Main Street Journal

The Politics of Locality


(The following is an excerpt from the May issue of the Main Street Journal, a Memphis newsmagazine, covering the 7th Congressional Republican Primary race between U.S. Congressman Marsha Blackburn and Shelby County Register Tom Leatherwood.)

The Politics of Locality: Could Shelby County pose a problem for Congressman Marsha Blackburn?

By: Jonathan Lindberg

On a Thursday morning in April, a group of reporters gathered together at Germantown City Hall to meet with U.S. Congressman Marsha Blackburn. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss an Anti-Earmark Pledge that Blackburn was signing.

The Earmark Pledge was being presented by a group called Freedom Works, a political action group from Washington chaired by Dick Armey, the former House Majority Leader. Armey arrived that morning wearing a full-sized cowboy hat and a suit. He looked every bit the former Texas Congressman, despite suburban surroundings.

“The earmark system in Washington is broken,” he said, showing little signs of a Texas accent. “Marsha Blackburn is willing to ask the big questions on the big issues, as well as anyone in Congress. She is one of the hero’s in Washington. I want to applaud her for taking the lead in the fight to reform the corrupt earmark system.”

It should come as little surprise that Blackburn, considered one of the staunchest conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, would attach her name to a pledge like this. What was surprising, or rather telling, was the fact that Blackburn had brought in a former Speaker of the House for an obvious campaign stop, and that her location of choice was not Nashville or its suburbs, but rather East Shelby County.

This is, however, election season, and Marsha has a race on her hands. For the first time since winning her seat six years ago in a hotly contested race which saw three Shelby County Republicans split the vote allowing Blackburn to carry the rest of the district, the Congressman (term preferred) is facing strong competition from Shelby County Register and former Republican State Senator Tom Leatherwood.

That any credible Republican would throw there hat into this ring comes as a surprise to many. The gerrymandered Seventh Congressional District has long been viewed as a district that belongs to the conservative incumbent for as long as they desire to keep it. But in a district that covers parts of two very distinct and differing metropolitan areas, Greater Memphis and Greater Nashville, location seems to matter just as much as political posturing. Leatherwood seems to understand the challenge. “I tell people, I am not running up against a brick wall. This isn’t a brick wall – this is the side of a mountain.”

The mountain Leatherwood is referring to are the dueling strengths of Marsha Blackburn – her incredible fundraising machine, which has collected nearly one-million dollars in campaign coffers over the past six years, and her seemingly sterling persona which has earned her the reputation as a “rising star”, “a congressional hero” and a leading “face of House Republicans” on the twenty-four hour cable news networks.

However, it is in these same perceived strengths that Leatherwood hopes to find victory. For when it comes to ethics and effectiveness, buzz words that resonate with voters on Election Day, Leatherwood feels he has found his opening.

On April 16, 2008 the Commercial Appeal ran a front page story explaining that the Blackburn campaign had underreported $286,000 in campaign expenditures, $102,044 in unreported contributions, and $52,024 in “routine”accounting errors. Of the unreported expenditures, $18,821 of those had gone to her own daughter, Mary Morgan Ketchel, who works as the Finance Director for the campaign. The CA was kind in its reporting, calling the oversight a glitch. But as one West Tennessee Republican official pointed out, “since when is a quarter of a million dollars a glitch?”

That glitch constituted one-third of the current holdings in the Blackburn campaign fund.

This was not the first time Blackburn had mismanaged campaign funds. In March 2006, the Blackburn campaign paid a $1,500 fine with the Federal Election Committee (FEC) after the FEC found that Blackburn had underreported $61,800 in campaign contributions.

The Blackburn team has worked hard to explain (read: spin) these oversights. Darcy Anderson, campaign spokeswoman, acknowledged that mistakes had been made at all levels, but reiterated that their team had stepped forward with this information in order to make things right.

However, as Anderson tells it, at the time when most of these mistakes were made, the Blackburn campaign staff was sparse to say the least, with one accountant who was part-time and was serving as a volunteer. The image presented was a campaign office that was understaffed and under prepared, where “everyone was answering the phone or everyone was sending out letters or everyone was pitching in to get done whatever needed to get done.”

With a war chest of hundreds of thousands of dollars, it would seem as if some of that money should have been spent on better accounting in the early years of the campaign.

During the last two or three years, the campaign has hired a professional accounting firm in hopes of rectifying these sort of problem and to help steer the campaign ship back on course.

Though other candidates have been toppled by similar issues of financial mismanagement, Blackburn still remains the overwhelming favorite to win the August primary. In a district dominated by conservative votes, Blackburn has remained true to her roots, casting consistent conservative votes on all-important issues like spending restraint, homeland security, immigration reform, budget reduction, limited government, and faith-based social issues. All of this simply