11.25.10

Sending the Hammer to the Slammer

Tom DeLay’s money-laundering conviction is a holiday gift to liberals—and a reminder to the House’s new ruling Republicans of how power can corrupt.

Five years after he was indicted, former House Majority Leader and “Dancing with the Stars,” hoofer, Tom “The Hammer” DeLay is finally facing slammer time. So far, so good, though we must admit, it is a bit hard to believe. DeLay was convicted of violating campaign finance laws that are so arcane, complex and laxly enforced that it is easier to get yourself booked on Oprah. Finally, thanks to the good people of the Austin jury pool, liberals have something for which to be thankful this Thanksgiving: schadenfreude.

Delay is calling it “an abuse of power … a miscarriage of justice …the criminalization of politics undermines our very system.” This is music to liberal ears. As House Majority Leader, DeLay ruled his roost with an iron fist that makes Nancy Pelosi look like Mary Poppins. The Republicans, in those days, thought they could get away with anything. During one vote, DeLay as majority leader, told Congressman Nick Smith, Republican of Michigan, whose son was running for his office, that a switch of his vote from “nay” to “yea” would be worth $100,000 to his son’s campaign from “business interests,” according to Smith’s original recollection. This would be a felony if true. But after Smith refused the offer, he recanted. Though this was Boy Scout stuff compared to the time, during the Terri Schiavo case when DeLay promised, Don Corleone-style, “The time will come for the men responsible for this to pay for their behavior.” What, exactly, was he implying? As he helpfully explained, “Judges need to be intimidated,” adding that if they don’t behave, “we’re going to go after them in a big way.” (To be fair, DeLay also had his Shecky Greene side. During the 2004 election, he would begin his speeches "Good afternoon, or, as John Kerry might say: ‘Bonjour!’) ” The charges were changed during the case, owing to the complications of trying to prove a conspiracy to break campaign finance law and turned, instead, on a 2003 Texas law has prohibited corporations from giving money to candidates directly or indirectly. Basically, the prosecutors proved to the jury that DeLay ran a political money laundering operation to get around the prohibition. The money was used, the prosecutors said, to allow Texas Republicans to take over the state House, and thereby enable them to demand the passage of a Delay redistricting plan to increase the power of Republicans (and of course Tom DeLay) in 2004. 

As House Majority Leader, DeLay ruled his roost with an iron fist that makes Nancy Pelosi look like Mary Poppins.

Back then, you may recall, the legislature was called into a special session for the purpose of passing the redistricting law. When the Democrats saw what was up, a bunch of them took off for Oklahoma, and New Mexico to prevent a quorum vote. Someone ordered the arrest of Helen Giddings, understood to be their leader, in a police dragnet and threw her in jail, using the authority, I kid you not, of the Patriot Act. (And this was long after “ Hot Tub Tom” quit drinking.) 

Rebecca Dana: Holiday Weekend ScandalsDelay plans to file an appeal, and down the road, he can still be pardoned by Texas’s deeply conservative Republican governor, Rick Perry. It’s possible, we must admit, that he may never be forced to put on his striped pajamas. Even so, the case can serve as a reminder of the recent past—and perhaps a harbinger of the future—when a group of right-wing Republicans, led by the likes of DeLay and his good buddy Jack Abramoff believed their power to be absolutely unaccountable not only to voters but also the laws of the land. And they had managed to convince most of the rest of us of this too. I happen to be at a political event in Austin five years ago on the day the original indictments were handed down. I asked the town’s then-mayor, a Democrat, about the case, He gave the state’s prosecutors exactly zero chance of winning this one, given the power, wealth and influence their purported target. Well, As Barack Obama might say—or used to say, anyway, “ the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and media columnist for The Nation. His newest book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, is available for preorder.