Having made it to the precipice of the most important election of our lifetimes, Texas Democrats in the waning days of the 2020 campaign have alternated between optimistic enthusiasm and foreboding anxiety.
Texas Democrats haven’t been this close to the mountaintop politically in decades, but to say they’ve waited for this moment overlooks the decades of toiling, fighting, organizing, and communicating that Texas Democrats have put in cycle after cycle to deliver them to this moment in time.
For thirty years Texas Democrats have taken up the mantle to fight for the people of Texas on issues that ranged from school finance to women’s health to gun safety. In battle after battle, Texas Democrats stayed in the fight, as committed to stopping injustice as they were to electoral gain.
As if to prove the axiom that timing is everything, Texas Democrats find themselves with this opportunity in the final election cycle before the Texas Legislature takes up redistricting. In the annals of Texas political battles of the last twenty years, nothing rates as highly or is more fraught with drama than the battle over imaginary lines that determine who represents you in Austin and Washington and how.
It’s a moment Texas Democrats have been preparing for, in earnest, since 2013, when state party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa reimagined the state party and began the long march to Tossup Town. One of the new hires that cycle was Manny Garcia, now executive director of the party. Garcia joined the party as communications director after turning heads with impressive performances as a spokesperson for the Democratic lawmakers fighting the 2011 maps in court.
Of course, it’s a moment Texas Republicans have been preparing for as well. The horrific pattern of voter suppression and intimidation on full display by Donald Trump and the Texas GOP didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was born of decades of operatives and elected officials who were willing to play fast and loose with the truth, change the rules to stack the deck in their favor, and above all, cheat to win.
This is part one of a new series that will take a deep dive into the unbelievable history of redistricting in Texas.
This story begins, as it often does for Texans who tell it, in Oklahoma.
Killer D’s on the Swarm
All told, there were 52 of them. They came from every corner of the state. Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, all the big cities accounted for, sure. But this was back when Democrats held seats in places like Waco, too. Wichita Falls, Dripping Springs, Huntsville, Lufkin.
They just couldn’t do it another day, sit through this injustice. The Republicans had made their intent clear: at the whims of Tom DeLay, a Republican Congressman whose colleagues gave him the ignominious nickname “Hot Tub Tom,” they were going to carve Texas up in one of the worst racial and political gerrymanders in modern memory.
They were liberals, moderates and conservatives. Young Reps from San Antonio and Austin, grizzled veterans from East Texas. They were Texans first, and they just couldn’t stand the unfairness of it all.
Compounding that unfairness was the fact that they found themselves here in the first place. In the first session with a Republican speaker since the 1800s, the Republicans had launched into a brazen power grab during the 2003 session, using their supermajority to push through a mid-decade redraw and solidify their grip on power for a generation.
Put simply, the Republicans weren’t playing by any of the established rules. These 52 representatives knew they were in a street fight against a desperate opponent backed by deep-pocketed special interests. The fix was in. There was only one thing left to do.
So, they went on the lamb. All 52 of them, future Congressman Joaquin Castro among them, hopped a bus for Ardmore, Oklahoma, where they would hole up at the Holiday Inn with Pete Laney, the former Speaker, and deprive Republicans of the numbers they needed to achieve quorum and vote on the crooked maps.
A few days later, having exhausted their own procedural options, Senate Democrats hatched a plan with veteran strategist Harold Cook to the sky up themselves. Go west, they decided, and 11 senators set out for New Mexico, with Cook as their gatekeeper and spokesperson.
It may not have been as dramatic as the moment Abraham Lincoln leaped from a first-story window in the Illinois legislature in an attempt to stop quorum, but it was as dramatic as anything that happened in Texas since Republicans began to overtake the state’s elected offices in the 1990s.
This was it. With the highest possible stakes, it was high noon and the Texas lege was the Wild West. With a generation of implications on the line and state troopers on the lookout for the dissident legislators within the Texas borders, both sides had counted out their steps. The fate of Texas hinged on who would flinch first or who could draw fastest.
The Devil in the Details
It’s almost impossible to say if gerrymandering is a feature or a bug of our political system. Its origins predate the 1800s, and it existed as a mechanism to ensure electoral favor to one party or another.
These types of political gerrymanders became commonplace and alternated between the parties depending on who was in power. The practice became much more nefarious after women fought for suffrage and civil rights activists secured the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s.
Now instead of drawing the lines based purely on political calculation, nefarious mapmakers began to slice up states to pack as many voters of color into as few congressional districts as possible, diluting the power of their vote.
Texas Republicans took notice. Their strategists and political scientists set to work on figuring out how to draw maps that would pack as many voters of color and Democratic-leaning neighborhoods into as few districts as possible. It took until the 2001 session when the lege took up redistricting, for Republicans to have consolidated enough power in the state to try to shut down the Democratic majority in the State House and push through maps that would establish a solid Republican majority in both the Congressional and State House delegations.
These maps, predictably, gained little traction in the House under the leadership of Speaker Pete Laney. With the state House and Senate unable to reconcile their differences and pass a redistricting plan, a quirk of election law shifted that power to a group of statewide elected officials and leaders that we call the Legislative Redistricting Board.
The LRB is composed of the Lieutenant Governor, the Speaker of the House, the Attorney General, Comptroller and Land Commissioner. In 2001, the only Democrat among them was Laney, and the maps produced by the LRB were widely considered to be favorable to Republicans.
Turns out, where there’s smoke there is often fire, and the Texas GOP took advantage of their short term map to take the State House majority in the 2002 elections. Their efforts weren’t entirely successful: Democrats still held 17 seats in the Congressional delegation to the 15 held by Republicans, a particular point of contention for one unusually interested party.
Here comes The Hammer, aka Hot Tub Tom
If you served in the Texas Legislature in the early ’80s, you remember what he was like.
The lege can be a hallowed ground, a place where the best and brightest from our biggest cities and smallest towns come together to do the people’s business and earnestly debate the merits of our state budget or flood mitigation programs.
But there’s that dirty little secret. Not much of a secret if you sidled up to the bar at The Cloak Room, or found yourself breezing past two members passing a flask in the vomitorium.
There’s something about that pink dome, all those people calling you sir or ma’am as you walk to the Member elevator, reporters wanting to talk to you, lobbyists wanting to take you to dinner. Something about that place can change you, or at least draw who you are out into the open in sharper focus.
The Vegas strip, it is not. But for a young legislator from Fort Bend County, the enticements of the Cap are everywhere you look, and hey, it was the ‘80s. Booze and women and lobbyists a little too eager to have a secret they can keep for you at every fundraiser, every cocktail reception.
By golly, you don’t even need to leave the building to find a good time. They’ll bring it right to you, bottles in the office, a flask in the vomitorium. If you do decide to venture out and you’re still on your feet after swinging by whatever fundraiser or cocktail reception is happening that night, you’ve got the bars. By god, the bars, so many to choose from, but the Cloak Room so close.
Austin makes it easy for a man to lose his moral compass if he was so inclined. And in those first years of public life, Tom DeLay was a lot more than inclined. At a time when encountering a teetotaler in the halls of the lege was as likely as seeing an armadillo stand upright and walk, Tom DeLay developed a reputation for insatiability that would make some of the bands playing in those Austin bars blush.
DeLay drank like a fish and developed the reputation of a playboy. His exploits were so notorious that his fellow legislators distinguished him from Tom Craddick, and any other Tom for that matter, by referring to him as “Hot Tub Tom,” in homage to the late nights he would salaciously recount.
And what good fortune, by 1984 Ron Paul was leaving his seat in Congress and bingo, Hot Tub Tom was a man on the way up. A lot of folks never could figure it, how someone who was drinking in the neighborhood of nine to 12 martinis a night could present so well to so many voters. How the private moral failing he flaunted nightly remained hidden away from the people entrusting his judgment.
But they sent him to Washington anyway, another city that can change you. A lot of folks get lost in the nation’s capital. But in ‘85, safely ensconced in his first term, DeLay didn’t flail or wash himself out in a river of liquor. No. In ‘85 DeLay went ahead and got saved, became a Born Again Christian and sworn soldier in the culture wars.
In an era when Republicans were making big electoral gains on the strength of their supposed “Moral Majority,” devotion to God was a key ingredient to success in the Republican caucus. And success was what DeLay found, rising in the ranks until ‘95 when he really arrived. That year, fresh off massive gains in the ‘94 midterms, Republicans made Tom DeLay Majority Whip, third in house leadership behind the Speaker and Majority Leader.
And so this is how DeLay caught the taste of what would be his greatest addiction. He had impressed so many by winning his battle with the bottle but how could they know there was something deeper inside DeLay still yearning for a drink of…something.
It wasn’t a shot of whiskey DeLay was craving. In the frenzied mid-nineties, his preferred intoxicant became power. The thing inside him that drove him, that kept him motivated on long days, wasn’t serving his constituents or his country. Tom DeLay woke up in the morning and went to bed at night thinking about one thing: how to make the Republican majority permanent, in Texas and Washington, by any means necessary.
And, as luck would have it for Texas Republicans, DeLay was pretty sure he was born for this moment. Over his years in the House and his time as Majority Whip, DeLay had developed a new reputation, one as a deeply skilled and unscrupulous fighter. His style was so impetuous, so overwhelming, his colleagues forgot all about the legend of Hot Tub Tom. The man they knew had a different nickname entirely, one as hard-earned as the pseudonym he was running from.
They called him The Hammer.
Thick as Thieves
No one ever predicted that one of the most pervasive and disheartening trends in Texas politics is a Republican elected official smiling in his mugshot.
Ken Paxton did it when they booked him for securities fraud. There he was, a state’s sitting Attorney General, smirking at the camera like a drunk frat brother cheekily does in his student ID.
Before Paxton, it was Guv Goodhair. Rick Perry smiled in his 2014 mugshot, a Governor so supremely confident that he was the master of the universe that he didn’t even see his indictment as a challenge to his impending presidential campaign.
Maybe what made Perry smile wasn’t the belief that he could beat the rap or one day be President. Maybe it was reflecting on finding himself here to begin with, smirking in his mug shot just like his old running buddy, the first Texas pol so smug he smiled in his mugshot almost a decade earlier.
In the aftermath of the 2002 elections, Perry was, as they say, feeling himself. The forgotten child of the Karl Rove operation that turned Texas from reliably Democratic to hopelessly Republican, Perry had been at war for years with the Bush loyalists who never saw him as anything other than a hairdo.
I mean, come on. He was the state chairman of Al Gore’s Texas team in the 1988 Presidential election. Give me a break.
But better men than Karl Rove and company have underestimated Rick Perry. He may not be much in an in-depth conversation about drought mitigation, but he had it, it being the intangible thing every politician wished they possessed.
Perry could be downright masterful on the stump. You’d watch him work a room, shaking hands and slapping backs, and even some Democrats would begrudgingly concede that he was as good a politician as Texas ever had. The plan that he and DeLay hatched in January 2003 proved that he was, subtly and quietly, every bit as calculating as Rove or DeLay or anybody else, but what made him dangerous was something far more valuable (in his estimation at least) than book smarts or legislative know-how.
By his estimation, Perry’s greatest asset was that he had balls. Never had a Governor of Texas so clearly seen the levers of power at their disposal, their ability to legislate and govern and appoint away any component of Texas government that slightly resembled Democratic governance. At least if they did, they never circled the wagons to make themselves the most powerful Governor Texas had ever had. Perry respected his predecessors, even the Democrats. And he steadfastly believed none of them had done it simply because they didn’t have the balls to try.
Perry didn’t have that problem. When he looked back on his political life, he saw all the proof he needed that the method worked. When Republicans started chipping away at Democrats and turning the state, Perry wasn’t afraid to jump ship. He left the Democratic Party in ‘89, convinced the only way to move up was to change the color of his jersey.
And he wasn’t afraid to bet on Karl Rove as his campaign manager for that race for Agriculture Commissioner. Rove built a multi-million dollar campaign to build Perry’s name ID and tear down his opponent, Texas icon and incumbent Jim Hightower. These were two men who, just two years ago, would rub elbows at the same Democratic party events around Texas. Now Perry was doing whatever it took to dispatch his former colleague, truth be damned.
And it worked. Worked so well, Perry cruised to re-election in 1994 and seemed like the future of the party. He had eyes for bigger things and saw his opening. ‘98, the Lite Guv race. Anybody who knew Texas knew the Lieutenant Governor had all the power as the presiding officer of the State Senate. Perry thought, hey, why not me?
But 1998 felt different than 1990 or even ‘94. Perry was in a real fight, and a falling out with Rove coupled with a strong campaign from Democrat John Sharp nearly set Perry’s campaign back. He managed to ride it out, and on election day barely beat Sharp. But Perry won and was suddenly next in line for the big chair, and circumstances conspired to prove that timing was, again, everything.
George W Bush was an enduringly popular Governor of Texas who was ready to take up the family mantle and run for President. If he succeeded in that endeavor he would be leaving office before the 2001 legislative session convened, elevating Perry to Governor and giving him especially powerful sway during that session’s round of redistricting.
And what good fortune Perry had. Of course, George W Bush just barely became President, Perry ascended to the top office in Texas, and quickly moved to close ranks around an ambitious plan to change the State House maps and deliver Republican majorities for at least the next decade but, they hoped, far beyond.
Perry and DeLay came close in that ‘01 session but didn’t quite get the ball into the end zone, as far as they were concerned. Democrats still captured a majority of the state’s congressional seats in 2002, but Republicans claimed the State House majority they so desperately sought.
They had another development working in their favor. After years as Majority Leader, fellow Texan Dick Armey rode off into the sunset of retirement, freeing up the big chair. There was little question or debate about who would lead the Republican majority. The Hammer had spent years twisting arms to deliver the votes his party needed to push through their agenda, and decades practicing that delicate dance with the lobbyists and money types.
DeLay had a Rolodex of high powered funders and influencers across the country who were eager to help the Whip, and then Leader, achieve anything he set his mind to. DeLay moved heaven and earth in 2002, raising money and doling it out to State House candidates around Texas, hoping and praying that the majority he so desperately needed to cement his power was closer to fruition each day.
The money they were raising was real, hard dollars. It was falling from the sky, from the credit card companies, the tort reform zealots, you name it. It was rolling in.
It was all they needed. It worked. DeLay and Perry had laid the groundwork for a new era of conservative governance in Texas. They built the majority they so dearly coveted.
Now it was time to get to work.
The Scalpel and the Cannon
It was the strangest combination of art and science you’d ever see. They gathered up all their thinkers, the lawyers and academics and researchers who know where every stray vote might live, how you could draw a line across the middle of a street in Houston and bam, you just kept 15,000 Democrats out of a Republican district.
The problem was how it looked, both figuratively and literally. Democrats were crying bloody murder that Republicans were taking up redistricting in the middle of the decade. It was an almost unfathomable power grab, but after a decade of hand to hand combat with Republicans across the state, Texas Democrats knew there was nothing they loved more than a power grab. Even worse, the Republicans were drawing districts that didn’t make any sense by the numbers or by the lines. They were taking districts that conformed to parallelograms and twisting and tucking their borders until they looked like battle axes. They were trying to break Travis County, the heart of the Democratic vote, into four or five different districts, some stretching to Houston, some to South Texas.
The mapmakers deployed such a dizzying combination of shapes to make the math work that they were trying to force some Democrats to campaign in districts that stretched thousands of miles, all to dilute the vote share of Democrats and people of color throughout the state.
The motivations of their leaders were so readily apparent they were hardly ever spoken of in these circles. Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, was thirsty for a legislature that could rubber-stamp every reform, commission or appointment Perry wanted. He saw a future for Texas where the real races weren’t the general election, but in the primaries. It would come down to who was most conservative, most dedicated to the cause. And Rick Perry had every intention of having the longest list of conservative accomplishments possible if anyone ever stepped to him in a primary.
That was all well and good with DeLay, who liked Rick, thought he was a fine governor. But it was just icing on the cake for DeLay, a cake that belonged specifically to him. Now that he was installed as Majority Leader, he was literally a heartbeat away from being Speaker someday. Second in line for Presidential succession.
And you had to understand what that meant to Texas. No state, arguably, has delivered more iconic contributions to the leadership of our nation’s Congress. Lyndon Johnson invented the legend of the Whip position in the Senate in the ’40s and ’50s and served as Senate Majority Leader. In the lower house, Sam Rayburn was the longest-serving and most effective Speaker in the history of the House of Representatives. In DeLay’s party, he watched Dick Armey engineer the ‘94 Republican takeover and then serve as a leader with an iron fist.
For Texans, leadership was a birthright, and DeLay was thirsty for his. Delivering more Republican votes from the Texas delegation could make him almost bulletproof in a future Speaker’s race. He doted over the new State Reps he helped elect. No matter what room DeLay was in, he was always working it.
And this was no different. As Democratic lawmakers struggled to find a mathematical path to block the maps, they would see DeLay crisscrossing in the hallways. The Majority Leader had up and left Washington to come home and try to close the deal. Lawmakers and staffers would see him shuffling from one State House office to a State Senate office, maps in hand, haggling over the finer points, negotiating where he had to, bludgeoning wherever he could.
They were so close they could taste it. They checked the whip count every morning, and it was plain as day: these maps would pass, come hell or high water. Texas and the country would bend to their whim.
It couldn’t be stopped.
Until that is, the bus hit the pavement on the road to Ardmore, and the whole damn thing went straight to hell.
Don’t Get Captured
Going on the lamb was no small consideration. For one thing, you were risking arrest, plain and simple. Perry would send the Troopers after all of them, literally drag them out of bed in the middle of the night and drag them back to Austin and the House floor to vote.
And wouldn’t that be embarrassing? Not only did you run from the fight, but they also dragged you back kicking and screaming and made you sit there, powerless to stop them.
No, you had to be smart about it. They could all scatter, some go to Louisiana, some go to New Mexico, someone drives all the way to Arizona. But that was the danger of their play: If any one of those 52 Democrats got captured and returned to the State House, it was over.
So, like they often had been, these 52 Democrats were in it together, on that bus heading to Ardmore. How long could they keep this up, hole up at the Holiday Inn away from their friends, their families, their constituents? As long as it took.
Some of the more veteran legislators wanted to keep negotiating, try to hammer out a compromise. Young State Reps like Joaquin Castro looked at them like they were pledging to launch the motorcoach carrying them to Oklahoma directly to Mars.
These people weren’t trying to negotiate. Perry and DeLay weren’t playing this game to cut a deal at the last minute. They were playing to win and were willing to do anything from suspending or inventing rules to make it a reality.
You don’t fight fire with decorum. You fight it with whatever it takes. So it felt strange to these State Representatives that the thing that might work was to just sit tight and do nothing at all. The Republicans were running out of time to push the map through before the session expired. If they couldn’t make quorum it was over.
Democrats in the Texas Senate were watching it all play out, working the angles to do everything they could to thwart the maps by invoking the two-thirds rule, requiring two-thirds of the Senate to agree to move forward with the maps. The tactic worked during the first special legislative session Perry convened on the new redistricting plan, but when Perry called another session that would have nullified the two-thirds rule, it became increasingly clear that they needed to take a page out of their colleagues in the lower chamber’s book and beat feet themselves.
It was the veteran operative Harold Cook who helped walk them through it, identifying places they could safely hide out from Perry and the DPS Troopers on the hunt for dissident elected officials. That’s how the Texas Eleven was born, but as they saw the moves unfolding in Ardmore they knew they couldn’t just run and hide. They had to fight in absentia, and the Eleven had a powerful ace up their sleeve in Cook.
While many Texans know Harold Cook from his frequent television appearances and persistent Twitter feed, he had been a fixture in Democratic politics for decades, a confidant and staffer to Ann Richards and personal friend to legendary provocateur Molly Ivins. Cook had seen pretty much everything over his years in the game, and there was little question who would be corralling the press, telling the Senate Democrats story and keeping things organized in Albuquerque.
Perry and DeLay remained undaunted. Perry invoked his power as governor to launch one special session after another, locked in a month-long stalemate with the Democrats managing to keep the fight alive without setting foot back in Texas.
The End, or Halftime?
It finally happened on September 2nd, 2003. After hiding out in Albuquerque and Ardmore for an entire month, the Texas Democrats fighting against one of the worst racial and political gerrymanders in American history remained resolved. The Democrats had faced off with Perry and DeLay and driven them into a duel. They counted out the fifty paces between them and stared each other down with their hand just inches from their gun belt.
And then it happened, as it always does in an old-West shootout.
After hiding out in New Mexico for the 30 days the Texas Eleven had agreed, Senator John Whitmire had seen enough. While the reasons are largely lost in the ether of everything that came after it, Whitmire decided to pack up and head back to Austin. He returned to the floor of the Texas Senate and filled the last empty chair the Republicans needed to break the two-thirds rule.
Legend has it Whitmire grew tired of those long days in Albuquerque, so far from his constituents and family. The Dean of the Senate looked at the angles and just didn’t see how sitting in the next state next door would stop the Republicans from finding a way, by hook or by crook, to impose their will. What were they going to do, wait it out forever, do none of the State’s business — the people’s business — until DeLay gave up? Had they met who they were up against?
So Whitmire went back to work, telling the Associated Press he was “just so at peace with what I did.” A week after he came back, the 10 remaining Senate Democrats came back, too, at the hands of what felt like betrayal from one of their own.
As those ten Democrats strode onto the Senate floor to begin the third special session, they were greeted by a rapturous hero’s welcome from the crowd assembled in the gallery. Whitmire got a different greeting. When he glanced up at the gallery he could see people wearing white t-shirts, each emblazoned with one of the letters that spelled his name.
After a moment it became unmistakable. Those folks up in the gallery were wearing shirts that spelled out “Quitmire.”
For years, rumors about how or why he ended up back on the floor in Austin swirled around him, but it didn’t really matter. Whitmire was busy doing what he’d always done over the last 20-plus years: working hard for the people that elected him. He remains in the Texas Senate today.
In the short term, to the victors went the spoils. In the 2004 elections, Republicans cleaned up with their crooked maps. DeLay’s dream came to fruition: He stole six whole Congressional seats from the Democrats with the redraw. Democrats went from holding 17 of the state’s 32 seats to just 11. Perry had a loyal and deep Republican majority to fight his battles in the lege.
The Republican statehouse majority solidified and remained in place, with Democrats launching a valiant effort to reclaim the chamber in 2008 that fell two seats short. The 2010 election cycle was one of the worst for Democrats nationally in a generation, and Republicans finally managed to dispatch the last remaining Democrats in conservative districts across the state.
In 2004, George W Bush did what his father couldn’t and was re-elected President. The world, it seemed, belonged to Texas Republicans.
As the calendar had turned to 2005, how could the Republicans have known their spiral was already unwinding? With DeLay perched atop the Republican caucus as House Majority leader and Perry thoroughly entrenched as a formidable Governor, the sky seemed to be the limit for their vision of conservative governance.
In retrospect, they should have known all along that their utopia wouldn’t last, couldn’t last. They entrusted their futures and fortunes to someone who they knew was willing to do anything at any time to get what he wanted. They didn’t just watch him as he begged, borrowed and stole whatever he could to achieve his fever dreams. They cheered him on. They took his checks. They posed for pictures with him, liked to tell folks they were friends with the Leader in D.C.
They had put their faith in the Hammer, but as the dust began to settle it only raised more questions wherever it landed.
They put their faith in The Hammer, but what they didn’t know, what they were blind to the entire time, was that Hot Tub Tom had never left. He was standing right in front of them, swaggering, drunk not on a steady stream of martinis but on the wonder that it was just to be Tom DeLay, third most powerful Republican in the country, and yes he would love another round, thank you very much.
Most people are blissfully unaware of its existence, but the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice takes their work incredibly seriously. You might not know they’re there, but you see it when you notice the new polling locations in your neighborhood or the fact that the names you see on your ballot look a little different this time than they usually do.
The Civil Rights Division does a lot of things, but one of the most important is attempting to right the wrongs of what we’d all like to believe is a bygone era of Jim Crow laws and voter suppression.
For decades, states that imposed racist policies like poll taxes and literacy tests needed to get any change to their election code or maps precleared by the Department of Justice, which is to say they needed to get the federal government to agree that there were no political or racial motivations impacting the district lines that defined who represents you in Congress and your state legislature.
While that authority was largely gutted by conservative legal decisions over the years, it was in place in 2003 and required DeLay, Perry and their allies to submit their plan to the DOJ for approval before they could be enacted.
The Justice Department, led at the time by John Ashcroft during the first presidential administration of former Texas Governor George W Bush, approved the plans.
It wasn’t until December 2005 that Justice Department lawyers cracked open that old case file on Texas preclearance and found something deeply troubling. As DeLay, the top legislative lieutenant to the Bush White House, was funneling questionable contributions to PACs engaged in state races and drawing his maps for Texas voters, and Bush’s replacement as Governor, Rick Perry, worked to solidify his grip on power for a decade, political appointees at the Justice Department overruled the position of staffers from the Civil Rights Decision who reviewed the Texas maps and changed their findings to push through the approval.
That reopened the whole ball of wax, kicking off a case that led to the United States Supreme Court, who upheld a state’s right to redraw their maps any time they wanted to, but struck down Texas’s 23rd Congressional District as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. The 23rd, along with four other districts, would need to be redrawn and a special election held. Democrats would ultimately reclaim the seat that November as a blue wave hit the United States and Democrats reclaimed the House of Representatives.
It would have been a heartbreaking development for Majority Leader DeLay, who fought so hard to fix that map up just right. But by election night in 2006, DeLay not only wasn’t Majority Leader anymore. He wasn’t even in the House at all. That June, just a few weeks before the Supreme Court struck down the 23rd District, The Hammer resigned from Congress.
DeLay had taken some hits in that 2004 election cycle, sure, but he wasn’t sweating it. DeLay had been admonished multiple times by the House Ethics Committee between 2002 and 2004, much of it stemming from his work on redistricting in Texas. The allegations ran the gamut from energy companies circulating memos saying more than $50,000 in donations to DeLay and his causes should get them a “seat at the table,” to using the FAA to keep tabs on a plane a Democratic State Rep flew to Oklahoma to break quorum in 2003.
It didn’t matter. DeLay was soundly re-elected by his colleagues, including those six new Texas Republicans, as Majority Leader in January 2005. In March of that year, he would insert himself in the Terri Schiavo case, in which he helped push through an emergency bill that allowed the Schiavo’s parents to petition a federal court to review the removal of their daughter’s feeding tube. For many, it smacked of hypocrisy to see DeLay argue that the brain-dead Schiavo should be forced to remain on life support when DeLay himself decided to terminate life support after his father fell into a coma after a debilitating accident in the late ‘80s.
For others, there was something more nefarious at play in DeLay that would presage the hateful and dangerous rhetoric used by Texas Republicans and Donald Trump today. Shortly after the homicide of the mother and husband of a Chicago judge and the killing of another judge in Atlanta, DeLay was quoted as saying “The men responsible will have to answer for their behavior,” in reference to judges who issued rulings in the Schiavo case.
DeLay was flying high that whole year, until September. That’s when Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle started laying out cases to grand juries, throwing around phrases like “conspiracy,” and “money laundering.”
The investigations into DeLay were serious but he didn’t seem to betray any outward concern. It wasn’t until the indictments started dropping that the shine finally came off of the Republican golden boy.
Multiple grand juries heard evidence against DeLay presented by Travis County’s then-Attorney General Ronnie Earle. The first rejected Earle’s attempts to indict DeLay, but two subsequent Grand Juries issued indictments, first for criminal conspiracy and then for the more serious charge: money laundering.
An arrest warrant was issued for DeLay that October, and a short time later he faced the camera for his infamous mug shot.
The Majority Leader stood accused of illegally funneling corporate campaign contributions into Texas political races to advance his efforts on redistricting. The rest of 2005 was a blur of bad headlines for DeLay, who was forced to resign his coveted post as Republican leader due to party rules after his indictment. He refused to resign from the House, and continued to hold his seat as more questionable and, in some cases, shocking revelations surfaced.
There was his sordid entanglement with Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist known as Casino Jack, for whom DeLay was suspected of doing everything from stopping legislation that banned sex shops and sweatshops on the Northern Mariana Islands (DeLay blocked the bills from hitting the floor) to restricting internet gambling at a time when many of Abramoff’s clients feared it would impact their financial bottom line. In exchange, Abramoff plied DeLay with gifts, meals and lavish trips abroad to London and Scotland. There was also the matter of the job DeLay’s wife made $115,000 while doing very little work for a client of Abramoff’s.
It looked terrible, but it got worse. By December, the Washington Post was reporting that DeLay had been involved in a scheme where Russian oil executives funneled a million-dollar contribution to a nonprofit run by a former DeLay staffer to secure DeLay’s support for an IMF bailout of the Russian economy.
The contribution was routed through a London law firm and was the largest single entry on the nonprofit’s donor list.
DeLay was in it up to his eyeballs, and losing any hope that his colleagues would let him reclaim his post in January. With pressure from his caucus, people DeLay had gotten elected damn near by himself as far as he was concerned, mounting and becoming more fierce by the day, DeLay threw in the towel. He formally stepped away from the leadership in January 2006.
DeLay held on for a few more months but finally gave up the ghost on June 9th. Just weeks before the Supreme Court would strike down the 23rd Congressional district for being the racial and partisan gerrymander that it was, Tom DeLay, a man who beat the bottle and rose to the highest level of government, demanding loyalty and imposing his will in the House for more than 20 years, the last eleven in the leadership, tucked his tail and left town looking every bit the grifter he was accused of being.
DeLay would eventually be convicted of both charges against him, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. He had the best lawyer money could buy, Dick DeGuerin, the savant Houston defense attorney well known for representing David Koresh and Robert Durst, the wealthiest man ever charged with murder.
Didn’t matter. The jury rendered their verdict. The Hammer was going up the river for a three-year prison stretch and another ten on probation.
But men like DeLay don’t ever really go quietly. After a lifetime of handshaking and back-slapping and passing out campaign contributions to Republicans running for judicial positions up and down the ballot in Texas, DeLay had one last rabbit in his hat.
In 2013, the Texas Court of Appeals for the Third District, populated largely by Republicans after years of gerrymandering, overturned DeLay’s convictions and entered into the record an acquittal.
That October, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals voted 8-1 to affirm the lower court’s decision. The Hammer was a free man, at the hand of eight Republican judges.
Only one judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dissented. He had a long track record as a successful Republican statewide elected official but had grown disgusted with the conduct of the Republican Party of Texas, particularly the men and women they sent to hold seats on his court, the last stop for death penalty appeals in Texas until he couldn’t take it anymore.
In 2013, Larry Meyers left the Republican Party and became the first Democrat to hold statewide elected office in Texas since the 1998 election cycle. And so it was fitting that the final rebuke on DeLay’s career and conduct didn’t just come from a Texas Democrat. It came from one who knew DeLay well, who wouldn’t be fooled by the smile in his mug shot.
Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.