Rep. Tom DeLay, whose iron hold on the House Republicans melted as a lobbying corruption scandal engulfed the Capitol, told TIME that he will not seek reelection and will leave Congress within months. Taking defiant swipes at "the left" and the press, he said he feels "liberated" and vowed to pursue an aggressive speaking and organizing campaign aimed at promoting foster care, Republican candidates and a closer connection between religion and government.
"I'm going to announce tomorrow that I'm not running for reelection and that I'm going to leave Congress," DeLay, who turns 59 on Saturday, said during a 90-minute interview on Monday. "I'm very much at peace with it." He notified President Bush in the afternoon. DeLay and his wife, Christine, said they had been prepared to fight, but that he decided last Wednesday, after months of prayer and contemplation, to spare his suburban Houston district the mudfest to come. "This had become a referendum on me," he said. "So it's better for me to step aside and let it be a referendum on ideas, Republican values and what's important for this district."
DeLay's fall has been stunningly swift, one of the most brutal and decisive in American history. He had to give up his title of Majority Leader, the No. 2 spot in the House Republican leadership, in September when a Texas grand jury indicted him on charges of trying to evade the state's election law. So he moved out of his palatial suite in the Capitol, where he once brandished a "No Whining" mug during feisty weekly sessions with reporters, and moved across the street to the Cannon House Office Building, home of many freshmen.
The surprise decision was based on the sort of ruthless calculation that had once given him unchallenged dominance of House Republicans and their wealthy friends in Washington's lobbying community: he realized he might lose in this November's election. DeLay got a scare in a Republican primary last month, and a recent poll taken by his campaign gave him a roughly 50-50 shot of winning, in an election season when Republicans need every seat they can hang onto to avoid a Democratic takeover of the House.
"I'm a realist. I've been around awhile. I can evaluate political situations," DeLay told TIME at his kitchen table in Sugar Land, a former sugar plantation in suburban Houston. Bluebonnets are blooming along the highways. "I feel that I could have won the race. I just felt like I didn't want to risk the seat and that I can do more on the outside of the House than I can on the inside right now. I want to continue to fight for the conservative cause. I want to continue to work for a Republican majority."
Asked if he had done anything illegal or unethical in public office, DeLay replied curtly, "No." Asked if he'd done anything immoral, he said with a laugh, "We're all sinners." Asked what he would do differently, he said, "Nothing." He denied having failed to adequately supervise members of his staff, even though two of his former aides have pleaded guilty to committing crimes while on his staff. "Two people violated my trust over 21 years," he said. "I guarantee you if other offices were under the scrutiny I've been under in the last 10 years, with the Democrat Party announcing that they're going to destroy me, destroy my reputation, and that's how they're going to get rid of me, I guarantee you you're going to find, out of hundreds of people, somebody that's probably done something wrong."
DeLay brushed off the torrent of investigative news articles questioning the funding behind the golf, private planes and resort hotels that marked his travel at home and abroad. He even accepted a plane from R. J. Reynolds Tobacco to go to his arraignment. "There's nothing wrong with it," he said. "They had a plane available. My schedule was such that I couldn't do it commercially that I had to get up there and then get back and do my job. And that's the only plane that was available at the time."
"You can't prove to me one thing that I have done for my own personal gain," he added. "Yes, I play golf. I'm very proud of the fact that I play golf. It's the only thing that I do for myself. And when you go to a country and you're there for seven days and you take an afternoon off to play golf, what does the national media write? All about the golf, not about the meeting that went to. I'm not ashamed of anything I've done. I've never done anything in my political career for my own personal gain. You can look at my bank account and my house to understand that."
"I don't care what history writes," he continued. "What I care about, what's important to me is who I am, what I've done and what I can accomplish in the future. What I care about it what I believe in and how I conduct myself in fighting for what I believe in."