Frontrunner: Wallace Launches Bid for DeLay’s Seat

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Congressman Tom DeLay's decision to leave the seat he has held for 22 years may have surprised many state and even local GOP leaders, as well as Democrats. But even before the embattled Texas congressman was revealing his decision to TIME in an exclusive interview, at least one potential Republican successor was already maneuvering to assume his seat. Late Monday night Sugar Land Mayor David G. Wallace,44, a popular second-term city leader whose name is on the ballot for a third term in the May 13 municipal elections, confirmed that he would make a bid for the seat.

Wallace said he had heard rumbles about DeLay's decision over the weekend, and his mayoral reelection website was pulled down for a redesign immediately after the DeLay announcement. Other insiders said they had been hearing rumors about DeLay's tight poll numbers as far back as December. Central Texas Republican Congressman John Carter told the Austin American-Statesman that a week ago DeLay had mentioned his "troubling" poll numbers that showed him in a neck-and-neck battle with his likely opponent in November, former Democratic Congressman Nick Lampson.

In an early morning videotape released to his Texas constituency, DeLay said, "I refuse to allow liberal Democrats to steal this seat with a negative personal campaign." But while his departure may be designed to take the national spotlight off the race for Texas's 22nd congressional district, it could still draw national attention, especially since Wallace's candidacy could reignite some bad blood that flared during the Bush-Kerry campaign.

Wallace now serves as investment committee chairman for Perry Properties Realty Investment Fund & Perry Properties, a commercial real estate company owned by Will Perry, son of Houston area homebuilder Bob Perry, a top Republican fundraiser in Texas who has enjoyed a long friendship with Karl Rove. Bob Perry made national news when he donated $200,000 to fund the controversial Swiftboat Veterans for Truth ads that challenged Senator John Kerry's war record during the presidential campaign.

In recent days, Bob Perry has been back in the news again for a gift to Bill Ceverha, the former treasurer of Texas Republicans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), the political action committee at the heart of Texas District Attorney Ronnie Earle's investigation of DeLay's funding for redistricting efforts. Ceverha is the only one, so far, found culpable in a civil suit for TRMPAC's alleged illegal maneuvers. Perry helped Ceverha pay his legal fees and, as a member of a state pension board, Ceverha was obliged to report the gift. The Texas Ethics Commission, to the chagrin of several Texas newspaper editorial pages, has said Ceverha does not need to detail the exact amount of the check.

In addition to many influential Texas Republican backers, Wallace has personal connections to one of the icons of the conservative movement, Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister. He did post-graduate work at the University of Reading in England and was a founding treasurer and director of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation. In Dallas, he served as CEO of The Grantham Company, the investment firm founded by Thatcher's son Mark and named for the legendary prime minister's home district of Grantham in London.

Wallace is not the only Texas Republican expressing an interest in DeLay's seat. Harris County Judge Bob Eckels, the chief executive officer for the county that includes most of the metropolitan Houston area, may make a run, as well as Houston attorney Tom Campbell, who won 30 percent of the vote in the March primary against DeLay. But given his personal and political connections, Wallace appears to have a jump on the others.

The actual date of DeLay's resignation and its confirmation by the Texas Secretary of State will determine when an election for the seat will be held. If DeLay officially resigns before this Friday, April 7, a special election could be called for the next so-called uniform election date, May 13. If the resignation falls after April 7, Gov. Rick Perry (no relation to Bob Perry) could call a special election date later, or could hold the seat vacant until the general election in November.

In that case, a special election would be open to all comers, but it will be up to GOP officials to name a candidate to replace DeLay's name on the November general election ballot. In this scenario, any GOP winner in an earlier special election would probably have an edge.

Meanwhile, it is likely that DeLay's pending move of his legal residence to Alexandria, Virginia, will not effect his trial on campaign finance irregularities. (His move out of the state is how DeLay is making himself ineligible for reelection.) "Mr. DeLay's political status has nothing to do with the criminal charges against him, and this changes nothing," Earle told the Austin American-Statesman Monday night. On the other hand, the criminal charges may have a lot to do with his political status, and as the political jockeying already under way in Texas makes abundantly clear, DeLay's exit will change everything.