When he was making his name in American politics, as then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's political enforcer, Tom DeLay was confronted by fellow Republicans who urged him to embrace a bipartisan budget compromise. Borrowing an expletive from Dick Cheney, DeLay growled, "F — k that, it's time for all-out war."
DeLay's war on American democracy — which included not just radical gerrymandering of Congressional districts and the formalization of pay-to-play policy-making in Washington but the crude manipulation of the recount that made George Bush president — is now coming to a close. Under indictment, forced from the House leadership by scandal and faced with the prospect of defeat in November, DeLay has signaled that he will quit the House of Representatives that he has effectively run for the better part of a decade.
Histories of this dark passage in the American story will record that no political figure fought harder or longer to dismantle traditions of compromise and cooperation in Congress than DeLay, a man who targeted those with whom he disagreed as zealously as he had once gone after the vermin he chased in his previous career as an exterminator. As far as DeLay was concerned, the niceties of democracy were a cruel impediment to his new career path. So he went to war with the process itself on behalf of his own political advancement — and that of the paymasters in the industries he served more diligently than his Texas constituents, his conservative ideology or his Republican Party.
While it is surely the case that the Texas Congressman's career was in steep decline following his indictment on campaign-corruption charges and his forced resignation from the majority leader position, for so long as Tom DeLay remained within grasping reach of the levers of power in Washington, the prospect of a further dismantling of democracy remained all too real.
It is this truth that makes DeLay's decision to cheat the voters of his Texas district out of an opportunity to remove him from Congress cause for at least a measure of hope with regard to the harrowing circumstance of the American experiment. Yes, of course, it would have been satisfying to watch DeLay defeated on election day. But even the faint risk that this worst of all Washington players might have clawed his way back to another term in the House — and, with that, another chance, however remote, to again take charge of the chamber — was serious enough that the news of his decision to quit rather than fight marks at least a small turning point in the struggle to reconstruct the democracy that the man they called "The Hammer" so consistently and so brutally battered.
In Washington, where the press corps rarely chooses to examine the real political stories of the day, DeLay will be most commonly remembered for his scheming to warp the redistricting processes of his home state in order to gerrymander a half dozen Democrats out of seats they had won fair and square in districts drawn by a judicial panel based on the results of the 2000 census. His scandalous machinations did more than shift the character of the state's House delegation; they created the opening for a courageous prosecutor, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, to win the indictments that hastened the end of DeLay's reign of error.
There will, as well, be appropriate if incomplete discussion of DeLay's dirty dealings inside the Beltway — his "K Street Project" to formalize links between campaign giving, lobbying and legislating, his thought-policing of the Republican Party, his sex-crazed impeachment of a President he hated for being popular, his creation of a Potemkin Speaker of the House in the form of the bumbling Denny Hastert — and a few commentators will venture the "bold" suggestion that the Texan might have done a bit of harm to the integrity of the governing process.
But DeLay's crudest dismantling of democracy will be little mentioned today, just as it was barely noted at the time that he brought the hammer down.
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2000, when the eyes of the nation were fixed on the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami, where a Dade County canvassing board was reviewing 10,750 uncounted ballots in Florida's disputed presidential contest between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, a riot orchestrated by DeLay's top aides and allies and carried out by Republican operatives flown in from Washington stopped the count. In so doing, DeLay's Izod-clad minions assured that the Bush campaign's Florida co-chair, Katherine Harris, would, in her capacity as secretary of state, be able to certify a 537-vote "win" for the Republican when the recount deadline arrived. It was that certification that allowed Florida Governor Jeb Bush to sign a Certificate of Ascertainment designating 25 Florida electors pledged to his brother. The paperwork was immediately transferred to the National Archives, where it would eventually be cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its decision to award the Florida electoral votes, and with them the presidency, to Bush.
DeLay's role in the recount, though little reported and even now little understood outside the inner circles of the Republican and Democratic parties, was definitional.
Furious that the Florida Supreme Court had on November 21, 2000, ordered a real recount of disputed ballots in the race that would decide the presidency, the House Republican leader had issued a statement that declared: "I hope this misguided ruling will be vigorously challenged."
DeLay was not making an idle threat. He was delivering marching orders to the troops in his war on democracy.
On the following day, a crowd of Republican aides and lobbyists flown in from Washington swarmed into the Government Center, chased Democratic observers out of the building and began banging on the doors of the area in which the recount of the key county's ballots had begun. Leading the "rioters" in chants of "Stop the Count" was Tom Pyle, a policy analyst in DeLay's office. This "vigorous challenge" to the count proved successful. The three-judge panel of canvassers — who after going through only a handful of the disputed ballots had already identified more than 150 additional votes for Gore — was shaken. After a team of sheriff's deputies restored order, the judges asked for a police escort to return them to the recounting room. There, they voted unanimously to stop the count. The additional votes for Gore that had already been discovered were discarded. Vote totals from Florida's most populous county reverted to pre-recount figures.
David Leahy, the supervisor of elections for the country, admitted that the riot "weighed heavy on our minds" as the decision to stop the recount was made. U.S. Representative Carrie Meeks, a Democrat in Miami, was blunter. "The canvassing board bowed under pressure," she said.
That pressure was applied by DeLay, who would say after the U.S. Supreme Court locked in the results for Bush: "This is something I've been working on for twenty-two years. I mean, we got it."
For once, DeLay was being modest. While Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris and Antonin Scalia all played their parts, it was DeLay who brought down the hammer that stopped the recount process at its most critical point.
DeLay will soon be gone, and there is a good chance that he will be convicted of at least a few of his crimes against democracy. But his greatest crimes will go unpunished, at least for so long as the Congress Tom DeLay created and the presidency that he made possible continue to punish America and the world.
John Nichols's book on the Florida recount fight of 2000, "Jews for Buchanan" (The New Press), features a chapter on DeLay's manipulation of the process.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation