WASHINGTON – Facing money laundering charges and a tough re-election in November, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay announced Tuesday he will not run for office again and not finish his current term.
The 11-term Texas Republican released a video news release to his constituents Tuesday in which he lists his accomplishments and then explains his decision to vacate his seat.
"After many weeks of personal prayerful thinking and analysis, I have come to the conclusion that it is time to close this public service chapter of my life. It’s time to begin opening new chapters and pursuing new opportunities to engage in the important cultural and political battles of our day from outside the arena of the U.S. House of Representatives," he says in the video.
"I refuse to allow liberal Democrats an opportunity to steal this seat with a negative, personal campaign," he adds.
In his first public interview after breaking the news, DeLay told FOX News Tuesday morning that the political campaign to oust him had turned "very nasty," adding, "every leftist organization in America is down here in Houston."
"I just realized that my constituents don't deserve this, they deserve a Republican. I think I could have won this seat but it would have been nasty, it would have cost a fortune to do it," he said. "The challenge has always been in the interest of the constituents' cause and the Republican majority. I'm more interested in growing the Republican majority than my own future."
DeLay won the Texas Republican primary election last month with more than 60 percent of the vote and was set to face Nick Lampson, a former Democratic representative who blamed the Texas redistricting plan orchestrated by DeLay for his defeat in 2004. In the primary, DeLay defeated three candidates in the GOP primary by at least a two-to-one margin, including lawyer Tom Campbell, who had ties to the first President Bush's administration, and won 30 percent of the vote.
In an interview Monday with The Galveston County Daily News in Texas, DeLay said his change of mind was based partly on a poll taken after the March Republican primary that showed him only narrowly ahead of Lampson. "Even though I thought I could win, it was a little too risky," the paper quoted him as saying.
In a separate interview with Time Magazine, DeLay said he plans to make his Virginia condominium his primary residence, a step that will disqualify him from the ballot in Texas and permit GOP officials there to field a replacement candidate.
Asked why he didn't resign before the primary, DeLay told FOX News he expected his travails with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle to have ended by now. Earle brought charges against DeLay in September. DeLay had some of them dismissed but other charges — relating to the movement of cash contributions to state legislative candidates — have yet to be adjudicated.
DeLay acknowledged that Earle may have won this battle, but "in the end, we're going to give him a pretty good Texas whopping."
The announcement comes just days after former DeLay deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy pleaded guilty to conspiracy and promised to cooperate with a federal investigation of bribery and lobbying fraud involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Rudy's plea agreement contains no allegations that DeLay did anything wrong. Abramoff is also cooperating in a federal probe, and was sentenced last week to five years and 10 months on separate charges relating to the fraudulent purchase of a Florida casino boat.
DeLay dismissed the idea that he would be implicated in the scandal that has included Abramoff, a person he once described as one of his closest friends.
"The Abramoff affair has nothing to do with me," DeLay said. "The Justice Department has told my lawyers I'm no the target of this investigation. What those men did has greatly disappointed me, but it has nothing to do with me."
Bush told reporters Tuesday morning that he spoke with DeLay on the way back from throwing the first pitch at Monday's Cincinnati Reds' home-opener.
"It had to have been a very difficult decision for someone who loved" representing his district, the president said of his fellow Texan. "I wished him all of the very best and I know he's looking forward to — he's looking to the future."
Bush added: "Our party will continue to succeed because we're the party of ideas."
While the legal challenges have only loosely materialized, DeLay's political career has been encroached by two separate criminal investigations, one that related to his redistricting efforts in Texas that helped net a Republican majority, and the second that is connected to Abramoff's influence-peddling efforts.
Earle said DeLay's political career won't affect Earle's pursuit of him.
"Tom DeLay's political status has nothing to do with the criminal charges against him. This changes nothing. His criminal cases will proceed just as they would for any other defendant. DeLay's ultimate fate will be decided by the public acting through a jury," Earle said in a statement.
The Texas indictment led to DeLay giving up his majority leader position under House rules in January, within days after lobbyist Abramoff entered into a plea bargain as part of a federal congressional corruption probe. As the case dragged out longer than he expected, he gave notice that he would permanently relinquish his claim to the seat, which Rep. John Boehner , R-Ohio, won in January.
Boehner called DeLay "one of the most effective and gifted leaders the Republican Party has ever known."
"The country owes Tom a great debt of gratitude for helping lead America in a new direction — a direction outlined in the Contract with America that saw balanced budgets, historic welfare reforms, lower taxes, regulatory relief and a renewed respect for the sanctity of life," Boehner said in a statement.
DeLay is expected to leave in the late spring, Republican officials say. On Tuesday, they continued to hail DeLay as someone who has served his party with honor.
Saying that DeLay's legacy as "one of the most effective Republican leaders in a generation is assured," Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the third-ranking Republican in the House, added that DeLay has "demonstrated courage, determination and effectiveness" and will "continue to show us all what we can accomplish with faith and commitment to opportunity for all Americans."
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said: "The essence of leadership is not just coming up with good ideas; it's making those good ideas happen. ... Conservative legislation from welfare reform and a balanced budget, to tax relief, education reform, and a ban on partial birth abortion, all bear the signature of Tom DeLay."
"I'm sorry to see him leave the House of Representatives," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan called DeLay "a good ally" on issues from the economy to the War on Terror.
Democrats, however, seized on the opportunity to hold up DeLay as an example of how they say the Republican Party is falling apart.
"Tom DeLay's decision to leave Congress is just the latest piece of evidence that the Republican Party is a party in disarray, a party out of ideas and out of energy," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., said it was appropriate for DeLay to resign but that "the serious nature of Mr. DeLay's ethical problems highlight the complete failure of the House Ethics Committee, and the need for members of Congress to hold themselves to the highest ethical standards."
Cardin, a former member of the House Ethics Committee and co-chair of the 1997 House Ethics Reform Task Force, noted that as state and federal prosecutors initiated investigations into DeLay and his former staff members, the House Ethics Committee "refused" to conduct its own investigation.
"I continue to urge the House to change its ethics rules to allow outside groups to file complaints against members of Congress," Cardin continued.
With the seat vacant and the filing deadline passed, the Executive Committee of the Republican Party of Texas will have to choose its preference for a candidate to take on Lampson. However, Republican Gov. Rick Perry will likely call a special election to fill the vacancy before the November vote, though it could remain empty until then.
DeLay's concern about the potential loss of a Houston-area seat long in Republican hands reflected a deeper worry among GOP strategists. After a dozen years in the majority, they face a strong challenge from Democrats this fall, at a time when Bush's public support is sagging and when the Abramoff scandal has helped send congressional approval ratings tumbling.
DeLay had held leadership posts since the Republicans won control of the House in a 1994 landslide. At first, he had to muscle his way to the table, defeating then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's handpicked candidate to become whip.
But DeLay quickly established himself as a forceful presence — earning a nickname as "The Hammer" — and he easily became majority leader when the spot opened up.
He supported tax cuts, limits on abortions, looser government regulation of business and other items on the conservative agenda, and he rarely backed down.
"I don't see myself as 'the Hammer,' that's a nickname given to me by The Washington Post. People that know me know that I am passionate about what I believe in, I'm passionate about the conservative movement in this country. I'm passionate about the Republican Party, and I'm very passionate about my constituents," he told FOX News.
DeLay wielded political power by generating millions of dollars in campaign cash for the Republican Party. He was the driving force behind President Clinton's impeachment in 1999, weeks after Republicans lost seats at the polls in a campaign in which they tried to make an issue of Clinton's personal behavior.
His trademark aggressiveness helped drive the 2002 Republican win of the state Legislature and led to its redrawing Texas' congressional district boundaries to increase the number of U.S. congressional seats in GOP hands.
The gambit succeeded, but DeLay was soon caught up in an investigation involving the use of corporate funds in the campaigns of legislators who had participated in the redistricting.
He attacked prosecutor Earle as an "unabashed partisan zealot," and said numerous times he hoped to clear himself of the charges quickly and renew his claim to the majority leader's office.
The trial has yet to begin, but DeLay said he hasn't given up the idea of turning the tables on Earle and filing a lawsuit claiming his civil rights had been violated.
"Unfortunately, it is hard to hold a rogue DA accountable," he told FOX News Talk's "The Tony Snow Show." "Only thing you can do is send a Texas Ranger after him."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.