DeLay Faces Tough Texas Primary Challenge

Republican Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas was once the most powerful member of the House of Representatives. Now, under indictment and without a leadership post, he faces a tough challenge in the Republican primary on March 7th.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Senators and members of Congress have to worry about ethics scandals as they run for reelection this year, and there's no lawmaker for whom that issue is more personal than Tom DeLay. The man who was removed as Majority Leader is still hoping to keep his seat in Congress, and he's facing a primary challenge from three Republicans in his Texas district. The voting comes next week.

INSKEEP: This morning, we're going to listen to some of the sounds of the campaign between Tom DeLay and his major opponent. Tom Campbell is a millionaire attorney and first-time candidate. Campbell argues that only he, not the ethically challenged DeLay, can keep a seat in Republican hands, though he faces some work persuading DeLay's former supporters. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK, reporting:

Right now, Sugarland, Texas has the political fervor of a presidential election. Dozens of yard signs on every block, billboards asking for your vote, and TV ads spinning the issues and ragging on candidates. But this is not a presidential election. It's just the Republican primary for one seat in the House of Representatives: Tom DeLay's. At a downtown bank building, DeLay's leading challenger introduces himself to a meeting of the Fort Ben County Republican Women's Club.

Mr. TOM CAMPBELL (Congressional Republican candidate, Texas): I will cut taxes, cut the size of government, and cut the pork out of the federal budget.

(Soundbite of applause)

SEABROOK: Clutching the mic from a karaoke machine, Campbell has two minutes, timed with a kitchen timer, to convince the crowd. He decries DeLay's indictment on money laundering charges by a Texas grand jury. He challenges DeLay to fess up about his relationship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and he tells the 50 or so voters present, when you come right down to it, if DeLay wins the primary, he could be beaten in the fall by the likely Democratic nominee, former Congressman Nick Lampson.

Mr. CAMPBELL: I can beat Nick Lampson. I can keep your seat for the Republican Party. I will fight hard for your conservative values. I need your support. I need your vote. It is time for the 22nd district to pass through the fog of these embarrassing scandals. It is time for us to get back to the business that's important to us.

(Soundbite of applause)

SEABROOK: But don't read too much into this resounding applause. Sugarland Republicans have known Tom DeLay for a long time, and many remain loyal to him. Take war veteran and senior citizen George Geist.

Mr. GEORGE GEIST: He has no ethics problems. He has Democrat problems.

SEABROOK: Geist says DeLay has become the Democrats target simply because he is so effective in Congress. Linda Hancock says Sugarland would lose by electing anyone else.

Ms. LINDA HANCOCK: I just do not feel that some new individual coming in running for Congress, that has no seniority, is going to be able to go up there and put a plug in for funds for us and be able to get them.

SEABROOK: That's why she's sticking with DeLay. And she says, if you want to see what Tom DeLay has done for this district…

Ms. HANCOCK: I just invite people to drive down 59 South, and take the University Boulevard overpass and look down westward.

(Soundbite of cars driving by)

SEABROOK: From this overpass, I can look down and see an army of construction workers. They're using cranes and big trucks and steamrollers to widen 59 to accommodate all the new traffic here. And they're doing it with millions of dollars that Tom DeLay secured for this project as an earmark in a recent federal highway bill passed by Congress.

So this, the widening of 59, the economic expansion of this district, is what some voters think of when they think of Tom DeLay.

Unidentified Male: Hi, guys. How ya'll doing?

SEABROOK: And so is this, a brand new state-of-the-art housing community for families with foster children. DeLay's image in Washington is all ethical lapses and connections with big money lobbyists. But here in Sugarland, there is another side of Tom DeLay, and it's called Rio Bend. These foster homes that he and his wife Christine have built, not with federal money, but from their own charity. Christine DeLay shows off the spacious open living room of one home.

Mrs. CHRISTINE DELAY (Tom DeLay's wife): The problem with foster care, it's a government thing, and government cannot care about individuals. Only individuals can care about individuals.

SEABROOK: The DeLays are known in their community for their commitment to foster children. And Tom DeLay cites this when he says his top primary opponent, Tom Campbell, doesn't have these credentials.

Representative TOM DELAY (Republican, Texas): He's done nothing for the party. He hasn't done anything for the community. He's, I guess, just wants the job. There's no commitment, there's no future vision as to where he wants to lead the Party and lead the country.

SEABROOK: As far as his own ethical problems, DeLay says Campbell is following the Democrat strategy by focusing on them. And DeLay says voters won't go for it. As for the partisanship and fighting, Campbell would like to tone down in Washington. DeLay, once known as The Hammer, says he has no apologies.

Representative DELAY: No, I'm not an appeaser. And it's been my experience, if you're an appeaser in Washington, D.C., they're going to walk all over you.

SEABROOK: But the idea of making political discourse more civil seems to appeal to some voters, even if they've always supported Tom DeLay in the past. At a Campbell meet-and-greet across town, Donna Arnold tells Campbell that, though DeLay has done good things, he's now got to deal with his indictment and ethical problems without taking the community down with him.

Ms. DONNA ARNOLD: This isn't going to go away. It's not going to go away. It's, unless he goes away. And that's unfortunate, but…

Mr. CAMBELL: Honestly, I am you. I mean, I supported Mr. DeLay for year after year after year. I've just gotten to the point where I think that the particular brand of politics that he's practicing is wrong.

Ms. ARNOLD: Maybe we need more tools than just a hammer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARNOLD: Isn't that horrible?

SEABROOK: Campbell goes from voter to voter, gathered in their neighbor's kitchen, asking for support. He's especially targeting people who haven't decided on their vote yet, and who may feel a little queasy about voting for DeLay. People like Todd Shew(ph).

Mr. TODD SHEW: I was ready not to vote for anybody, without knowing that there were other candidates out there. And, after talking with him, I really feel like he's got the principles that are lacking right now in Tom DeLay.

SEABROOK: There are no recent independent polls for the race, but older ones consistently showed a high percentage of undecided voters.

At the same time, DeLay's approval ratings tanked with his ethical problems and indictment. Campbell is hoping to take advantage of that in the next week.

And DeLay's pulling out all the stops to combat it. Last week, his House Republican colleagues flew and motored in from all over Texas to rally around their embattled friend. He was lauded for his long service and his commitment to conservatism, and Congressman John Carter likened him to a war general; not the kind that cries, go get them boys, but the man who leads the charge.

Representative JOHN CARTER (Republican, Texas): Tom DeLay is not only the first man out of the trench, but he's willing to have a target painted on the front and back, saying “shoot at me first”. Houston should be proud that they have the best member of Congress in America representing them.

SEABROOK: DeLay hopes this show of support from every Republican Congressman in Texas will help him convince voters they should keep him in the job. But he's got one week to do that, and a serious challenger nipping at his heels before the March 7th primary.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.

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