As groups tout Tom DeLay as an example of all that is wrong with US politics, the Texas congressman known for his offense finds himself on defense.
Has the former exterminator finally begun to choke on his own poison?
Tom DeLay (R-TX), who in a matter of two decades rose from the head of Albo Pest Control to the head of the Republican Congress, is currently mired in the fight of his political life - a fight for reputation, a fight for legitimacy, a fight for survival.
Nicknamed "the Hammer" by friends and foes alike, DeLay is used to being the one exerting pressure on others. Now, he finds himself in the unfamiliar position of playing defense in perhaps the most critical battle of his career.
DeLay's problems - a steadily mounting drumbeat of ethics violations, questionable ties to lobbyists, and cozy arrangements with big corporate donors - aren't particularly rare in DC. Good-government groups have been pointing fingers at all types of politicians for decades for the same transgressions.
But DeLay is different. In him, those groups believe they have found a legitimate poster child for everything wrong with the American political process, and they have set out to methodically transform him from an unusually powerful congressman famous primarily in Texas and the US Capitol to the very face of governmental corruption in the mind of the public.
Groups up activity
A coalition of DC-based advocacy groups (or, as the American Conservative Union terms it, "a literal cabal of left-wing groups") has led the charge to push DeLay's record into the spotlight. For the past several months, the Campaign for America's Future (CAF) has been holding press conferences and creating websites aimed at portraying DeLay as crooked.
"We view this Congress as one of the most corrupt in many a decade," says CAF co-director Roger Hickey, "and the most advanced practitioner of that corruption is Tom DeLay. He's in the center of a web of connections and money hustles."
About a month ago, the group decided to bring the fight to the congressman's back yard. It worked with Fenton Communications and a Los Angeles media firm to produce a low-budget TV ad painting DeLay as an emblem of corruption and ran the ad in his home district. Liberal stalwart Fenton is working with several groups that oppose DeLay, but the agency referred calls to clients.
For less than $100,000, the CAF managed to target likely voters, rake in earned media as the first group to take the post-election offensive on the issue in Texas, and take DeLay's support at home down a peg.
According to a Houston Chronicle/Zogby poll released April 1, 40% of DeLay's constituents said that their opinion of him has grown less favorable in the past year, and more than 20% of all those polled said that "publicity about DeLay's ethical reprimands" was the largest factor in their opinions being changed either way.
"[The ad is] an example of how we work. A small amount of money in the right place at the right time, and it generated a lot of attention," Hickey explains. "It was literally the illustration for a lot of news stories for several weeks."
Common Cause (CC), a government accountability group, has been focusing on DeLay's actions for a year, calling for outside counsel to investigate his ethical transgressions. In that time, the group has constantly updated its anti-DeLay website, conducted research on the majority leader to pass on to reporters, and sent its top leadership on the media rounds to hammer the Hammer's record.
Mary Boyle, CC's press secretary, says that the issue is not just DeLay, but his role in weakening the ethics process for all of Congress. "If Tom DeLay [were] to step down today, we would still be fighting to reform the ethics process," she says. "I can guarantee you that if there was a Democratic leader who had been admonished by the ethics committee three times, we'd be doing the same kind of stuff."
Another group that has been extraordinarily active is the Public Campaign Action Fund (PCAF), a nonprofit campaign-finance reform organization that has taken up the cause with a passion. Last October, it released a TV and a radio ad in DeLay's district, trying to spread the word of his ethical violations near the end of the election cycle. At the same time, the group took a nontraditional route to online activism by starting dailydelay.blogspot.com, a blog that pulls in 1,500 users per day looking for the latest updates on the DeLay battle.
"It's now become quite a beast to feed," says PCAF's national campaign director, David Donnelly. "It's had a pretty steady growth."
More recently, the group bought ads in the home districts of six congressmen, including top House leadership and members of the ethics committee, calling for DeLay's resignation and urging them to return money from DeLay-hosted fundraisers.
DeLay's comms strategy
The months of intense work by these groups that preceded the recent elevation of the DeLay story into full-blown crisis mode were certainly partly responsible for pushing it permanently onto the front page. But Donnelly says that the majority leader himself played a role by maintaining his rough-and-tumble style as charges began to mount against him.
"I think Tom DeLay's actions have kind of caught up with him." says Donnelly. "I also think he's built a negative national profile by what he and other Republicans have done to the ethics committee - they purged the committee. That leads the DC press corps to look a bit more closely at what issues are not being investigated."
Indeed, DeLay might have overplayed his hand with the national media when he led the Republican charge to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case at the same time that his ethical problems and lobbyist connections were being investigated most closely. But those who are working to defend DeLay are trying to use the recent spate of front-page stories detailing the congressman's questionable travel arrangements and payroll as evidence of a left-wing conspiracy against him.
One source close to DeLay, who insisted on anonymity, says, "There's been a coordinated effort by outside groups working with House Democrats to try to feed stuff [to reporters], as you can see on a regular basis in The New York Times." DeLay is hoping to use the House Ethics Committee as a "fair forum" to present his side of the story, adds the source, because he feels that the media is biased against him.
The source's claim of collusion between a "syndicate" of left-wing "front groups" and their friendly supporters in the national media is not simply the mutterings of the politically disgruntled - it is a key part of DeLay's communication strategy.
The congressman, while maintaining his innocence from wrongdoing in broad terms, has sought to position himself as the victim of a coordinated and unfair attack. In fact, a list of bullet points posted on his website bears the unambiguous heading "Democrats and their outside front groups are colluding to target DeLay."
Jonathan Grella, DeLay's former press secretary and current VP of public affairs at Edelman in DC, says that his old boss is currently the victim of a slow news cycle. "Part of where we find ourselves today is a result of the lack of interesting and exciting news in Washington," he says. "In the absence of anything larger or more pressing, John Bolton, Tom DeLay, and judicial nominees have to suffice."
Grella, who is advising DeLay and his team informally on its communication strategy, does not believe that negative publicity in outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post will resonate with DeLay's core supporters, many of whom buy into the notion that the "elite media" is hopelessly slanted against their candidate.
"For as long as the congressman stays strong in his district, amongst his members [in the House] and amongst the conservative movement," Grella says, "he will not only survive, but continue to thrive."