HOUSTON // In the 1980s, Jim Mattox was the attorney general of Texas and one of the most powerful figures in the state, mentioned as a future governor and maybe more.
Today, because of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, Mattox is a real estate lawyer.
Now Earle is going after Tom DeLay, another powerful Texas politician who -- as Mattox did -- says the Austin prosecutor is out for political gain, not justice.
Earle is a Democrat, but so were 12 of the 15 politicians he has indicted over the years, including Mattox, who was acquitted of the bribery charges but whose political fortunes suffered.
Mattox said yesterday that Earle long has targeted people on both sides of the political aisle.
Fred Lewis, director of Campaigns for People, an Austin-based group that works to reduce the influence of money on government, called the politics-as-usual defense the "standard response" here to an Earle indictment.
"Every single person he has indicted, Democrat or Republican, has claimed politics. That's what people don't understand," he said. "I think Ronnie Earle has just done his job."
Earle has taken pains to project a squeaky-clean image, at one point accusing himself of a misdemeanor when he discovered that his campaign finance reports had been filed late. Still, he has not always remained above the political fray.
Earle said recently that being called partisan by DeLay was akin to "being called ugly by a frog." At a Democratic fundraiser in May, he called DeLay a "bully."
Raised on a ranch in Birdville, Texas -- which had a population of 107 when he was born and hasn't grown much since -- Earle was a lifeguard as a youth, participated in student government and was an Eagle Scout.
He was elected to the Texas House in 1972 and became the Travis County district attorney in 1977. Under Texas law, that office also controls the public integrity unit, which is responsible for prosecuting alleged misconduct by politicians, regardless of where they live in the state.
GOP activists have sought unsuccessfully to take that power away from Earle.
Within a year of taking office, Earle indicted former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Yarbrough on perjury charges. Yarbrough fled to Grenada and eventually served time in a state penitentiary.
Earle also won convictions against a state treasurer, a state House speaker and several Democratic legislators.
"Ronnie is a maverick," said Texas political operative George Shipley. "The argument that he is a hard-charging partisan with a hidden agenda is not supported by the facts."
In Earle's most famous flop, he brought Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, now a U.S. senator, to trial on ethics charges. He abruptly dropped the case at the last minute, and GOP activists have seized on that as proof that he was trying to humiliate Hutchison because of her party affiliation.
Scott Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.