Tom DeLay Tells Why He's Quitting

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U.S. Representative Tom DeLay

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Appearing relaxed despite three cups of coffee, DeLay played with his petite dogs and led a leisurely tour of his home. Upstairs, he offered a frame-by-frame description of the photos reflecting his past political clout, such as a private session on the Truman Balcony with the President and First Lady Laura Bush. The first frame marks the beginning of his arc from pest-control entrepreneur to a feared and ingenious power broker. It's the front page from a local paper, the Herald-Coaster, from 1978, proclaiming, "DeLay Is House Winner." That was the Texas House; voters sent him to Washington six years later, starting him on a 21-year congressional career. During the tour, he gave an indication of his early deftness at the political game when he showed off a picture of his wife, Christine, and their daughter, Danielle, with President Ronald Reagan. "I had to withhold my vote," he said, "to get my daughter's picture with Ronald Reagan as a freshman." His wife, a formidable daily force in his office with a voice in nearly all scheduling and media decisions, pointed to a photo of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and noted, "That's when we thought she was going to be conservative."

Putting the best face on the poll taken by his campaign, DeLay said it gave him "a little bit better than a 50-50 chance of winning reelection." Asked if that didn't mean that he could lose, he replied, "Could have. There's no reason to risk a seat. This is a very strong Republican district. It's obvious to me that anybody but me running here will overwhelmingly win the seat."

DeLay said he is likely to leave by the end of May, depending on the Congressional schedule and finishing his work on a couple of issues. He said he will change his legal residence to his condominium in Alexandria, Va., from his modest two-story home on a golf course here in the 22nd District of Texas. "I become ineligible to run for election if I'm not a resident of the state of Texas," he said, turning election law to his purposes for perhaps on last time. State Republican officials will then be able to name another Republican candidate to face Democrat Nick Lampson, a former House members who lost his seat in a redistricting engineered by DeLay.

Lampson has made a major issue of the lobbying scandal, and his campaign home page has a petition headed, "Tell Tom DeLay to Return the Dirty Money!," referring to contributions from he and his political action committees have received from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a one-time DeLay ally who pleaded guilty in January to three felonies, including conspiring to defraud clients and bribe public officials.

DeLay's decision means that he no longer has to fear any further sanctions from the House ethics committee, which admonished him three times in 1994 for official conduct deemed inappropriate by members, but has been paralyzed for more than a year and has taken no action in the more recent scandal. Sources close to DeLay said he remains under investigation by the Justice Department prosecutors, who now have Abramoff's cooperation, but the lawmaker said he has nothing to fear from the feds. "I paid lawyers to investigate me as if they were prosecuting me," he said. "They found nothing. There is absolutely nothing — no connection with Jack Abramoff that is illegal, dishonest, unethical or against the House rules."

Richard Cullen, a former U.S. attorney who is DeLay's Washington lawyer, told TIME that in December, the lawmaker's legal team turned over to the Justice Department about 1,000 e-mails from his office computers. "This was to show we had nothing to hide," Cullen said. "They were everything we felt related to the Abramoff investigation. None are from DeLay. They're from staffers, showing their give and take with Abramoff. There was nothing that I said to myself or DeLay, wow, this is really bad for him. Prosecutors are looking to see whether anyone on the government payroll, whether a congressman or a staffer, performed official acts in return for a bribe or gratuity."

A Texas district attorney, Ronnie Earle of Travis County, indicted DeLay last year on money-laundering charges for transactions involving Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), a political action committee DeLay founded. Earle is a Democrat and DeLay has attacked the charges as "a political hit job." He says he did not personally carry out the transactions and that, in any case, they are standard practice for parties around the country. Regardless, DeLay was forced to vacate his post as majority leader because of a House Republican rule (known as "the DeLay rule," because it was enacted amid concern about his legal situation) that requires a leader under indictment to step down.

DeLay, a Baptist born in the border city of Laredo, said he "spent a lot of time" praying about his decision and that his personal relationship with Jesus drives his day-to-day actions. "My faith is who I am," he said. When DeLay was booked on the Texas charges, he wore his Congressional I.D. pin and flashed a broad smile designed to thwart Democrats who had hoped to make wide use of an image of a glowering DeLay. "I said a little prayer before I actually did the fingerprint thing, and the picture," he said. "My prayer was basically: 'Let people see Christ through me. And let me smile.' Now, when they took the shot, from my side, I thought it was fakiest smile I'd ever given. But through the camera, it was glowing. I mean, it had the right impact. Poor old left couldn't use it at all."

Recently, he said, he has been hearing from many people who want his help on projects outside Congress. He said his decision was cemented by the thunderous response at a conference in Washington last Wednesday decrying the "War on Christianity."

"You talk to a lot of people, give a lot of people opportunities to give you message," DeLay said. "If it's the wrong decision, doors don't open — they're closed to you, and you don't feel good about it, and you have doubts. Doors are opening already." He said he has no plans to write a book. "I'm not a very good writer, " he said. In what must be a relief to his many lawyers, he said he has not kept a diary.

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