Chris Bell is a former Democratic Congressman from Houston. On June 15, 2004, he filed an ethics complaint against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Bell is currently exploring the race for Governor of Texas in 2006.
One year ago today, I filed an ethics complaint against Tom DeLay before the House Ethics Committee. No one, not the pundits, Republicans, my own Dem leadership, or DeLay himself gave it much of a chance. Heck, even I didn’t think much would come of it, but I did it anyway because it was the right thing to do. To the outsider, I’m sure that DeLay’s ethical misconduct and abuse of power seemed blatant and undeniable, but inside the Beltway his behavior was often dismissed as just politics-as-usual. There were even leaders in my own party who urged me to back down from my complaint in order to preserve the “ethics truce” that had held for seven years. Only in Washington, D.C. would an “ethics truce” make sense…
A lot has changed in the year since I filed the ethics complaint. Despite my initial doubts, the Ethics Committee handed down two unanimous admonishments against DeLay in response to the complaint. Two of his top lieutenants are now under criminal indictment here in Texas. Last month, a Republican-appointed judge ruled that DeLay’s TRMPAC violated Texas election law by funneling illegal corporate money to state candidates in 2002. DeLay subsequently saw his win margin plummet in 2004 and he’s going to face the toughest re-election fight of his career in 2006.
No, Tom DeLay isn’t gone yet. We still have a lot work to do in 2006 to defeat DeLay and his friends. But what we’ve accomplished in the last year is a good start. We’ve succeeded in shining a light on DeLay’s abuses, and just as importantly we’ve put the issues of ethics and integrity back in the center of the national political debate. Democrats up and down the ballot will be running on a message of reform next year, and that’s something that we as a party should be proud of.
But true reform means more than just speaking out against the ethical misconduct that has become the norm in Tom DeLay’s Washington. It also means reforming the way that we as Democrats run campaigns. Reform means recommitting ourselves to being a true grassroots party, a party that listens to mainstream voices instead of the voices of big-money lobbyists and partisan ideologues. Reform means seeking common ground and embracing new ideas and solutions. And reform means rejecting the broken Washington-style politics that values partisanship above all else.
A friend of mine asked me other day what lesson I’ve taken away from the Tom DeLay saga. My answer was this: We can’t wait around for others to step up. I didn’t know whether my complaint would end up having any impact at all, but I did know that I couldn’t just stand by and let DeLay’s blatant abuse of power go unchallenged. Likewise, we as Democrats may be discouraged, but no one else is going to stand up and fight these battles for us. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.
It’s this same principle that has led me to form an exploratory committee to look at the governor’s race. Under the leadership of DeLay ally Rick Perry, the proud Texas traditions of bi-partisan cooperation and civility have been replaced by the worst Washington traditions of ethical bankruptcy and win-at-all-costs partisanship.
Make no mistake: Democrats can win in Texas next year. Rick Perry’s spectacular failures in the recently completed legislative session and his sub-40 approval ratings are a clear indication that Texans are ready for a new direction in our state. But it’s up to us to stand up now and fight for change.
This past weekend, more than 150 people came together at house parties across the country to join with me in this fight and take a stand for clean government. It was the first time that a statewide campaign in Texas had brought people together like this, and the enthusiasm and energy of guests around the state was an encouraging sign that Texans are ready for the kind of true grassroots campaign that I want to run.
The house parties were part of our drive to raise $30,000 through our website by midnight tonight, marking both the anniversary of my stand against DeLay and the next chapter in the continuing fight to clean up Texas politics. As of this morning, we’re within $4,000 of our goal, and right now I’m asking you for your support to help put us over the top.
Rick Perry is going to raise millions of dollars for this campaign from lobbyists, insiders, and state contractors looking for special favors. I don’t think that’s the way government ought to work. I want this campaign to be built on the support of mainstream Texans whose only special interest is a new direction for our state.
Looking back on the whole DeLay saga a year later, what makes me proudest is seeing Democrats across the country once again embracing a message of reform and advancing the cause of ethics in government. But let’s commit ourselves on this anniversary to taking the reform mandate one step further and changing the way we run Democratic campaigns are run in this state. The top-down, closed-door system of the past has failed us, but a campaign that captures the energy and the commitment of the grassroots will not fail.
Just remember one thing: We can’t wait around for others to step up. It’s a fight worth fighting and it’s a fight we can win, but it starts with you.