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.
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.
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.
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.
With just three months to go before the primary, it's probably too late for Campbell to start a direct-mail campaign. Dick Richards, a former three-term chairman of the Utah Republican Party who was named chairman of the Republican National Committee during Reagan's first presidential term, is advising Campbell on jump-starting a grassroots campaign.
Campbell will promote himself as the antithesis of DeLay, calling for more openness and civility in government. Though Campbell supports the Republican Party line on hot-button issues such as abortion and stem-cell research, his environmental record may win him the support of Democrats. This factor could prove critical, since registered Democrats can vote in the Republican primary. Campbell says he will court individual Democrats, though he won't accept money from Democratic organizations.
He also will ask for the endorsements of disgruntled congressional Republicans such as Chris Shays of Connecticut, Sherwood Boehlert of New York and Ray LaHood of Illinois, who have openly criticized DeLay and called for the election next month of a new majority leader to permanently replace him.
Still, most analysts are skeptical. "Tom DeLay's more likely to resign or be convicted than lose in a straight election," predicts Stein, the Rice professor.
But Campbell is hopeful. As he sits forward in a high-backed leather chair in his law office, there can be heard the faint glimmer of a future stump speech.
"I'm running against the most powerful man in the country, arguably," Campbell says, his voice rising. "I'm prepared to weather the consequences," he continues, now slapping his hands together. "Something needs to be done. We have an opportunity, as an electorate, to say to power that it's the people that are in control. And that we don't approve of this type of politics."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.