By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006; A05
A federal judge in Texas threw the political retirement of former House majority leader Tom DeLay into doubt yesterday, ruling that the Texas Republican Party must keep the indicted former congressman on the ballot for reelection this November.
For Democrats eager to seize control of the House this fall, the ruling was a significant victory. DeLay is under indictment on campaign finance charges in Texas and is under a cloud of scandal in Washington, and Democrats had hoped to wrest the conservative district from him. But DeLay seemed to thwart those designs in April, when he announced that he would resign from Congress and move his official residence to Alexandria from his suburban Houston district, making him ineligible to run for reelection.
Texas Democrats sued to keep him on the ballot, maintaining that state election laws say victors in a party primary must appear on the general election ballot unless they die or live outside the district on Election Day. They pointed out that DeLay still owns a Houston area home, where his wife, Christine, lives and where he still spends time.
In a strongly worded opinion, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks sided with the Democrats.
"There is no evidence that DeLay will still be living in Virginia tomorrow, let alone on November 7, 2006, the only day that matters under the Qualification Clause of the United States Constitution," wrote the judge, a Republican appointee. "DeLay was chosen as the Republican nominee by the voters in the Republican primary, and he is still eligible to be the party's nominee."
The decision concurred with Democrats -- and some Republicans -- who said DeLay waited to announce his retirement until after his contested primary this spring to ensure that the GOP detractors who had opposed him would not succeed him. By retiring after the primary, DeLay expected that the party nominee for the general election would be chosen by Republican precinct chairs in his district's four counties.
Texas Republican Party Chairman Tina J. Benkiser yesterday promised to appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, saying the ruling "effectively throws the federal election process into total chaos."
Dani DeLay Ferro, DeLay's daughter and his spokeswoman, said: "Tom DeLay looks forward to the correct decision being rendered by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. As a resident of Virginia, he cannot lawfully be on the ballot in November."
But Republicans are looking at the real possibility that the Democrats' seasoned nominee, former representative Nick Lampson, will be facing DeLay on the ballot. DeLay must decide whether he will campaign for the post he relinquished or almost certainly leave his party with one fewer seat in the House.
Reelection would bring its own problems. The House ethics committee announced in May that, had DeLay not announced his retirement, it would have launched an investigation into what it called "serious allegations" that he had participated in privately funded trips overseas. The Justice Department's sprawling corruption investigation stemming from the activities of former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff has yielded guilty pleas and the promise of cooperation from DeLay's former deputy chief of staff, Tony C. Rudy, and his former press secretary, Michael Scanlon.
In an interview last week, DeLay signaled that he anticipated the court's decision, saying, "I would accept the election if I was elected."
"It's just typical Democrats. When they can't win at the ballot box, they try to win in the courts," he said, but he added that he did not know whether he would campaign for what would be a 12th term.
DeLay also predicted that the Democrats' legal maneuvers would yield a severe backlash among voters.
Democrats were showing no such concerns yesterday. Four months before Election Day, Republicans in Texas's 22nd District find themselves with a nominee who has abandoned his district and does not want to run, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Even if yesterday's ruling is overturned, GOP precinct chairs in the district's four counties will have precious little time to select a nominee from the nine prominent Republicans in the running. Lampson, with $1.8 million in the bank, continues to run hard.
"We learned two things this week: George Bush can't seem to get rid of Osama bin Laden, and Texas Republicans can't get rid of Tom DeLay," Emanuel said.