Dragon Slayer

A new Republican challenger steps forth to take on Tom DeLay

Thus far, though, most of the attention has appropriately centered on Democratic candidate Nick Lampson, the former four-term congressman with an ax to grind. One of five victims of the DeLay-engineered redistricting plan, Lampson lost his seat last year after his district was diced into three parts.

Lampson is poised to receive big bucks from national Democratic organizations. He's already collected more than $800,000 this year. But most political observers agree that the Republican primary will determine the election winner. After all, the Republican-dominated district -- which is shaped like a rumpled bow tie and includes parts of Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston and Harris counties -- was hand-drawn by DeLay himself.

It remains to be seen what will ultimately become of the DeLay-backed map. A couple weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would consider the map's constitutionality. Opponents contend that it diluted the voting strength of minorities in violation of the Civil Rights Act. The court is expected to begin hearing arguments in April.

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

By then, DeLay will likely have already gone to trial on allegations that he laundered nearly $200,000 in corporate money to state candidates. DeLay claims he's the victim of a trumped-up partisan attack. Even if he manages to escape a guilty verdict, analysts predict more troubles ahead.

DeLay's former press secretary Michael Scanlon last month pleaded guilty to a bribery conspiracy charge. In exchange for a maximum five-year prison sentence, Scanlon has agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department on several other criminal investigations that could entangle DeLay and other lawmakers.

Most potentially damaging is the yearlong federal investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a DeLay ally who allegedly worked with Scanlon to defraud American Indian tribes out of $82 million. Prosecutors investigating Abramoff are also examining whether he brokered high-paying jobs for congressional aides at powerful lobbying firms in exchange for legislative favors.

According to a recent AP-Ipsos poll, 88 percent of those surveyed said corruption is a serious problem in the U.S. Congress. Some Democrats want DeLay re-elected to continue his slow burn in the courts, the media and opinion polls, according to Rice University political science professor Robert Stein. "They see him as a poster child for Republican corruption," Stein says.

Campbell anticipates that even those who have supported DeLay in the past will join him in concluding that enough is enough.

"I'm unknown, but Tom DeLay is known," Campbell says. "And that may be my greatest strength."

Even the simple task of forming a campaign staff has proved problematic for Campbell. Since DeLay has gotten involved in so many statewide races, most local professional campaign workers have drawn paychecks from him and are unwilling to oppose him. Even some of Campbell's earliest and most devoted supporters insist on staying in the shadows.

"There would be a revolt if my clients knew I was backing Tom Campbell," says one D.C. lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous because his firm has raised tens of thousands of dollars for DeLay through the years.

Campbell is still seeking to hire a professional fund-raiser. Convinced that he won't need huge sums of money to win, he's hoping to raise about $500,000. That's nothing compared to the $1.2 million DeLay already has on hand, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks campaign contributions. Analysts say DeLay could easily spend $5 million choking the airwaves with advertisements. DeLay spokesperson Shannon Flaherty says a fund-raiser held in the Galleria earlier this month, attended by Vice President Dick Cheney, was DeLay's most successful ever. The amount of money collected has not yet been disclosed.

Known for walking through past election campaigns, DeLay clearly is not taking any chances this time around. He has already made several local public appearances, and is flooding media outlets with press releases touting his latest achievements.

Campbell and his supporters are crossing their fingers that DeLay's spending spree will rebound on him. "At some point it will look like an act of desperation, that he's trying to buy votes," says attorney Michael Stanley, who is serving as Campbell's campaign chairman.

Political consultant Jacqueline Blankenship has signed on to serve as Campbell's campaign manager. Blankenship has had a long and bitter history with DeLay that's been well chronicled. For starters, her husband, Robert, merged his pest control business with DeLay's back in 1986. A decade later, he sued DeLay for allegedly breaching the partnership agreement. The two eventually settled for an undisclosed sum.

DeLay later went after Jacqueline, attempting to blackball her from any involvement in local politics, according to a story first published in the Houston Press (see "The Avenging Exterminator," by Michael Berryhill, March 14, 1996) and recounted in the book released last year titled The Hammer, by former Texas Observer editor Lou Dubose and Texas Monthly senior writer Jan Reid. DeLay "had warned her, [Blankenship] claimed, the last time he spoke to her. 'You don't want me as an enemy,' he said in a phone call. 'I'll destroy you.' "

A spokesman denied that such a threat was made, though the story has become part of the voluminous lore illustrating DeLay's penchant for vindictiveness.

Such anecdotes have not dissuaded local political armies from closing ranks behind DeLay. In September, the Fort Bend County Republican Party unanimously passed a resolution calling for the support of DeLay, says Eric Thode, the party chairman since 1992. Thode, under fire himself for staying in office though he recently moved his residence to Harris County, praises DeLay for bringing home the bacon to his district. DeLay has secured millions of dollars in pork funding for everything from highway construction to NASA.

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