The Rise and Fall of Scott Armey

Dick’s son was supposed to be a Congressional shoo-in. Instead voters gave him the boot. He’s still trying to figure out why.

TAKING
OVER THE WORLD ISN’T ALWAYS easy. When Scott Armey was the King of
England, he cut a deal with the Iroquois to supply skilled labor for
building roads. These would provide an ongoing stream of resources from
the mountains—iron, timber, and coal—and would allow him to mobilize
troops if the opportunistic Dutch moved in on his furriers. But he had
to be careful, lest the French team up with the Swedes to attack his
neglected European homeland.

“If you start slipping behind, your
weaknesses begin showing, and that’s when you find yourself being
attacked,” explains Armey, who sits at his computer playing his
favorite game, Imperialism II. It’s the dawn of the 16th century, and
he is one of six European powers in a race to grow his population,
build infrastructure, and generally exploit the New World with care.
Say what you will about the influence of video games on America’s
youth, but it seems a fitting hobby for the son of one of the most
powerful men in Washington, D.C.

His father, of course, is
Dick Armey, who’s retiring after nine terms in the U.S. House of
Representatives, where his firebrand conservatism carried him from
political outsider in the ’80s to House majority leader. Washington
insiders pegged Scott to take the seat, keeping the Armey bellows in
Congress for the next 20, perhaps 40 years.

By most accounts,
Scott, 33, was the perfect young candidate. Ideologically he preached
the same pro-life, pro-gun, pro-growth, flatter-tax agenda that made
his dad so popular in District 26, which now runs about 70 percent
Republican. He came with built-in name recognition and had already won
three elections on his own to Denton County posts with many of the same
constituents. He had access to big-time Republican officials, whose
handshakes helped stuff his war chest with triple the funds of his
nearest opponent. President Bush calls him Scotty.

But a tiny
corps of Republican voters in Denton County wasn’t convinced Armey the
Younger was ready for the national stage. In a heated, contentious
primary runoff in April, the well-groomed son of a retiring GOP icon
got clipped by a political rookie—Dr. Michael Burgess, an obscure
gynecologist who voted Democratic during the Clinton years.

With
the Armey name erased from election-day ballots, Scott says he’ll be
spending this November 5 at home, in his living room, probably in front
of the TV. It will be the first November in nearly two decades that he
won’t be attending a victory party—either his father’s or his own. “It
will be refreshing,” he says, “just to be able to watch, no pressure,
no nail-biting.”

Perhaps. But can a man who’s spent his entire
adult life trying to master the game of American politics really be
satisfied on the sidelines, especially since he still believes he
should be the one going to Congress?

SCOTT ARMEY LOOKS LIKE A YOUNGER, darker-haired,
pudgier Dick Armey. Comfortable in pinstripes and lace-up shoes, he
looks like the kind of guy you might find drinking beer in a sports
bar, except he doesn’t drink. An avowed teetotaler, he says he spends
his weekends mostly at home, where a newfound pastime includes watching
cartoons with his stepson (his favorite: SpongeBob SquarePants).
His only vice? Armey points to a cereal-sized box of Cheez-Its next to
his computer keyboard. “It probably shows,” he says with a
self-effacing laugh. Even his harshest critics say he is “a really nice
guy.”

Armey got his first taste of American politicking in
1984, when his father ran for Congress. Dick was a supply-side
economist from the University of North Texas (then North Texas State)
with a C-SPAN addiction and the support of radio personality and Rush
Limbaugh precursor Eddie Chiles. As Dick Armey spent his summer
vacation knocking on some 10,000 doors, Scott, age 15 at the time,
drove the car.

In 1986, he was managing his father’s appointments,
and by 1988 he was a familiar face at Republican Party events. That
fall he began college as a business administration major at UNT. He
didn’t quite fit in with the beer-guzzling frat boys and longhaired
music majors who populate the campus. But he quickly found his social
niche with the College Republicans. His father has often said,
“Politics isn’t about the friends you have; it’s about the friends you
make.” And, indeed, friendships that would transform Denton County were
taking shape.

Armey met Kirk Wilson in bowling class (yes, a class
in bowling). Wilson was an aspiring politico with a staunchly
conservative bent, and he was also a volunteer for Dick Armey’s ’84
campaign—working phones, hammering signs, and doing other grunt work.
The two would eventually become roommates, and by their third year they
were running UNT Victory ’90—the collegiate arm of Denton’s Republican
party. Wilson was an extrovert with a well-practiced handshake and
smile; Armey was an introvert with great connections.

Though Armey did serve a semester as an at-large
representative to the Student Association, the small-potatoes student
government (controlled by liberals, no less) hardly interested this
eager political duo. Instead they worked on real campaigns: Kay Bailey
Hutchison for U.S. Senate, Rick Perry for agriculture commissioner,
George Bush for president, and, of course, Dick Armey for Congress. By
1990 they were serving as delegates at precinct, local, and state
conventions. Their work on Clayton Williams’ gubernatorial bid,
however, is what really caught the attention of GOP political brokers.
While Wilson organized a campus rally, Armey effectively lobbied school
administrators to turn a Williams visit into a university-sponsored
event. That drew media attention, and after the candidate’s
whistle-stop in Denton was over, Armey had helped raise $25,000 in
campaign contributions.

In March of the following year, a 21-year-old Armey
met his father at El Chico (his regular first stop upon returning home
from Washington) and told him he was ready to run. It was in that first
bid for a seat on the Denton County Commissioners Court, as Dick Armey
tells it, that his son showed his emerging political savvy. “He had
found himself a good race in a good district. He pulled out his
campaign plan and looked good to go,” his father recalls. The office he
chose, District 3, belonged to Republican Lee Walker, a 12-year
incumbent who had cancer and was talking about retirement. “Just
campaign on who you are. Be yourself—get that message across,” the
elder Armey told his son. “The only advice I gave him he had the good
sense to ignore. I said, ’Don’t bother with all that redistricting
nonsense.’”

Perhaps in a display of youthful rebellion, Armey
got involved with as much redistricting as possible. Walker decided to
run after all and appointed Armey, who by this point had been elected
as a Republican precinct chair, to advise a citizen’s committee on
redrawing the county’s electoral lines. When Walker made some
disparaging comments to residents in Trophy Club (saying she didn’t
care what they thought of her because they would no longer be part of
her constituency), “Scott made sure he kept those voters in her
precinct,” says his father. “He is smarter about politics than I am.”

Kirk Wilson was also running for a seat—District 1.
The two bowling buddies won. They were both 23 years old when sworn in.
Wilson ran a quadrant of still rather rural northern Denton County,
while Armey took the bottom slice of pie—a prime wedge of land between
I-35 E and W, encompassing the soon-to-be-boomtown suburbs of
Lewisville, The Colony, and Carrollton.

Both Armey and Wilson would get reelected through
the ’90s, with Wilson winning the county judge’s gavel in 1996. During
their tenure, Denton added $15 billion to its tax base and saw its
population nearly double to almost 500,000. Rural roads gave way to
superhighways with shopping malls sprouting up alongside them. Farms
became fertile ground for suburban sprawl, and one group of developers
even tried to convince the Maharishi World Development Fund, set up by
the former Beatles guru, to build the world’s tallest skyscraper—a
quarter-mile high—in a pasture in The Colony. In the end, that deal
would fall through (and is currently mired in legal disputes), but so
many others wouldn’t.

“We were very aggressive because we had to fight for
the available dollars,” Armey says. “Otherwise we were going to be
ignored.”

RAY ROBERTS, A SEMI-RETIRED RANCHER and aviation
consultant from the north Denton town of Sanger, walks through his
prized possession, a 737 parked at Addison Airport that was once the
private transport of a Saudi Arabian prince. He, like many other Denton
Republicans, is still unhappy with what Armey and his gang of
development-focused conservatives on the commissioners court did to his
county. Unlike those other Republicans, though, Roberts has specific
and perhaps personal gripes. Two years ago, Roberts challenged Armey in
the primary for county judge, losing 53 to 47 percent, on the premise
that Dick’s son was not a faithful public servant but rather an
aspiring fat-cat crony capitalist. Roberts still believes Armey
manipulated the system to champion gung-ho development along a trail of
shady land deals that was putting Denton County tens of millions of
dollars in debt. “We understand good-old-boy politics in Denton
County,” he says in his thick Texas accent. “But what Scooter and his
friends were doing was getting out of hand.”

He points to a long list of money pits, including
the new county jail that was completed in February but currently sits
empty because the county can’t afford to operate it. Taxpayers cough up
$200,000 a year for routine maintenance and another $1.5 million in
interest on the $19 million in bonds floated to build it. That money
was approved not by voters, but by the court, with Armey and Wilson
providing two of the three votes necessary for it to pass 3-2. “The
voters approved $9 million in bond money to expand the old jail back in
’92, but not this,” Roberts says. “Hundreds of us went to the
courthouse and screamed and screamed to put it to a vote. But they said
they didn’t have to, and they didn’t. That’s taxation without
representation!”

This was in 1999, about the same time that the
Dallas-based media giant, Belo Corp., was also taking note of Denton’s
hyper growth. Buying the Denton Record-Chronicle and restocking the Dallas Morning News
Denton bureau, Belo gave the region a new level of attention. In a
series that ran in both papers called “Government by Developer,”
investigative reporter Brooks Egerton teamed up with Denton bureau
chief Reese Dunklin for some 30 articles over 18 months to examine the
record of how Denton got to where it was.

The stories highlighted the commissioners court’s
fondness for using special taxing districts that the court would set up
at a developer’s behest to approve bond money, payable by future
residents and tenants as per the small print in contracts. The Morning News
found some developers were moving squatters into these districts,
sometimes offering rent-free trailers, to have enough voters to approve
the taxing authority—essentially passing all financial risk of a
development to Denton taxpayers.

In one such development, Castle Hills in Carrollton,
many of the still unsold $400,000 homes have developed foundation
problems and begun sinking, rendering them relatively worthless. The
way Roberts and other Armey critics saw it, the commissioners court was
turning into a clearinghouse for get-rich-quick schemes, directed to
friends and political supporters.

By March 2001, articles in the News asserted
more direct insinuations of corrupt cronyism, reporting on an FBI
investigation of consultants who were paid by the county and employed
by developers with tax-district issues before the commissioners court.
Public records revealed one consultant with a potential conflict of
interest was Jeff Carey, an old chum of Armey and Wilson’s from the UNT
College Republicans, who had resigned as Denton County’s economic
development director in 1996 after repeated accusations of fiscal
malfeasance. Meanwhile, he was Denton County’s top Republican political
contributor in the 2000 primary season, giving $2,000 to Armey’s
campaign.

The articles sparked the ire of State Senator Jane
Nelson (R-Flower Mound), who complained to Attorney General John Cornyn
in a June 2001 letter: “The legislature never intended for county
development districts, fresh water supply districts, and other utility
districts to be used as a mechanism for subdivision developers to
create their own governing boards with access to millions upon millions
of public tax dollars but no accountability to taxpayers. At the very
least, these practices constitute gross manipulations of law.”

Armey’s response today is the same as it was
then—that the county had nothing to do with these districts, they
merely followed the law as it was written. “Anybody who’s got a
complaint about [special taxing] districts needs to talk to their state
reps and legislators,” he says. “They are the people who created the
laws and enacted them. We talked until we were blue in the face to get
them to tighten up those laws [and] close the loopholes, and they
wouldn’t act.”

With that said, the developers kept coming, and the court kept approving.

Ultimately the FBI found nothing illegal, even after
discovering a letter from Carey to a developer seeking approval of a
special taxing district. “I need to have a $10,000 retainer check by
the end of the day,” he wrote. “If I am not under contract, this deal
will fail with a 5-0 vote on CDD #9.” Under the law, third-party
correspondence is not a clear indication of quid pro quo favors.

“County politics has always been sort of an arena of
cronyism,” says Dr. John Todd, a political science professor at UNT who
taught both Wilson and Carey. Todd knew Armey well, too—not just as a
politically active student, but also as a small boy who lived down the
street from him and whose father was a fellow professor upstairs. “To
some extent Scott and his buddies got a little carried away with their
new sense of power.”

DICK ARMEY SURPRISED THE POLITICAL world when he
announced his retirement in December of last year—barely three weeks
before the filing deadline for candidates interested in taking his
seat. As Scott contemplated his next move, he met with State Senator
Nelson, a longtime Dick Armey backer whose name, along with Scott’s,
had been tossed around as a potential successor. Nelson decided to run
for reelection in the state Senate instead and would not be one of the
five opponents trying to knock off the Scott Armey campaign superpower.

But her obstetrician, Dr. Michael Burgess, would.
Nelson endorsed and encouraged the man who had delivered her three
children and even supplied him with a campaign manager from her staff.
Though he had some specific beefs with HMOs, the primary plank of his
platform was “Instead of Scott Armey.” He also ran on his “maturity,”
sending out mailers that stressed, “Congress is NOT an inherited
position” and featured Burgess’ 79-year-old father with the line, “My
dad is NOT Dick Armey.”

In the March primary, Burgess snuck into a runoff,
beating the third-place contender by 91 votes. Still, he was a distant
second in this six-horse race, taking 22 percent of all ballots cast,
compared to Armey’s 45 percent.

That’s when, according to Armey, “The Dallas Morning News
really decided to take a proactive role trying to determine the outcome
of the election.” Over the next three weeks, not only did that paper
and its sister publication, the Denton Record-Chronicle,
endorse Burgess, but they also ran more stories about Armey’s past that
would have Washington power brokers shouting ambush. “It’s not a whole
Belo conspiracy or anything like that—just two writers and an editor,”
he explains. “[They] were printing things I never said, and things
others never said. It was absurd.”

According to one of those writers, Brooks Egerton,
there was no concerted effort to bury Scott Armey. “We didn’t even
really have to do that much digging,” he says. “It was all pretty much
right there in the public record. A lot of it just hadn’t been looked
at for a while. There was nothing inaccurate about what we wrote, there
were no corrections sought. … It was pretty much just straightforward
reporting.”

In a three-article series that ran on April 1, the Morning News
targeted Armey’s role in legalizing alcohol sales in and around the
Texas Motor Speedway by setting up a new justice-of-the-peace precinct
that the city of Northlake, in a lawsuit against Denton, called “a sham
district.” (The county settled by surrendering land to Northlake.) The
paper also questioned $1.3 million in county funds steered to a charity
whose chief fundraiser was Jeff Carey’s mother.

Then, a few days later, both the Morning News and the Chronicle
ran stories about a 10-year-old traffic accident that Armey had caused.
Armey, who had been driving without insurance, said he admitted fault
and paid more than $20,000 in damages and hospital bills. But the
Burgess camp had circulated a letter written by Elisabeth McKinley, the
victim in that 1992 crash. She accused him of trying to “walk away with
no responsibility.” And, she said, “He never once called to inquire
about my well-being.”

Heading into the April runoff, the split was rather
clear: D.C. politicos (including House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House
Majority Whip Tom DeLay) were behind Armey, while state and local
elected officials were for “Instead of Armey.” An old-fashioned mud
fight ensued.

The Armey counterattack boasted about his cutting
taxes by 23 percent, making Denton’s the lowest in Texas’ 15 largest
counties. They also labeled Burgess a “liberal Democrat”—he did vote in
Democratic primaries in 1990, ’92, and ’94—and “pro choice” because one
of his donors supported government spending on abortions. (Burgess
wrote his hospital’s policy prohibiting abortions.) Armey even accused
Burgess of cronyism, of all things, pointing out that the state
legislators endorsing the doctor were clients of a consultant to
Burgess and the Texas Medical Association.

In the last days of the race, Washington bigwigs
threw a final wad of cash at the effort, hoping to push Armey over the
elusive 50 percent barrier. Potential voters heard a barrage of radio
endorsements from retiring Senator Phil Gramm and read full-page
newspaper ads taken out by Dick Armey, encouraging his constituents to
vote for his son.

“That idea kind of backfired,” says Todd, “because
it didn’t really help the cause of convincing voters that this wasn’t
just Daddy entitling this public position to his son.” Indeed, almost
every vote that went to another candidate in the primary went to
Burgess in the runoff. Armey again took 45 percent of the vote, enough
to lose by 10 points.

On election night, the Burgess camp assembled at the
Southern Kitchen restaurant in Denton; Armey forces met at the
Doubletree Hotel in Highland Village. Burgess was shocked to the point
of near-incoherence in post-victory TV interviews. Just three months
earlier, pre-primary polls showed Armey enjoying a 53 to 3 percent lead
over Burgess. But as the numbers came in around 9:30 p.m.—just in time
for the 10 p.m. news cameras—the results became clear: Armey was out;
the doctor was in.

THE CONSERVATIVE MAGAZINE NATIONAL Review
pointed to Armey’s defeat as an example of how dangerously powerful a
single media outlet, say Belo, can be in the wake of campaign finance
reform, “using its megaphone to editorialize and smear candidates.”
Dick Armey saw it as an example of “rumor mongering … the most
vicious collection of cheap shots … such balderdash! … a smear
campaign unlike any I’ve ever seen in politics … a vendetta against
Dick Armey by the Dallas Morning News.”

Are they unfairly blaming the messenger, or was the
messenger being unfair? Is it possible that Scott Armey simply refuses
to accept the blame for practicing politics-as-usual in a district that
first elected Dick Armey because he wasn’t a typical politician? Scott
Armey is a numbers guy, so he knows how the numbers broke down: in the
runoff, he won about 60-40 in Tarrant and Collin counties, while losing
60-40 in Denton. The Morning News and Belo have deep
penetration in all three counties, of course, so if the paper were the
tipping factor, wouldn’t the results be less clearly skewed?

“They probably kept me from reaching 70 percent in Collin and Tarrant,” Armey says.

Another factor working against him: low voter
turnout. This primary drew only 7 percent of the registered voters to
the polls, 3 percent in the runoff. “That’s practically the margin of
error,” he says. And when turnout is that abysmal, “That’s the haters
coming out.

“There are absolutely zero excuses not to vote,” he
adds. “If you’re not going to vote, that all falls on you. It was in
your hands. And you are responsible for that.”

A FEW WEEKS AFTER THE RUNOFF, Armey went to www.whitehouse.gov,
looking for a new job. He submitted his résumé online, and shortly
thereafter flew to Washington for an interview. Armey was celebrating
his 33rd birthday on May 23 (he had a SpongeBob SquarePants
cake) when he got a call from Stephen Perry, director of the General
Services Administration. He was offered a position as regional director
of the GSA—located in Fort Worth and paying $125,000 a year—overseeing
1,400 employees and a $500 million budget. He resigned his post as
county judge and accepted his role in the Bush
administration—administering the buying of supplies and services for
the federal government in five states, everything from paper clips and
rubber bands to construction contracts. He’s been entrusted with far
more public money and far less oversight than he experienced on the
county commissioners court.

As Scott sees it, this is a better job than
Congress, because it allows him to spend more time with his new family.
The Armey philosophy is still alive in the federal government, he says,
and he thinks he ended up with a better ability to serve the public by
losing to Burgess.

“Part of my role in GSA is to help the president
implement his management agenda, small steps toward his goal toward
changing government, making it more responsive, more responsible, more
efficient,” he says. “What I have the opportunity to do now is to help
put into reality the president’s goals.”

“It’s not a major policy job,” explains UNT’s Todd.
“It was an appointment job and is open for patronage—often given to
someone who has party support. … I think it’s a way for him to get
more experience. It’s a place to park him until another elective
opportunity arises.”

Until then, Armey may still be in government, but he
is out of politics. Likewise for his old roommate Kirk Wilson, who lost
his primary for a state Senate seat. Wilson, who Dr. Todd says was the
most focused on climbing the elective ladder as a college student, says
he is out for good, operating now as a business consultant with a new
family to take care of. “I think I needed to get my priorities
straight,” he says.

But Wilson doubts his buddy will be able to stay out
of the politics game for long. “Scott has a real commitment to public
service that I think is in his blood,” he says.

Armey says he’s not sure what his future holds.
“I’ve thrown my support behind Dr. Burgess,” he says. “But you’re
getting someone who has set himself apart from the philosophies of
Scott Armey and Dick Armey.”

Of course, that may be exactly the point that voters—even those who didn’t show up on election day—were trying to get across.

Reporter Dan Michalski is a regular contributor to D Magazine. He is getting political experience of his own by running for U.S. Congress this year in District 5—as a Libertarian.

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