Lou Dubose

February 09, 2006

Lou Dubose, with Jan Reid, is the author of The Hammer Comes Down: The Nasty, Brutish and Shortened Political Life of Tom DeLay .

“They just congratulated—Texas.”

That’s how Tom DeLay responded when a reporter asked if he had discussed his Texas redistricting bill with George Bush and Karl Rove at a 2003 White House briefing. The long pause and wry smile after “congratulated” implied that the president and his chief adviser had actually congratulated DeLay. The congratulations were deserved.

When the Texas legislative session began in January 2003, Gov. Rick Perry said he had no intention of asking the legislature to redraw the state’s congressional district lines. After legislators failed to reach an agreement in 2001, the district lines had been redrawn by a panel of three federal judges. The matter was settled.

Until early 2003—that's when DeLay traveled to Austin to change the mind of the governor and the Republican speaker of the statehouse. DeLay was the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, so what he said mattered. If the political pressure seemed excessive, he had earned the right to rewrite the Texas legislature’s agenda. With his Washington political operative, Jim Ellis, he had put together a political action committee, raised $1.5 million and spent all of it on Texas statehouse races. His remarkable effort won enough Republican seats in the 2002 elections to allow the party to control a statehouse dominated by Democrats for more than 100 years.

Although it required three special sessions that cost the state $1.7 million, in August 2003 the Republican legislature delivered the redistricting plan DeLay demanded. In the 2004 elections that followed, the new Texas congressional map produced six new Republican seats in the U.S. House—the party’s total net gain that year. DeLay had earned the president's congratulations—just as he earned the indictments handed down by a grand jury empanelled by Austin District Attorney Ronnie Earle. In 2003, Tom DeLay was doing his job: trying to increase his party’s narrow majority in the U.S. House. However, it appears that he broke the law by raising illegal corporate money. And by laundering $190,000 of it—via a round trip from Austin to a Republican Party bank account in Washington and back to Austin. In 2006, the district attorney in Austin is doing his job: trying to take a criminal off the streets. Actually, that's criminals, plural: Along with DeLay, three of his political operatives face criminal charges for their alleged role in the fundraising and money laundering scheme. 

Tom DeLay doesn’t attend White House briefings anymore. He resigned his leadership position in Congress. He faces a serious, well-funded Democratic challenger in the suburban Houston district he has represented since 1984. In early February, it was reported that DeLay is spending more on criminal defense lawyers than his legal defense fund is taking in—with a notable decline in contributions from Republican members of Congress. Funny how loyalty evaporates in Washington. How quickly people become expendable.

It’s also odd how the judicial system sometime actually seems to work in the public interest. Before DeLay goes home to Texas to face felony charges, the redistricting plan he forced through the Texas legislature will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. On March 1, the court hears the arguments of attorneys representing a Texas county and civil rights groups challenging the plan. They are questioning the redrawing of district lines three years after the census. (Redistricting is normally done one year after the census, to reflect changes in a state’s population.) They are challenging the plan’s dilution of minority votes, a violation of the Voting Rights Act. And they are asking the justices to rule on the extent to which partisan influence can shape the boundaries of legislative districts. 

It’s more than the Bush administration can tolerate. Last week the White House submitted an amicus brief supporting the Texas plan. That surprised no one who paid attention to the protracted and polarizing fight over the congressional district lines in Texas. Because the Bush team worked hand in hand with the majority leader. DeLay—known for the intimidating and at times thuggish behavior that earned him the name “the Hammer”—did the heavy lifting in Texas. The president and his advisers applied the pressure in Washington. Bush senior adviser Karl Rove did much of the work, but the campaign extended beyond the White House. The president’s political appointees at the U.S. Department of Justice helped out, suppressing a legal opinion that found the DeLay plan in violation of minority voters’ rights.

We now know that redrawing the congressional districts in Texas was a genuine collaborative effort. Before DeLay started leaning on Republican legislators in Texas, he met with Rove, who got behind the plan. Rove, in turn, did his part, calling Republican state senators to pressure them to approve the plan. Rove wasn’t the only Bush operative in the deal. While the Republican lieutenant governor deliberated suspending the procedural rules of the state Senate so he could pass the redistricting act, he was paid a discreet visit by Bush adviser Karen Hughes. (As part of a more public campaign, Hughes openly complained that her Democratic representative, Lloyd Doggett, didn’t represent her views in Congress. A reporter informed Hughes that she resided in a district represented by Republican Rep. Lamar Smith.) 

Yet with all that pressure, the redistricting scheme wouldn’t have become law and been approved by federal courts without the approval of the Voting Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington. The Justice Department cleared the plan—which crammed ethnic and racial minorities into urban Democratic Party Bantustans surrounded by white conservative districts. If the Justice Department's approval of the plan was a surprise, it was because it never exactly happened. A report prepared by five career lawyers and two demographic experts at the DOJ concluded that the DeLay Plan, (more accurately the DeLay-Bush Plan) violated minority-voter protections in the Voting Rights Act. The critical report was overruled by a small group of Bush political appointees at the Department of Justice. Their boss was Hans von Spakovsky.

Von Spakovsky  is a story unto himself. The White House human resources shop found him on a county board overseeing elections in Atlanta and appointed him director of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. He had additional voting rights experience that qualified him for his DOJ job. He had served on the board of the Voting Integrity Project, a regional franchise in the Republican Party’s national voter-suppression ancillary operation. In 2000, while von Spakovsky was on the board of Voting Integrity, the group worked to cleanse Florida voting roles of African-American “felons.” Unfortunately, their felons list included the names of thousands of innocent people.

Von Spakovsky is no longer enforcing civil rights protections at the Justice Department. He got a promotion. In December 2005, Bush appointed him to the Federal Election Commission, where he will oversee campaign finance, watching out for the sort of transgressions that got Tom DeLay indicted in Texas.

All this information might have changed the opinion of the federal judges who signed off on the Texas districts in 2003. But at the time, the judges were unaware that von Spakovsky and other Bush political appointees at the DOJ suppressed a 73-page staff report that found the Texas districts in violation of minority protections in the Voting Rights Act. The Washington Post  broke the story that the report had been hidden in the Justice Department files for two years.

Shortly after the Post reported that political appointees at the Justice Department had concealed the findings of their own staff, the Supreme Court reversed its earlier decisions and decided to review the redistricting plan Tom DeLay and the Bush administration imposed on the state of Texas. The change occurred before Bush judicial nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito were confirmed by the Senate. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, distinguished by his canine fidelity to George Bush, has declared the redistricting in compliance with the law and the Constitution. The Supreme Court will have the final say. The Texas redistricting case is a test of the new court, as much it is a test of the purely political cartography that occurred in Texas—and will occur in other states if it is not stopped. 

The justices won’t hand down their decision until after the Texas primary elections on March 7. With the new Bush justices, the smart money is probably on the president and Plan Texas — even if some court watchers believe that Bush, Rove and Tom DeLay have gone so far around the bend that the court has no choice but to rule against them.

DeLay’s odds in front of a Texas jury are probably not so good