Which Bug Gets the Gas?

In 1988, a little-known Texas congressman gathered a crowd of reporters in the lobby of a downtown New Orleans hotel housing several state delegates to the Republican National Convention. Clutching a pole topped by a drooping American flag, 22nd District two-termer Tom DeLay launched into a rather implausible defense of Dan Quayle, an Indiana senator freshly picked by George Bush as his presidential ticket partner.

Bill Clinton's draft-dodging efforts would become an issue in his successful campaign against Bush four years later, but now Quayle's own past manipulation of family ties to get into a national guard unit was touching off a classic feeding frenzy among the convention press corps.

DeLay seemed to feel the issue applied personally to him, and perhaps it did. He had graduated from the University of Houston at the height of the Vietnam conflict in 1970, but chose to enlist in the war on cockroaches, fleas and termites as the owner of an exterminator business, rather than going off to battle against the Vietcong.

He and Quayle, DeLay explained to the assembled media in New Orleans, were victims of an unusual phenomenon back in the days of the undeclared Southeast Asian war. So many minority youths had volunteered for the well-paying military positions to escape poverty and the ghetto that there was literally no room for patriotic folks like himself. Satisfied with the pronouncement, which dumbfounded more than a few of his listeners who had lived the sixties, DeLay marched off to the convention.

"Who was that idiot?" asked a TV reporter who arrived at the end of the media show. When he was told the name, it drew a blank. DeLay at that time was a national nobody, and his claim that blacks and browns crowded him and other good conservatives out of Vietnam seemed so outlandish and self-serving that no one bothered to file a news report on the congressman's remarks.

A lot has changed -- and remained the same -- for Tom Delay over the succeeding decade. He still says outlandish things on a regular basis, such as labeling a Nobel Prize committee as "Swedish environmental extremists" and the Environmental Protection Agency as "the Gestapo." Tom, you see, does not believe in global warming, even as a side effect of his own rhetoric.

Last January, opponents of labor regulations in the Pacific treated DeLay to an expense-paid junket to the Mariana Islands, where the indigenous garment industry was accused of keeping workers in slave-camp conditions. DeLay returned and promptly declared that industry to be a "free-market success."

The difference between that August day at the GOP convention in New Orleans, when his verbiage went unnoticed, and today is simple: When Tom DeLay talks, everybody listens. His rare combination as legislative backroom brawler and ideological zealot won him a solid political base early on in the GOP right wing. Then came the allegiance of business backers who found that, more often than not, DeLay was the best go-to guy in the Texas delegation to get things done -- or undone -- legislatively.

"For Houston corporate chief executive officers, most of whom are Republican, there are only two names you call to get things done," says a GOP political consultant here. "In the Senate, it's Kay Bailey Hutchison, and in the House, it's Tom DeLay."

Delay also maneuvered well in snagging an appointment to the powerful Appropriations Committee and the key subcommittee on transportation. Through that subcommittee flow billions in cash for mass transit and highways -- priorities for DeLay's district, which stretches from NASA/Clear Lake to far southwest Houston. As a committee member, he became a necessary touchstone for then-mayor Kathy Whitmire, when she was pushing a billion-dollar monorail, and then-mayor Bob Lanier, when he was killing it. DeLay's sentiments on the issue dovetailed with Lanier's.

"He is effective," comments Lanier. "He is dogged, and determined, and he does his homework.... He could make himself felt in that transportation subcommittee and then when it went to conference he'd fight like a lion, and he'd win."

His election as powerful House whip in the new GOP House majority of 1994 made DeLay the Number Three man in the leadership and allowed him to begin building a base of support in Congress. Following a precedent Lyndon Johnson pioneered early in his career, DeLay created his own political action committee. Through that, Americans for a Republican Majority PAC, DeLay doled out millions to aspiring conservative Congressional candidates and built his own political machine.

Then speaker Newt Gingrich resigned after GOP losses in the November elections and speaker-elect Bob Livingston bailed out after revelations of his out-of-family affairs three weeks ago. That made Sugar Land's adopted son the most powerful Republican standing in the House of Representatives. Far from being ignored or laughed at, his every pronouncement is now parsed by friends and foes for intent and innuendo.

Perhaps the biggest thorn in DeLay's side has been the Clinton presidential veto. As the 1998 Almanac of American Politics noted in its profile of DeLay, "His goal has been to change the culture of federal regulatory agencies -- a tall order -- and the way they treat small businesses.... But much of his legislative product was vetoed by Bill Clinton." That would certainly seem to be a motivation, if any were needed, for DeLay's drive to oust the president.

After the election ousted several GOP pro-impeachment advocates, conventional wisdom had impeachment on life support. That's when House Whip DeLay gave it mouth-to-microphone resuscitation, using his position and influence over Republican members who had received financial aid from ARMPAC. By effectively denying the House the chance to vote for censure rather than impeachment, DeLay kept moderate Republicans from joining Democrats in a consensus.

DeLay whipped the House GOP into voting two articles of impeachment, then advised his colleagues in the Senate to get thee to the evidence room before considering censure. His words were immediately interpreted by the media, with the help of an aide to DeLay, as a reference to a 20-year-old rumor that Clinton sexually assaulted a woman. DeLay's recklessness in fueling unsubstantiated allegations against a sitting president is either the reflection of supreme confidence by a man with a boneless closet, or just verbal business-as-usual by the president's congressional grand inquisitor.

With the falling of the GOP congressional dominoes, DeLay has finally achieved national status. Some of his conservative supporters, after providing the contributions and support to help DeLay reach the pinnacle of his career, are concerned that DeLay's drive for impeachment may be laying the groundwork for his own political waterloo.

Recent history provides some ominous precedents. Few in Congress thought that Newt Gingrich, even after his House censure for ethics violations, would resign from his political position before Bill Clinton gave up the White House. Then came the national elections that trimmed the GOP House majority to 12. Now Gingrich is gone, and the responsibility for the impact of impeachment on the 2000 congressional elections is -- for better or worse -- sitting squarely on the sloped shoulders of Tom DeLay.

Estimates on the price DeLay may pay for his lightning-rod role on impeachment depend both on what happens next in Washington and what happens in the elections two years hence. The Senate is set this week to try the president on the impeachment charges passed under the lash of DeLay's whip, but few think the votes are there to convict Clinton. Most of the congressman's longtime supporters toe the party line on the matter and applaud DeLay for following his convictions. Houston investor Virgil Wagner is a notable, outspoken exception.

Wagner is a a rock-ribbed conservative Republican who puts substantial political contributions behind his convictions. He's also had his fill of the impeachment crusade and wants the troops to get back to the business of fighting for traditional GOP issues such as personal freedoms, less taxation and smaller government. Collecting Bill Clinton's scalp isn't on his agenda.

"The entire Republican leadership in the Congress -- [Senator Trent] Lott, Gingrich, [Representative Dick] Armey and DeLay, the whole group -- made a terrible miscalculation of what they thought the effect would be of attacking Bill Clinton," says Wagner, who runs Houston-based JVW Investments. The former CEO of Sterling Chemical, Wagner believes the GOP turned off voters by coming across as too vociferous and antagonistic on impeachment. They allowed Clinton and fellow Democrats to portray themselves as sticking to real issues while taking the high road and avoiding personal attacks, Wagner said.

"I think [the election results are] a strong reflection of the negativism of the whole Republican leadership in the Senate and the House. And if they don't get back on track and start trying to do what's right for America instead of what's right concerning President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, they're in bad shape for the future.

"I think the leadership has let themselves be lured into a trap, which, if they don't correct quickly, might cost them the majority in both houses in the next election."

Former Houston mayor Lanier has been a steadfast supporter of both Clinton and DeLay and has an even-handed view of the two. He doesn't think Clinton's wrongs rise to the level of impeachable offenses, but he doesn't hold it against DeLay for trying to oust the president. And he figures the only payback to the congressman could come from Clinton in his final years in office.

"DeLay's personal position is secure," opines Lanier, noting that his Houston-area constituency backs his conservative views. And colorless workhorse Denny Hastert, DeLay's deputy whip and new House speaker, is hardly leadership competition.

"His risk is that the Clinton Administration will put his face on the impeachment proceeding," Lanier says. He adds that "the faces they've put on that operation so far have suffered great damage. The president and his forces are very effective at popping a guy.

"If Gingrich had stayed three more days, had it been a bullfight, I think the crowd would have awarded the president Gingrich's ears."

On the other hand, Lanier is betting that the impeachment trial will swiftly conclude with censure, leaving Clinton to finish his term without impeachment as a live issue in the 2000 elections.

"Impeachment requires 67 votes," says Lanier, displaying his trademark affinity for number-crunching. "That would take 12 Democrats moving over, and that ain't going to happen. Since only 2.5 percent of Democratic house members voted for impeachment, apply that same percentage in the Senate and you might get a movement of one Democrat."

Since Democrats only need to get six Republican votes to dismiss impeachment and substitute censure, Lanier figures it's already a foregone conclusion. Besides, cracks Lanier, Senate Republicans have no desire to see Vice President Al Gore elevated to the presidency, since "Gore's political views are no more acceptable to them than Clinton's, though the interns may be a little safer."

Joe B. Allen, the director of the potent PAC of downtown law firm Vinson & Elkins, concurs with Lanier's assessment that DeLay will suffer little damage from the impeachment and may have actually helped himself in the long run by cementing his GOP following. If Clinton should actually be convicted by the Senate, DeLay would go down as the man who engineered the only ouster of a president in the history of the republic.

"Well, that's right," allows Allen, who chuckles. "Looks good on a resume, doesn't it?"

The Insider welcomes your news tips. Call him at 280-2483, fax him at 280-2496, or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.


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