Beacon of the Right
Call it “The Light-Bulb Moment” — the point at which matters previously shrouded in mystery are illuminated in epiphany.
It is an early May morning in Washington, some four days after President Obama’s dramatic announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden, and Marsha Blackburn is standing in the rotunda of the Capitol, the interior pillars of the people’s temple looming up behind her as she faces a solitary TV cameraman. She is connected, via an earpiece, to the wide world beyond through the person of Stuart Varney, a Brit working the morning shift for Fox Business Network.
Those few of us who are standing nearby, hearing and watching just one end of the conversation, observe only the sporadic responses of this poised woman of blonded, loosely coiffed tresses. “Congressman,” she insists on being called, eschewing any gender-specific version of the title, though Blackburn, an elected representative of Tennessee’s Seventh District, which stretches in reptilian fashion (see page 105) from the suburbs of Memphis to those of western Nashville, still has the aura, even in her mid-fifties, of the Mississippi State coed she once was.
Back then, Blackburn was a member of Chi Omega, the same sorority that, not long before, had produced two consecutive Miss Americas at cross-state rival Ole Miss. “Of course!” she had answered, when asked if her chapter had been as good as that one. And, indeed, her personal credentials still seem very much in order. As recently as 2006, Blackburn had been voted “the hottest woman in U.S. politics” in an online poll conducted by politics.com.
Competition from the Sarah Palins and Michele Bachmans of the world notwithstanding, Congressman Blackburn may also be the most conservative woman in U.S. politics. According to National Journal’s 2009 Vote Ratings, she was ranked just behind a group of male congressmen who tied for the honor of most conservative. “For that reason,” commented the Journal, “it could be argued that Blackburn’s voting record is the second most conservative in the House of Representatives.”
Both her cosmetic and her ideological attributes are on call for this TV availability in the rotunda as she responds to something asked by the unseen Varney. “We are making progress now. I can tell you that!” she says perkily. She gives a bill number and cites the fact that it has 54 co-sponsors in the House and 28 in the Senate, and speaks optimistically of a hearing in June. And what is the subject at hand? “I can tell you, Stewart. This light-bulb ban sums up the Democrats’ energy policy.”
Light-bulb ban? Varney, it turns out, has asked her about an ominous prospect, the “Democratic shift to new bulbs.” It seems the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 has called for phasing in new efficiency standards for lighting products by 2014, a fact widely read as mandating a transition in home use from long-familiar incandescent light bulbs to the newer compact fluorescent lights (CFLS), those look-alikes with the internal mercury-based coils. These newfangled substitutes are “too expensive and they just don’t work,” says Blackburn, who once again flogs her bill, H.R. 91, the “Better Use of Light Bulbs Act,” which would repeal the new standards.
Blackburn rapidly segues to other subjects — proclaiming a need for new oil wells and condemning the Democrats’ proposed take-back of tax breaks for the oil industry. Those watching this segment at home see the avuncular Varney, on one side of the split screen, nodding and smiling encouragingly to the image of Blackburn on the other. “We’re willing to keep pushing, to get our incandescence back. Come on back and tell us how you’re doing it,” Varney concludes, bringing the segment to an end. “We want our incandescence back!” One tries to imagine it as a slogan or a soundbite.
With the death of Bin Laden, The Global War on Terror may have taken a definite turn for the better, but in the Fair and Balanced world of Fox News, the partisan wars go on. And these battles are fought on a daily basis by warriors like Marsha Blackburn, trench by trench, bite by bite, bulb by bulb.
“That’s no way democracy is supposed to work.”
Marsha Blackburn has been soldiering in the service of Republican conservatism since at least 1977, when, as a young suburban wife (she and husband Chuck Blackburn, a sales executive, would later have a son and a daughter), she became one of the founding members of the Williamson County Young Republicans. She would go on in the late ’80s and early ’90s to serve as chair of the Williamson County Republican Party, becoming a fountainhead of the GOP surge then developing in the burgeoning “doughnut” suburbs surrounding Democratic Nashville.
There was one striking difference between Blackburn and the growing host of fellow GOP enthusiasts in that booming sector of Middle Tennessee. Most of them were neophyte Republicans, upscale converts whose grandparents and, in many cases, parents had all been Democrats. Marsha Blackburn, née Wedgeworth, was a legacy Republican, whose roots were in Jones County (county seat: Laurel) in southeastern Mississippi.
“The Free State of Jones,” so-called because of its independent stance from the rest of Mississippi and alleged Unionist sympathies during the Civil War, was an outback “whose few residents,” according to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, “were notorious for their disdain for organized governmental authority.” The habit of voting Republican came naturally to Jones Countians, and it has persisted for a century and a half, even during the pre-Civil Rights era when most other Mississippians still professed allegiance to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the party of their fathers.
If Marsha Blackburn gives the appearance of being a true believer, it is because she is. Her Republicanism is unalloyed, seemingly without an ounce of calculation or opportunism. It is in that light that her abandonment of fealty to Governor Don Sundquist in the 1990s becomes understandable.
In 1994 Sundquist, the former Memphis congressman (from the very Seventh District that Blackburn would one day represent), had been elected governor as a traditional GOP conservative. During his first term, he became Blackburn’s patron, rescuing her from political limbo after a loss in her first congressional race and appointing her as chair of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment, and Music Commission — a post that gave her ample opportunity to expand her political contacts across a broader swath of Tennessee.
Faced with the state’s seemingly intractable financial problems as his second term began in 1998, Sundquist decided the time had come for a Tennessee income tax, and began to work across the legislative aisles on behalf of one. Blackburn, now a state senator, became his most outspoken critic. Worse, from the governor’s point of view, was an act of hers he regards as outright sabotage.
In the summer of 2001, Sundquist had painstakingly crafted a compromise version of his income-tax proposal — a “flat tax,” as he prefers to remember it. To pass it, he had lined up what he thought was a bare-bones coalition in both houses of the legislature.
For months that summer, the state Capitol had been surrounded by a cacophony of organized protesters, indignant at the idea of an income tax. In what we would now call prototypical Tea Party fashion, they organized rallies on the sidewalks and on the adjacent marble flats of War Memorial Plaza, along with all-day horn-honking by cars making circuits of the streets that ringed the Capitol grounds.
On a muggy July afternoon, word went around the Capitol that a Senate deal had been struck. Senator Blackburn was privy neither to the arrangement nor to the negotiations that had produced it. But she was observant. And, learning that afternoon that a vote on Sundquist’s tax proposal would indeed be taken in the Senate just after an evening dinner recess, she got busy on her state-furnished laptop. So while her colleagues were preoccupied with routine resolutions and roll calls, she was busy batting out one email summons after another to Nashville right-wing radio talk jocks Steve Gill and Phil Valentine, and to other opponents of the state income tax, alerting them, Paul Revere-style, that the moment of trial was at hand.
By the time the Senate reconvened that evening, the Capitol grounds were swarming with hundreds, maybe thousands of angry protesters, beating on the venerable building’s windows (and shattering at least one), making their way into the hallways, shouting slogans and pummeling the locked doors of the Senate even as the panicky legislators inside forsook their purpose and decided to adjourn without bringing the tax question to a vote. Call it “vox populi,” if you will, or call it mob rule. But whatever, the deal was scuttled, never to be revived.
Days later, a cowed legislature, unwilling to risk an encore performance by Senator Blackburn and her friends, attempted to resolve the state’s financial crisis by adding another penny to a sales tax that was already nearing 10 cents on the dollar. The legislation passed.
“It was right. We [just] didn’t have enough time to sell it,” a still embittered Sundquist recalled earlier this year of his failed flat-tax plan. “Marsha Blackburn led that effort and called the radio stations on it. That’s no way that democracy is supposed to work. They locked the doors of their mind!”
The affair had been “good for the right wing,” concedes the ex-governor, who would endure a long spell as a pariah in his own party. And had it cinched Marsha Blackburn’s future political career? “Absolutely. Absolutely.” A pause. “But it’ll catch up with her.”
“Don’t sell yourself short.”
Whatever or whoever intends to catch up with Marsha Blackburn will have to move fast. On a given day in Washington she bounds from place to place — forcing staffers and interlopers to struggle to stay close. She gets to every door first, heaving it open, no matter how heavy, devil take the hindmost.
On a particularly crowded morning, the Congressman has begun the day, in her role as an assistant Republican Whip, by taking part in a leadership press conference on budget negotiations, then proceeding to a hearing room to quiz a witness about the alleged excesses of Administration “czars,” casting a vote or two on the House floor, and hurrying back to the Cannon building for a drop-in by Fran Drescher, the erstwhile “Nanny” of TV fame, a cancer survivor there to promote her “Cancer Schmancer” initiative.
After Blackburn greets her visitor, who has a modest entourage, with a courtly hello, the beaming Drescher, whose strikingly nasal Queens patois was the cutting edge of her sitcom character, comments, in a bit of staged irony that is probably her standard meeting-starter, “Oh, you have such an interesting accent!”
Drescher will go on to outline her initiative, essentially a consciousness-raising program for women at risk, and the conversation goes well. Blackburn seems to enjoy the break from her daily routine of talking points and polemical scrapping. As Drescher and her group are taking their leave, the young PR man for Cancer Schmancer has an afterthought.
He reminds Blackburn of a pre-swearing-in gathering he happened to attend in 2003 at which the then newly elected Tennessee member of Congress had been coaxed into doing some stand-up comedy. “She stole the show,” the Drescher aide declares. Asked if there might be a recording of this unsuspected sidelight, Blackburn deadpans, “I hope not!” and draws another laugh.
Professions of modesty aside, Blackburn is a seasoned performer and spends a good deal of her time in front of cameras. On another day she is driven by a staffer to an off-Hill studio where she is asked to record a series of answers to questions posed by a stand-in for Dana Perino, the former Bush II press secretary, who now runs an organization called “Minute Mentoring,” which, by tapping resources like Blackburn, TV reporter Candy Crowley, and former member of Congress Susan Molinari, provides counseling to young upwardly mobile professional women in the D.C. area.
As she will later confess, Blackburn has inadvertently erased the email on her Blackberry meant to alert her in advance to the predetermined questions she should be responding to. She ends up winging it, offering sound practical advice which she will recap when, minutes later, she is asked to go next door to address a ballroom full of young women, all Minute Mentoring clients.
“Never underestimate what you have the ability to accomplish,” she tells the young women gathered there. “Don’t sell yourself short. Put yourself forward to take risk, responsibility. . . . Remember that, as you look to opportunities to take a leadership role, that leadership is a transferable commodity, and all through your life you are taking a role that helps you to build those leadership skills. So when you take that opportunity, to chair a committee, to lead a team, you realize that you don’t have to start from square one.”
After the Minute Mentoring meet-and-greet concludes, the famously open and accessible Perino reminisces to Blackburn and the other Tennesseans with her about the trepidations she had sufferered back in 2007, taking over from the ailing Tony Snow as spokesperson for “an unpopular president.” The root fact, as she saw it: “No woman ever thinks she’s good enough.”
These words are recalled to Blackburn later. What about herself? Surely she is above such self-doubt? “No,” Blackburn answers. “I’m like everybody else. You just have to work harder to earn the same amount of respect.”
“The sky’s the limit on what she may accomplish.”
Representative Fred Upton, a veteran Republican from Michigan, is Blackburn’s chairman on the House Energy Committee, where she serves as vice chair of two important subcommittees (Health and Communications, and Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade). Stories about Upton all stress his penchant for saying, “Call me Fred.” Sure enough, he begins our interview with those three words. Clearly, this is a man who likes to be liked.
His opinion of Marsha Blackburn, who also sits on his special Oversight Committee, is expressed in phrases of unalloyed admiration: “She’s a very active participant, really into everything that she touches . . . very engaged, very involved. There’s not a time when I’ve seen her sit on her hands and let an issue go by. . . . She’s got a lot of oars in the water and [is] pulling in the right direction.”
An unspoken subtext of the conversation is that Upton, as ranking Republican member of Energy, had been an original main sponsor of the very “Democratic shift to new bulbs” that Blackburn now ritually inveighs against. When the 2010 election results put the GOP in charge of House committees, the somewhat conservation-friendly Upton was challenged for the chairmanship by Rep. Joe Barton of Texas (the man who famously apologized to BP for what he called the Obama administration’s “shakedown” of the giant oil company for reparations after last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill). Upton prevailed, but not without an implicit pledge to rethink the light-bulb matter. It is no longer one of his priorities.
Happily for their relationship, Upton is as one with Blackburn on a determination to impose “free market” policies in place of “net neutrality,” the prevailing FCC doctrine that mandates unrestricted access to internet networks. Blackburn has come increasingly to the fore as a spokesperson for the proposed change.
Another Blackburn booster is Jeb Hensarling of Texas, a Republican who came into Congress with Blackburn after the 2002 elections. Hensarling, now chairman of the Republican Conference, the number-three position in the GOP House hierarchy, is even more enthusiastic about Blackburn’s future prospects. Echoing Upton, he sees Blackburn as “a workhorse.” Back when he was chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the Texas congressman appointed Blackburn as communications director of that influential group of core conservatives and basically created for her a continuing role as a spokesperson.
“Hers is a very compelling voice for the Heartland of America,” Hensarling says. “The sky’s the limit on what she may achieve in her own career. I think she could be president of the United States someday.”
“I just think they’re wrong.”
Some of her views might surprise those who regarded Blackburn as essentially a dogmatic controversialist during her days in the Tennessee state Senate. But even back then, she had something of a feel for parliamentary give-and-take. Memphis Democratic congressman Steve Cohen found her to be open-minded on the subject of a state lottery during their time together in the legislature, and Blackburn’s vote was an important one in authorizing the constitutional referendum that finally brought that 16-year dream of Cohen’s into reality. “I believe in the right of the people to make changes through referenda,” Blackburn says by way of explaining her departure from the ranks of fellow conservatives on the lottery issue.
Though she insists that she is a social conservative as well as a fiscal one, her emphasis is clearly on the latter, and there is just enough libertarianism in her makeup to permit occasional overlaps of convenience with ideological opponents. Upon learning last month, for example, that Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, an outspoken liberal, had become chairperson of the Democratic National Committee, Blackburn professed to be well pleased, on grounds of friendship. “Debbie is my worthy sparrring partner. That’s what we term each other.”
Despite her aggressive opposition to virtually every key Democratic position, Blackburn acknowledges the good faith and patriotism of Democrats, from President Obama on down. “They may be solid in their philosophy. I just think they’re wrong. But I have respect for them as individuals. A two-party system has served this nation well.”
“That’s his story.”
Blackburn’s future political prospects will undoubtedly require some degree of transcendence in relation to narrowly partisan positions. Her victory in the 2002 GOP congressional primary over three name Republicans from Shelby County — state Senator Mark Norris, then city councilman Brent Taylor, and lawyer David Kustoff, who ran George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign in Tennessee and was later a U.S. attorney — profited from her opponents’ splitting the Shelby vote, as well as from the fame (or notoriety) she had gained as an opponent of a state income tax. But she also proved herself the best pure campaigner in that race, winning a majority overall — a feat that doubtless required more than ideological purity.
The Seventh District, like the state, still has some semblance of an across-the-board political spectrum, though Republicans have unquestionably become the dominant force in Tennessee. Blackburn’s main political threat in recent years has come not from Democratic opponents — like woefully underfunded Austin Peay University academic Greg Rabidoux in 2010 — but from within GOP ranks. Kustoff deliberated long and hard about launching another primary race against Blackburn in 2004 before deciding against it, and fellow Republican Tom Leatherwood, her former state Senate colleague and the Shelby County Register, felt confident enough to take Blackburn on in 2008.
Pointing to some discrepancies in her financial disclosures (which Blackburn contended she had corrected after discovering them on her own) and citing the fact that several family members were on the congresswoman’s payroll, Leatherwood attempted to portray her as ethically challenged, and yoked her to yet another erstwhile House sponsor, former GOP majority leader Tom DeLay, who was forced to resign and later served a prison term for violating campaign finance laws.
Leatherwood’s candidacy — and his charges — did cost Blackburn some anxious moments. Veteran Memphis Republican John Ryder, a GOP national committeeman, commented at the time, “It doesn’t look good, and she doesn’t seem to have handled it well.” But Ryder added, “It’ll take a lot more than that for him [Leatherwood] to have a viable campaign.” In the end, Blackburn would prevail fairly handily — aided by name recognition, the power of incumbency, a 20-to-1 fund-raising advantage, and, as the brisk turnouts at her frequent “town hall meetings” in the district indicate, a loyal grass-roots following.
The Leatherwood challenge had been a scare, however, and having her integrity questioned seems to have caused a conscious distancing of Blackburn from those who dominated that previous era of Republican congressional supremacy, characterized by the likes of DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff and reeking of financial hanky-panky. Reminded this month that DeLay had been a contestant on the hit TV program Dancing With the Stars but had been forced to drop out because of a foot injury, Blackburn responded, coolly and without elaboration, “That’s his story.”
“An out-of-control bureaucracy”
Her apparent sense of alienation from her former Leader may also owe something to the high-pressure tactics DeLay used in getting Blackburn and others to line up behind a 2003 Prescription Drug Bill that opponents considered a boondoggle on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry.
“It was not my favorite,” Blackburn concedes today. “There were some things about that bill that I did not like and still don’t.” But, looking for a silver lining, she maintains that the bill was unique in enshrining “competition” in a government program, and she says “dynamic scoring” shows it to be working out as less costly so far than the $1 trillion opponents had predicted it to run during the program’s first ten years.
Though she disclaims any immediate ambitions to advance on the political ladder, Blackburn has been the subject of a fair amount of speculation concerning a prospective run for the U.S. Senate. Some observers had expected her to do a split-the-field variant on her 2002 congressional race by running for an open Senate seat in 2006 that was being contested on the Republican side by then congressman Van Hilleary, former congressman Ed Bryant, and eventual winner Bob Corker, who had most recently served as Chattanooga’s mayor and who would beat Democrat Harold Ford Jr. in the general election.
Corker’s Senate seat is up again in 2012, and, while the incumbent has won the respect of his peers on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts, at least one distrustful national Tea Party organization has put him on its hit list. That might give Blackburn ideas, but Corker’s strong suit at the moment, at least among conservatives, is his espousal of a bill to impose a mandatory congressional spending cap, something also advocated by Blackburn. Her other pathway is to continue as a power in the House, a voice for fiscal austerity and a would-be tamer of what she sees as an “out-of-control bureaucracy.”
“That’s what the president wants, but he’s not going to get it.”
Blackburn’s real stock-in-trade is the town meeting — a means of disseminating her views and hearing from like minds. She holds several each year in various parts of her district. In 2009 and 2010, they were largely devoted to opposing President Obama’s ultimately successful, at least legislatively, healthcare initiative. There’s no question where she stands on “Obamacare,” as she and other Republicans scornfully dubbed it. In 2011, her meetings have focused on the issue of federal spending, and she has among other things, joined Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, the conservatives’ man-of-the-hour, in calling for the abandonment of Medicare in favor of a voucher system for the elderly in need of health insurance.
First and foremost, Marsha Blackburn speaks to and for that breed of populist conservative for whom “compromise” is a dirty word. Last April, as a stalemate over economic policy continued in Washington and panic grew, Blackburn addressed a crowd of true believers from the stage of the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center. This was only days after a patchwork budget agreement between congressional Democrats and Republicans — a continuing resolution, technically — had averted a government shutdown like the one that had happened on President Bill Clinton’s watch in late 1995.
The dominant mood among the folks at this town meeting — Tea Partiers, in the new political vernacular — was pure Red-state rage, not just at the Administration of Barack Obama but at Republicans like GOP House Speaker John Boehner of Indiana, Blackburn’s titular leader, who had agreed to the budget deal.
A woman rose at one point to declaim: “I will sit it [the next election] out if you don’t do what we sent you there to do. Stop molly-coddling these liberals, these Democrats. Stand up!” Another declared: “I want to know why I shouldn’t consider this agreement a total failure. I was hoping and praying for a government shutdown. If I saw Boehner, I would be hard-pressed not to stomp his toes!”
So agitated was the crowd that Blackburn herself seemed taken aback. She mused out loud from the podium: “In Washington, when you talk about cutting spending, you can get beat up on. When you come home, people tell you, ‘Let’s cut some more.’”
She turned to the ongoing federal debt crisis. As Administration spokespersons, a wide range of economists, and even on occasion Boehner and other leading Republicans had talked about the need for raising the federal debt ceiling to avoid economic doomsday, and even as the clock ticked ever closer to that late summer point that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warned could be a point of no return, Blackburn was one Republican who had remained defiant.
The Congressman now assured her audience, her voice rising as she warmed to her point: “If there is any reason that we have to do some kind of short-term easing . . . they have got to put some spending caps in place. States do it. It’s high time that the federal government does it, too. . . . The days are over that you’re going to be able to print money. . . . A lot of us oppose having a straight debt-limit vote. That’s what the president wants, but I can tell you this: He’s not going to get it!”
And the crowd roared its approval.
It remains to be seen how long such applause will hold and how well such themes will play in next year’s elections. Just as it remains an open question as to whether or not Marsha Blackburn can maintain her current level of incandescence or, like many a politician before her, begins to see an untimely burn-out, an unexpected dimming of the light. Circumstances themselves will likely decide.