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...

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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, he is a real-estate lawyer.

A turning point came in 1983, when the district attorney in Austin, Ronnie Earle, indicted Mattox on bribery charges. He was acquitted, but the damage was done. Mattox had spent $300,000 on attorneys. His political career began to peter out.

“Ronnie Earle had visions of grandeur,” said Mattox, now 62. “He was using it as a steppingstone.”

In 1994, Earle also brought now-U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, to trial on ethics charges but dropped the case at the last minute — something GOP activists seized upon as proof that he was trying to humiliate Hutchison because of her party affiliation.

Now, Earle is going after another powerful Texas politician, and the defense is no different. When he indicted U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay yesterday, the Texas Republican lashed out at Earle, calling him an “unabashed partisan zealot.”

Just one hitch: While Earle is a Democrat, so were 12 of the 15 politicians he has indicted over the years, including Mattox. Even Mattox said yesterday that Earle long has targeted people from both parties, roiling the halls of power in Austin — and now Washington — at every turn.

Earle has taken pains to project a squeaky-clean image, at one point even accusing himself of a misdemeanor when he discovered that his campaign-finance reports had been filed late.

With all statewide offices and both houses of the Legislature firmly in the hands of Republicans, Earle is widely regarded as the only Democrat left in Texas with broad power and the ability to make life difficult for the GOP. But he insists he is only doing his job.

Still, he has not always remained above the political fray.

Earle recently said that being called partisan by DeLay was akin to “being called ugly by a frog.” At a Democratic fund raiser in May, he called DeLay a “bully.” And he has said that ambition and outrage over what he sees as an illegal fund-raising scheme devised by DeLay and his associates prompted him to postpone his retirement in order to prosecute the case.

Earle 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 responsible for prosecuting alleged misconduct by politicians, regardless of where they live in the state.

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, state House speaker and several Democratic legislators.

George Shipley — a political operative who worked for the late Bob Bullock, a Democrat and one of the most powerful figures in modern Texas politics — said yesterday that Earle over the years had taken plenty of heat from Democrats in Austin.

Earle went after Bullock — who was last elected as George W. Bush’s lieutenant governor — on several occasions, although he never brought an indictment. Bullock routinely described Earle in terms that are “not printable in a family newspaper,” Shipley said.

Shipley described Earle as a “maverick” who has sent GOP legislators letters reminding them it’s poor form to step off state-owned planes wearing golf cleats and carrying their clubs.