Democrats have been cheering former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (Texas) conviction on a nine-year-old money-laundering charge. The pain suffered by a partisan enemy allows them to remind people that Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers sometimes run afoul of the law.
The blogs are full of it as one of the reasons Democrats celebrated Thanksgiving this year and DeLay’s former Texas opponents are beating their chests. “The Hammer has finally been nailed,” wrote one self-important blogger, celebrating the downfall of a political opponent he blames for Democratic losses due to DeLay’s impact on Texas redistricting following the 2000 census. Democrats now claim the man is being justly punished for an attempt to rig elections in his home state.
In a sense that’s what has happened in Texas. It’s been a long time since then-District Attorney Ronnie Earle first decided to “get” DeLay, but it’s worth following the trail back to its beginning.
The case involved DeLay’s attempt to help his Texas Republican friends do something about the way congressional districts had been drawn by the Democrats, who by virtue of their control of the State Legislature had always controlled the process. By the 2000 census, Texas was no longer a safe Democratic state, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at the makeup of the Texas congressional delegation.
After the 1991 redistricting, Michael Barone wrote that Texas had produced one of the most creative gerrymanders in the country, with “incredibly convoluted lines” designed to keep the state’s congressional delegation Democratic. After the 2000 census there was a partisan split in the Legislature, and a three-judge panel simply readopted the 1991 plan with minor variations.
Thus, in the 2002 election every single incumbent was reelected in Texas and the Democrats maintained their 17-15 margin within the delegation, although Republicans took 56 percent of the House vote and swept every one of 27 statewide contests.
The Republicans were furious and determined to unravel the gerrymander. With DeLay’s help, Republicans focused attention and money on a handful of state legislative races to give the GOP control of both legislative houses and the ability to revisit the districting plan.
Adopted over the howls of the Democrats, their plan resulted in GOP victories in 21 districts in 2004, leaving the Democrats with but 11 congressional seats. Considering the fact that the popular House vote that year went 60 percent Republican, the new plan was far less of a gerrymander than the one it replaced.
In putting all this together, DeLay and his friends were seeking and achieving GOP gains. That’s what happens in states in which partisan redistricting takes place. It may be fair or unfair; in the Texas case, what they achieved was fairer than what they sought to change.
To suggest that there wouldn’t be payback would be naïve. Texas Democrats vowed revenge, and in the case of prosecutor Ronnie Earle, went on the attack. Earle had to present his case to half a dozen grand juries before he could get an indictment, and his successor’s case involved extending the reach of money-laundering statutes in a way that was at least as creative as the 1991 gerrymander.
In the end, Democrats got their revenge and now argue DeLay ought to be sent away for as long as possible, giving more than a little credence to DeLay’s charge that he is the victim of an attempt to criminalize legitimate political activity. Should DeLay’s conviction stand, many other legitimate political activities will now be in reach of politicized criminal prosecutors encouraged to creatively extend the reach of various criminal statutes to places they’ve never been before. That prospect should make Republicans and Democrats alike a tad nervous.
DeLay was a tough competitor and is doubtless prepared to accept the consequences of defeat, but the Democrats should be denied their pound of flesh on legal and ethical grounds. If he is sentenced to spend time in the slammer, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) should pardon him.
Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.