In politics, especially in the South, it’s not uncommon to be tagged with a nickname. In my first run for office here in Texas, I became widely known as “Whole Hog” Hightower after I gave a particularly fiery speech at the state AFL-CIO convention. Noting that our state government had long served the corporate elites, leaving only pork rinds and pigs’ feet for the working families, I declared that it was time for regular folks to go into the smokehouse of Texas politics and, at long last, claim the whole hog for themselves. In some circles, I’m still greeted with fond shouts of “Whole Hog!” whenever they see me.
So if nicknames can characterize you, what are we to make of Mr. Tom DeLay, the Republican leader of the U.S. Congress? Despite his high position, the great majority of Americans don’t know DeLay’s name and wouldn’t recognize him if he walked up and kicked them in their collective butt (which he’s actually doing from the backrooms of Washington). But those who do know Tom have dubbed him not with one nickname but several, all of which attest to his relentless and ruthless pursuit of their extremist causes: The Hammer, Rottweiler, The Bug Man, Dereg, The Messiah and (Tom’s personal favorite) The Exterminator.
If these nicknames aren’t chilling enough for you, here’s how one of his own congressional constituents describes him: “Tom DeLay is a shiver looking for a spine to run up.” By whatever name you choose, it’s time for all of us to know just who this guy is, for DeLay has quietly become by far the most powerful man in Congress, with his own political muscle that rivals the White House itself. Not that DeLay Inc. and BushCo are at odds–both push essentially the same corporatist and right-wing agenda. It’s a good-cop/bad-cop routine in which George W. is the affable, disarming public persona of these agendas and DeLay is the cold-eyed enforcer. As Tom has said, “I’m the ditch digger who makes it all happen.”
For us, the importance of DeLay is that (1) he is even more rabidly right-wing than the Bushites; (2) he controls what the House does and doesn’t do; (3) he has cobbled together a shadowy network of money, lobbying, and grass-roots troops that exerts unrelenting right-wing pressure on the entire Republican agenda (and therefore on the country’s agenda); and (4) he intends to be there long after W. is gone. On the other hand, the more America knows of DeLay, the better off we are, for he is not merely an ideological extremist– he’s nutty, frightening, and butt-ugly to boot.
DeLay did not begin as a firebrand nutball. A pest exterminator in suburban Houston, he read a how-to-campaign book and, in 1978, got himself elected to the Texas Legislature. There, he amounted to little more than furniture: He partied around, achieved next to nothing, held no leadership posts, and, as one of his colleagues recalls, was widely considered “an absolute zero.”
Unfortunately, being a zero doesn’t disqualify you for higher office in Texas, so Tom ran for and won a congressional seat in 1984. At first, he wasn’t much stuff there either, specializing mainly in downing eight to twelve martinis a night on the reception circuit. Then, in 1985, he says he found God after watching a video by the Christian right’s Focus on the Family guru, James Dobson. From that day forward, the exterminator became the born-again pest, loudly pushing his evangelical extremism while latching onto bigger and bigger pots of corporate money and plotting his rise to the top of the congressional heap.
DeLay chose the far-rightward path to power, first asserting himself in 1989 as a campaign manager for a guy who ran against Newt Gingrich for the position of Republican whip. For Tom (gulp), Newt simply was not far enough to the right. He lost that fight but continued courting the far right both inside and outside of Congress, doing favors and becoming their point man. In 1994, Newt rose to House Speaker, and Tom called in his chits and was elected whip.
This made DeLay responsible for lining up the votes to deliver legislative victories. Lobbyists key on the whip, and Tom keyed right back on them, quickly earning his nickname, The Hammer, for his use of brute political force. He literally carried a book around with every lobbyist’s name and the amounts of money they had donated to the GOP and the Democrats. As the price for moving their bills, he demanded that lobbyists give more to Republicans and less to Democrats, even demanding that they get rid of Democratic lobbyists and hire Republicans. “If you want to play in our revolution,” he told them bluntly, “you have to live by our rules. Declaring that “money is the lifeblood of politics,” he is both the most diehard opponent of any attempt to reform America’s corrupt campaign-funding laws and the Congress’s most indefatigable raiser of those corrupt funds. DeLay Inc. was born as he created a far-flung network of money pockets that include assorted state and federal PACs, soft-money funnels, direct-mail operations, partisan right-wing religious outfits, foundations, and others. Typically, they bear aggressivesounding acronyms like ARM, ROMP, and STOMP.
All of these pockets are linked to K Street, the corporate-lobbying corridor in Washington, where DeLay not only wields The Hammer, but has also ensconced more than a dozen of his former staffers, known as alumni of “The DeLay School.” The Hill newspaper recently ranked the top lobbyists in D.C.; four are former DeLay staffers.
In ’98, when Gingrich imploded, DeLay realized that he was too hot to win the speakership himself, so he put forward his chief deputy from the whip’s office–the mild-mannered, colorless, and fiercely loyal Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois. Hastert is now Speaker, but DeLay–who has subsequently risen to majority leader–writes the script. And what a script Tom has penned.
Tom is eaten up with Christian zealotry, recognizing no separation between his rigid fundamentalist extremism and his powerful public position. He openly declares himself sent by God to “stand up for a biblical worldview in everything I do and everywhere I am.” For him, politics is not a battle over policy, but a “battle of souls.” He says that he seeks a “God-centered” nation that, among other things, would discriminate against homosexuals, curb contraception, outlaw abortion, end the separation of church and state, and post the Ten Commandments in every school (even though Tom has violated more than a few of the Ten himself).
He sees the world through apocalyptic eyes, declaring, for example, that youth violence is caused by day care, the teaching of evolution, and “working mothers taking birth-control pills.” The horror of the shootings at Columbine are easily explained, he says, “because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial mud.”
He asserts that “our nation will only be healed through a rebirth of religious conviction and moral certitude.”
When it was suggested that his ambition for a Christian state was somewhere between discomforting and terrifying to most Americans, DeLay gave a messianic sigh and said: “People hate the messenger. That’s why they killed Christ.” Even more messianically, he has railed against those who challenge his political applications of Christian absolutism: “If I wasn’t walking with the Lord, I would have been destroyed.”
Among his overt pushes for Christian statism is his backing of bills to allow religious groups to tap their tax-exempt bank accounts for campaign contributions and lobbying funds, and to endorse political candidates. He’s also the leading political force in the Christian Zionist movement– a wacky evangelical bunch which is way to the right of even the Israeli government on imprisoning, occupying, dominating and ultimately eradicating the Palestinian people. For Tom and his bunch, it’s all a matter of Genesis 13:14-18 and the second coming of Christ: They want the American government to help the Israelis crush the Palestinians now so that, in accordance with biblical prophecy, the Christians can then convert the Jews in turn and proceed on to the Rapture.
DeLay doesn’t sack up tens of millions of corporate dollars every year because the lobbyists and CEOs want to attend prayer sessions with him, but because he answers their own legislative prayers.
On big bills–tax giveaways, trade scams, the Pentagon budget, the deregulation of everything –Tom is the backroom ramrod. Enron profited from his doggedness in 2001, when he helped waylay legislation to impose price caps that would have stopped the energy traders from further gouging California consumers. He was also the chief strategist for shoving an Enron-favored energy bill through the House–and this after two of The Hammer’s main political outfits received $135,000 from Enron executives, including $50,000 from “Kenny Boy” Lay himself. Enron also had the prescience to hire two former DeLay staffers as its lobbyists.
Tom likes to keep things in the family–literally. Brother Randy, for example, has done nicely as a lobbyist for such corporate causes as Union Pacific railroad’s 1995 merger with Southern Pacific–an anti-competitive combination that was widely opposed by industry and government officials and experts. But Randy got paid, and Union Pacific funneled more than $400,000 into the GOP’s pockets.
For family values at work, check this out: Tom’s daughter, Danielle, is part of his fund-raising network, and so connected to K Street that when she became pregnant, her baby shower was thrown by lobbyists for Reliant Energy in their D.C. office.
Another company that learned how to play Tom’s game is Westar. Last year, this Kansas-based energy company wanted to have a special break worth $3 billion slipped into an energy bill. Corporate officials met with DeLay. Later, in an internal corporate e-mail, a Westar executive was blunt: “We have a plan for participation to get a seat at the table…. The total package will be $31,500 in hard money, and $25,000 in soft money.” The soft money was to go to one of DeLay’s funds, with the e-mail candidly explaining: “His agreement is necessary before the house conferees can push the language we have in place in the house bill.”
The money was delivered, and a DeLay lieutenant dutifully put Westar’s $3 billion break into the law. That would have been the end of it, except that Westar came under federal investigation for fraud, the e-mail became public, and the language was quietly stripped from the bill.
Confronted with the Westar e-mail, DeLay later shook his head and said: “It never ceases to amaze me that people are so cynical [that] they want to tie money to issues, money to bills, money to amendments.”
Tom takes a nasty view of humankind. “We are, by nature, greedy and lazy and sinful,” he says, and so he’s doing us all a favor by taking upon his shoulders the heavy burden of making us better than we really are–especially by freeing us from the hellish grasp of the liberal media, unionists, grass-roots progressive meddlers, anti-corporatists, and, of course, Democrats.
Of all of the above, he proclaims: “Their malignant hold over the intellectual life of this country must be exorcised.”
A politician this delusional is dangerous, especially when he wields Tom’s power–and all the more so because DeLay’s so hell- bent on his godly mission that he eagerly remakes the rules as he goes along. We have experienced DeLay’s rule-fixing in Texas firsthand, with his recent autocratic re- redistricting of our congressional boundaries. Tom had been bitter about the district lines drawn in 2001 by a bipartisan panel of judges, because there were six districts that had a majority population of registered Republicans, yet the people (damn them!) were still electing Democrats. So he drew his own map, gerrymandering the districts to look like a Republican Rorschach test in order to guarantee the election of his candidates.
He raised out-of-state money for GOP legislative candidates in Texas (including that $25,000 from Westar) with help from the corrupt Texas Association of Business. Even though this flood of outside money was illegal, enough Republicans were elected to take control of the legislature.
He now saw that he could ram his map into law. But to their everlasting credit, some feisty Democrats in the legislature refused to be rolled over: They voted with their feet by strategically sprinting out of state–first to Oklahoma, then to New Mexico –thus preventing a quorum and stalling Tom’s power play.
He was losing that battle until the incompetent governor of Texas was shipped out of state while Tom literally moved to Austin and took charge of the legislature, knocking heads together until they approved his map. With no public hearings, no consultation with Democrats, and no press allowed, Texas was reredistricted in secret sessions.
It’s a crazy map. Take Austin, our capital city, which will now have no Congress member of its own. Instead, it was sliced up into three districts–based in Houston, San Antonio, and the Rio Grande Valley. This last one is an amazing 350-mile squiggle that snakes clear to the Mexican border. One Austin restaurant now finds itself in the Houston district, while its adjacent parking lot is in the San Antonio district.
Not only did Tom autocratically create seven new Republican seats, but he also moved major public assets to get them under GOP control. Notably, the NASA complex and Johnson Space Center were snared from a Democrat’s district and shifted into Tom’s own district. Imagine the fund-raising fun he can have with this massive bauble now in his political possession.
DeLay’s map is not a done deal, for it now goes to the courts, but it’s a measure of the extremes he will go to, and it has repulsed even the majority of Republican newspapers in Texas.
The one good thing to come from his Texas ploy (which, by the way, he and his brown-shirted cohort, Karl Rove, also pulled off in Colorado, with both of them now searching for more states to hammer) is that it has finally outed Tom, giving Americans their first real glimpse of him– the second-most-powerful Republican (next to Bush) and the true face of the Brave New World they have in mind for our future.