Succumbing to scandal, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said Tuesday he will resign from Congress in the face of a tough re-election race, closing out a career that blended unflinching conservatism with a bare-knuckled political style.
“I think I could have won this seat but it would have been nasty. It would have cost a fortune to do it,” DeLay said in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday.
In a statement to constituents, DeLay said, “I have no fear whatsoever about any investigation into me or my personal or professional activities.”
At the same time, he said, “I refuse to allow liberal Democrats an opportunity to steal this seat with a negative, personal campaign.”
He said the voters of his Houston-area district “deserve a campaign about the vital national issues that they care most about ... and not a campaign focused solely as a referendum on me.”
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews reported Monday evening that DeLay told him in an interview that “the polling on him in the 22nd District was going down,” as a result of his part in a campaign contribution controversy.
“He (DeLay) expected to take a beating all summer on this,” Matthews reported. “I guess he felt the beating was going to continue.”
DeLay relinquished the post as House majority leader last fall after his indictment in Texas as part of an investigation into the allegedly illegal use of funds for state legislative races. He decided in January against trying to get the leadership post back as an election-year corruption scandal staggered Republicans and emboldened minority Democrats.
Guilty plea from former aide
Last week, former DeLay aide Tony Rudy pleaded guilty to conspiring with lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others to corrupt public officials, and he promised to help the broad federal investigation of bribery and lobbying fraud that already has resulted in three convictions.
Neither Rudy, Abramoff nor anyone else connected with the investigation has publicly accused DeLay of breaking the law, but Rudy confessed that he had taken actions while working in the majority leader’s office that were illegal. DeLay has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a major player in congressional investigations of Abramoff and the lobbyist’s involvement with Indian tribes, said Tuesday that he respects DeLay’s decision to step down, and added, “I think there are other aspects of the Abramoff scandal that will be unfolding in the weeks ahead.”
McCain spoke to reporters following a speech to a Hispanic conference.
President Bush said Tuesday that DeLay had informed him of his decision Monday afternoon.
“I wish him all the best,” Bush told reporters during a brief White House session, adding, “It had to have been a very difficult decision for someone who loved representing his district in the state of Texas.”
Bush said the Republican Party won’t suffer from DeLay’s decision to resign from Congress. “My own judgment is that our party will continue to succeed because we are the party of ideas.”
DeLay, an 11-term Texas lawmaker who turns 59 on Saturday, said he would make his resignation effective sometime before mid-June but contingent on the congressional calendar.
“He has served our nation with integrity and honor,” said Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who succeeded DeLay in his leadership post earlier this year.
'Republican culture of corruption'
But Democrats said the developments marked more than the end to one man’s career in Congress.
“Tom Delay’s announcement is just the beginning of the reckoning of the Republican culture of corruption that has gripped Washington for too long,” said Karen Finney, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. “From DeLay to Scooter Libby to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, to Duke Cunningham, to Bob Ney, to David Safavian, the list of goes on and on.”
DeLay portrayed his decision to resign as a fatal blow for the fortunes of his opponent, Democrat Nick Lampson, who has garnered national attention — and financial support.
“As difficult as this decision has been for me, it’s not going to be a great day for liberal Democrats, either,” DeLay said. “My loyalty to the Republican Party, indeed my love for the Republican Party, has played no small part in this decision.”
Last month, DeLay capped a triumph in a contested GOP primary with a vow to win re-election.
It was not clear whether Texas Gov. Rick Perry would call a special election to fill out the unexpired portion of DeLay’s term, or whether the seat would remain vacant until it is filled in November.
Either way, DeLay’s concern about the potential loss of a Houston-area seat long in Republican hands reflected a deeper worry among GOP strategists. After a dozen years in the majority, they face a strong challenge from Democrats this fall, at a time when President Bush’s public support is sagging, and when the Abramoff scandal has helped send congressional approval ratings tumbling.
Until scandal sent him to the sidelines, DeLay had held leadership posts since the Republicans won control of the House in a 1994 landslide. At first, he had to muscle his way to the table, defeating then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s handpicked candidate to become whip.
But DeLay quickly established himself as a forceful presence — earning a nickname as “The Hammer” — and he easily became majority leader when the spot opened up.
Force behind Clinton impeachment
DeLay was the driving force behind President Clinton’s impeachment in 1999, weeks after Republicans lost seats at the polls in a campaign in which they tried to make an issue of Clinton’s personal behavior.
His trademark aggressiveness helped trigger his downfall, when he led a drive to redraw Texas’ congressional district boundaries to increase the number of seats in GOP hands.
The gambit succeeded, but DeLay was soon caught up in an investigation involving the use of corporate funds in the campaigns of legislators who had participated in the redistricting.