When Travis County Dist. Atty. Ronnie Earle drives home through the broken limestone hills outside Austin, past dry creeks and secret springs, he listens to a local public radio station, KUT-FM. Like so many who gravitated here from other Texas towns, he relishes the KUT programming in which listeners recount whimsical stories of their life in Austin. These one-minute riffs are about nothing much: a man who festoons trees with bottle caps; a former New Yorker who learns to two-step; strangers who meet on a street, fall in love, get married. Hearing them is like taking communion in the church of Austin, a city that defines itself by its vast differences--both real and imagined--from the strait-laced state that surrounds it. You swallow the wafer, and you belong.
Now in his 28th year as district attorney, Earle embodies Austin's offbeat ethos, casual liberalism and chronic nostalgia for simpler times. By many measures--its vibrant music and filmmaking scenes, its urbane tastes--this is a hip city, but it's also an earnest one. When Earle lectures about threats to democracy, as he often does these days, he is dead serious.
"I have a belief in the grace and promise of this country that has to do with growing up when we grew up," he says. "At my deepest level I'm not cynical. I believe all the stuff I say about this. It's not an act."
Act or not, Earle is a marquee player in a drama of national import as he pursues a 28-month criminal investigation that threatens one of the most powerful men in the U.S. Congress, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. An Austin grand jury has charged Republican operatives with using corporate millions to bankroll the campaigns of 22 Republican candidates for the state House of Representatives in 2002--campaigns that proved pivotal in securing GOP hegemony in Congress. For 100 years Texas law has barred corporations and labor unions from contributing to state political campaigns--and for good reason, Earle says. "For them to compete with ordinary citizens compounds the influence of corporations at the expense of citizens. It makes 'one person, one vote' a mockery."
Three of DeLay's political associates have been indicted, and prosecutors are circling a fourth, Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick. All are linked to DeLay's political action committee Texans for a Republican Majority, which, along with the Texas Assn. of Business, funneled more than $2.6 million in corporate funds to Republican legislative candidates. Four of the eight national corporations that were indicted for contributing funds have turned state's evidence in return for the charges being dropped. In courthouse jargon, that's called "flipping"--and it increases the likelihood of testimony against individuals such as Craddick and DeLay, who have not been charged with any crimes.
The lengthy investigation, together with the escalating row in Congress over DeLay's alleged ethics breaches, is taking a toll on the beleaguered majority leader--not only in Washington, but in his conservative congressional district near Houston, where polls show him slipping. DeLay has amassed a $1.3-million defense fund, and he alludes darkly to a left-wing campaign to destroy the conservative movement. In a 2,500-word missive e-mailed to supporters in April, he characterized the Austin indictments as a "political dirty trick" played by a "partisan Democrat" who wants to "undo with a grand jury what he can't stop at the ballot box."
At this writing, the undoing of DeLay is far from certain. But the outcome of the campaign finance case may be even more important to Earle. It will likely define his career, eclipsing the innovative criminal justice programs that are his real legacy. It will either redeem or confirm his reputation as an unpredictable prosecutor who can't quite make the big cases, whose reach often exceeds his grasp, whose best advocate and worst enemy are the same person: himself. "Most of my wounds have been self-inflicted," Earle says.
But he also is a formidable adversary in the press, sticking to message: "I'm just doing my job." He gets the benefit of the doubt on the editorial pages, the interviews on "60 Minutes," the magazine profiles. "Is a story in GQ next?" asks an exasperated Sherry Sylvester, former communications director of the state GOP. "Ronnie Earle is the most powerful Democrat in Texas. He is a partisan who uses his position as district attorney and works with the media. He simply is not credible."
The fact that a lowly district attorney is considered the state's most powerful Democrat says a lot about how far the party has fallen since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson. Texas hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976, the year Earle was first elected. A map of last November's election shows its 254 counties bathed in Republican red, save for a few on the Mexico border and the Gulf Coast--and the solitary blue dot that represents Austin and Travis County, where Kerry beat Bush.