The controversial 'Hammer' on the Hill

An ethics complaint could sidetrack Tom DeLay, regarded as an exceptionally effective majority leader.

The beaming bobblehead doll that just arrived in a Capitol Hill bookshop is a far cry from the Tom DeLay once described by Clinton aides as "downright scary, even when he tries to smile" - except for the big hammer clenched in his fists.

"The Hammer" isn't his real nickname, at least not to those who know him. "No one ever comes up to him and says, 'Hey, Hammer!' " says spokesman Jonathan Grella. But the name was coined by the Washington Press corps, and it stuck.

One reason is that Mr. DeLay is on track to become one of the most powerful House leaders ever, unless derailed by the ethics complaint filed last week by a Texas Democrat he helped defeat. On Tuesday, the House Ethics Committee announced that the complaint by Rep. Chris Bell met House standards and would go forward.

DeLay is not just a feisty pol. He is also a one-man fundraising blizzard, directing millions to candidates and groups committed to maintaining a GOP majority in Congress and state governments.

At issue in the complaint is whether he violated House ethics rules and federal law in the process. Weeks before Representative Bell's complaint, a coalition of public interest groups called on the House to break a longstanding "truce" on ethics and investigate DeLay.

"He is a huge target, because he is so aggressive in pursuing his goals," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "Democrats have been forced to absorb a lot of punishment, and ... they feel they need to retaliate."

Since 1998, his leadership political action committee (Americans for a Republican Majority or ARMPAC) has raised over $10 million, more than any leadership PAC on Capitol Hill. He's a virtual investment banker for conservative groups that do not fall under strict federal disclosure rules, such as the Republican Majorities Issues Campaign and the US Family Network. Last month, a charity associated with DeLay, Celebrations for Children Inc., canceled plans for gala events at the Republican National Convention in New York after critics charged that DeLay was using the charity to skirt new campaign-finance laws that bar raising soft money from corporations or trade unions for federal campaigns.

He's also taken hits for his role in micromanaging a new Texas redistricting in 2003, including calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to track Democratic lawmakers fleeing a key vote on the plan. Analysts say the new plan could net the GOP six or seven House seats in November, but set off a firestorm in Texas.

"Redistricting caused an enormous rift in the state legislature, the kind of rift not seen in Texas politics since Reconstruction," says Robert Stein, Rice University social scientist. The fallout may even create problems for DeLay in his own district, where minorities will account for most of the population not long hence.

For years, Democrats have been trying to turn DeLay into the "new Newt," the Republican Democrats most love to hate. Unlike former Speaker Gingrich, DeLay prefers to work out of sight. He rarely gives interviews. But when he does, there's often a hard-hammering zinger, such as his description of the Environmental Protection Agency as "the Gestapo of government," or retired generals who became TV commentators against the Iraq war as "blow-dried Napoleons."

Lately, DeLay has tried to soften that image: There's a less severe haircut, at the urging of his wife, Christine, and colleague Rep. Jennifer Dunn. The cowboy and combat paintings that once lined his conference room have been replaced by placid landscapes. There's more joshing with reporters.

Even his most severe critics concede that he's a straight shooter - "in the chest, not the back" - someone who often wins by sheer hard work. DeLay is also a longtime advocate for children, and has shared an award with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York for promoting foster care and reforming the D.C. court system to better meet children's needs.

Born in Laredo, DeLay played offensive line in high school football in Corpus Christi, where he met his wife. He launched a pest control business that has provided grist for cartoonists ever since.

Now, all roads lead to the relatively modest office just down from the Crypt in the Capitol. As majority whip, DeLay built a team that repeatedly ground out tough votes in a closely divided House. When the majority leader post opened up at the end of the 107th Congress, he was quickly able to close off prospects for a rival bid.

Democrats say that he has also all but shut down their ability to amend bills.

Power on Capitol Hill can be a magnet for money and legal woes, and DeLay has both. One suit, settled in 2001, charged that he "extorted" funds from donors and laundered money through groups like the US Family Network. DeLay still owes more than $50,000 of an $844,000 legal tab. The new ethics charges include bribery, fundraising violations, and the improper use of the FAA to intervene in Texas redistricting. "If Democrats want to [break the ethics truce], let them do it," says DeLay. "Our answer is to have an agenda."

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