lines to support a Democrat in last year's election, and the hapless Michael Fjetland, a Missouri City attorney and perennial candidate who got trounced by the incumbent in the previous three elections.

Fjetland won just 1.3 percent of the vote in 2004. Through the years, he's suffered his share of public humiliations. After the 2000 primary, Fjetland sent DeLay a letter in which he promised to support him in exchange for a plum political appointment. DeLay never responded. "When we're young and naive, you know, sometimes we do stupid things," Fjetland explains when asked about the incident. He was 50 years old at the time.

The national media has been hell-bent on hyping the race, even during these last few weeks when lightweights Baig and Fjetland stood alone in the ring. A "brawling three-way Republican primary is getting under way," announced a recent Associated Press story.

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