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DeLay Quits His Drive for Reelection

Battling ethics questions and falling poll numbers, the former House majority leader will leave Congress. Supporters are stunned.

April 04, 2006|Richard Simon, Janet Hook and Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, once one of the most influential Republicans in Congress, told colleagues Monday night that he was dropping plans to seek reelection -- a surprise move that will end his tumultuous congressional career.

DeLay, who faces money-laundering charges in his home state of Texas, said he would probably step down in May, apparently in response to polls showing that he risked losing his seat in congressional elections this fall.

His decision, to be announced formally in Texas today, comes as Democrats have pointed to his troubles and the political corruption investigation on Capitol Hill in an effort to highlight ethics in their campaign to wrest House control from Republicans.

DeLay's decision comes days after one of his former aides pleaded guilty in the influence-peddling scandal involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, also once a DeLay associate.

DeLay has denied any wrongdoing, contending that Democrats have targeted him in an effort to derail a conservative agenda that made him a darling of the right.

But his troubles at home were also becoming apparent.

In 2004, DeLay, who was first elected in 1984, won with 55% of the vote. This year he would have faced a challenge from former U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, a Democrat who lost his seat in a controversial DeLay-engineered redrawing of Texas congressional district boundaries.

DeLay's decision to step down was first reported on the website of Time magazine and by a small newspaper in Texas.

"It was obvious to me that the 22nd District deserved more than an election that was turning into a referendum on me rather than what was important to the district," DeLay said in an interview with the Galveston County Daily News.

In an interview posted Monday on Time's website, DeLay said: "I'm a realist. I've been around awhile. I can evaluate political situations. And it was obvious to me that the 22nd District needed an election that discussed issues. It was obvious to me that this election had become a referendum on me."

DeLay also told the magazine that although he thought he could have won the race, "I just felt like I didn't want to risk the seat and that I can do more on the outside of the House than I can on the inside right now. I want to continue to fight for the conservative cause. I want to continue to work for a Republican majority."

DeLay's decision stunned Capitol Hill.

"It comes as a surprise to many of his close supporters," said a Capitol Hill source close to DeLay, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because DeLay is making the official announcement today. "There are a lot of people who are sad to see his political career come to an end."

Stuart Roy, a former DeLay aide, said he thought his former boss was deterred by the prospect of a tough fight and -- even if he were reelected -- life in Congress without a major leadership position.

"As much as he is ideologically driven and cause-oriented, he's also very much a pragmatist when it comes to the art of the possible," Roy said.

DeLay's departure from Congress marks the end of an era in the GOP that he dominated as much as any Republican, including President Bush. He was part of the team that took control of Congress in 1994, the first time in 40 years that the GOP had power.

DeLay as much as anyone defined the style and tone of the GOP over the last decade. He cemented the connections between power, political money and special interests close to the party.

His pugnacious style and relentless push for party unity were hallmarks of the House GOP. DeLay is known throughout the nation's capital as "the Hammer."

But his efforts to consolidate Republican power and build a lasting political majority were the root of his downfall.

He was rebuked three times by the House Ethics Committee for behavior that had more to do with accumulating power than personal gain: for bullying a trade association that hired a former Democrat as its head; for threatening a House Republican with political consequences if he did not vote for a major Medicare bill; and for calling the Federal Aviation Administration to track down a plane carrying Democratic state legislators out of Texas during the fight over his redistricting plan.

DeLay has taken the lead in demanding corporate support for the party, not only for fundraising but in choosing Republicans to fill jobs at lobbying firms and trade associations.

Two dozen former DeLay staffers have prominent lobbying jobs around Washington. His tactics helped cement a close relationship between big business and the party.

DeLay has been a prolific fundraiser for the party and for other members of Congress, which has won him deep loyalty among his colleagues.

But last year, after he was indicted on money-laundering charges, his wellspring of good will among lawmakers began to run dry.

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