Houston Jews Feeling Mixed On Indictment Of Tom DeLay

By E.J. Kessler

Published October 07, 2005, issue of October 07, 2005.
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As national Democrats express glee at the troubles of Rep. Tom DeLay, Texas Jews are greeting his problems with mixed emotions.

DeLay, the Republican from Sugar Land, Texas, who was forced to step down as House majority leader last week because of an indictment on a campaign finance charge, counts both staunch friends and foes in the Houston-area Jewish community.

As House majority leader, DeLay proved time and again to be a tough critic of the Palestinians, giving him a reputation as one of Israel’s best friends in Congress.

On the other hand, evangelical Christian DeLay is seen by the overwhelmingly moderate and Democratic Jewish community in Texas as a key leader of the movement that turned Texas into a state dominated by Republicans and religious conservatives — a process that led to the defeat of several Jewish lawmakers and is seen as weakening the Jewish community’s political influence.

In one such development last year, the Texas GOP adopted a platform plank asserting that “the United States of America is a Christian nation.” In June, Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, traveled to an evangelical school to sign an anti-abortion and an anti-gay-marriage bill in the presence of David Stone, the religious leader of Fort Worth’s “messianic Jewish” Congregation Beth Yeshua. Neither development was viewed among Texas Jews as cause for joy.

DeLay “represents the core of the so-called Christian right,” said Texas State Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Jewish Democrat who represents a district in Houston.

“He’s a leader on those positions,” Hochberg said, adding that Texas Jews associate DeLay most immediately with federal power rather than with conservative developments in their state.

DeLay’s supporters counter criticisms of the congressman by stressing his support for Israel.

“No one has been a bigger supporter of Israel than Tom DeLay,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston venture capitalist and friend of President Bush. Zeidman, who is chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, said that he and Melvin Dow, former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee from the Houston area, were among the Texas Jewish activists who have raised thousands of dollars for DeLay’s defense. “I’ve rallied my friends to give him all my support,” Zeidman said.

That tension creates a balancing act among Jewish communal officials in the Lone Star State, who are treading gingerly as far as DeLay is concerned.

“We have appreciated the strong and continuing support of the American government for the State of Israel, and we appreciate the support of the U.S. Congress and Mr. DeLay’s leadership in that area,” the Southwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Martin Cominsky, wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “While Mr. DeLay holds strong Christian beliefs, the ADL believes that America is at its strongest when all of its diverse religions have the opportunity to thrive without governmental preference, interference or constraint.”

DeLay was indicted last week by a Texas grand jury that charged him with conspiracy for allegedly being part of a scheme to launder corporate contributions to Republican candidates in the 2002 Texas Statehouse elections. Corporate political contributions are illegal in the state if they are used for advocating the election or defeat of candidates, although such donations may be used to cover administrative expenses. The indictment alleges that DeLay and some associates sent the corporate money to the Republican National Committee, which then sent the same amount back to GOP candidates in Texas. DeLay denies the charge.

What is not at issue is that DeLay was seeking to engineer a Republican majority in the Texas legislature as part of a larger plan to increase the GOP majority in Congress. In 2003, after a GOP takeover, the Texas legislature redrew congressional district lines so as to imperil the seats of five incumbent Democratic Congress members. All five either retired or lost re-election in 2004, including Rep. Martin Frost, a Dallas-Fort Worth Democrat who was the second-longest-serving Jewish member of the House before being defeated.

This was not the first diminution of Jewish political power in Texas.

A redistricting prior to the statehouse elections of 2002 — the same election for which DeLay allegedly sought illegal corporate contributions — sought to cut short the careers of four incumbent Jewish Democratic lawmakers. The maneuver led Jewish communal groups to charge that Jews were being disenfranchised. The legislators — Hochberg, Rep. Debra Danburg of Houston, Rep. Elliott Naishtat of Austin and Rep. Steve Wolens of Dallas — either had their districts eliminated or were pitted against one another. Danburg and Wolens lost their seats.

Hochberg, a seven-term lawmaker, said that the redistricting prior to the 2002 elections spread the Jewish institutions of Houston over three or four districts, making it “very difficult for their voice to be heard.” The same process, he said, happened in Dallas. The gerrymander of the districts “totally disregarded the needs of the Jewish community,” Hochberg said.

“No Jew was supposed to get re-elected,” recalled former ambassador Arthur Schechter, a Houston attorney who is national chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. The 2002 election “created hatred and vitriol and paralyzed the will of our state government,” he said.

Schechter said that while he likes DeLay personally, he believes that the Republican deserves his troubles.

“If you live by the sword, then you die by the sword,” Schechter said. “What he engineered in Texas was probably illegal. It was cynical, and it divided districts in ways that made no sense whatsoever.”

Gerry Birnberg, a Jewish attorney in Houston who is the chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, said that local Jews are looking at DeLay’s troubles as Democrats, rather than through a more parochial lens.

Birnberg argued that while it is true that the voice of Houston Jewry “was diluted by the redistricting and the naked use of corporate money to influence the election,” there is much more at stake in DeLay’s indictment than any one community’s feelings about its loss of influence.

“Tom DeLay was indicted because the grand jury believes he committed a crime” — the alleged injection of corporate money into an election, Birnberg said. It is that alleged offense on which Houstonians are focusing, he said, because “if that’s what we are going to do, democracy is in jeopardy.”

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