Congressman Marsha Blackburn, the Republican U.S. House member from Brentwood, has had a remarkably successful career in a relatively short amount of time. Now, a number of GOP operatives speaking on condition of anonymity are telling NashvillePost.com that the tactics that she and her staff employ are wearing thin.
When longshot Republican primary opponent Tom Leatherwood, the current Shelby County Register of Deeds and – like Blackburn – a former State Senator, announced last month that he will challenge Blackburn in the primary he also levied a litany of charges against his rival.
Leatherwood said his former colleague was "part of the problem" in Washington and threw everything but the kitchen sink at her. His charges ranged from supporting ear-marks for pork barrel spending to turning in a bag of ashes when asked by her then-boss, Gov. Don Sundquist, to justify expenses for a trip to Los Angeles with itemized receipts.
At the time, Blackburn was serving as Sundquist's Film and Music Commission director. NashvillePost.com sources have since confirmed that the receipts incident did occur.
The response from the Blackburn camp at the time of Leatherwood's launch was muted. Campaign manager Steve Allbrooks said, "This is all old news. She has been a high-profile, staunch conservative and she is going to be attacked for it. She has been involved in the Republican Party and the conservative cause for over 30 years. She's used to being attacked."
It now seems that Blackburn needs to be prepared for more attacks.
This week, the Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote that Blackburn "acknowledged failing to report more than a quarter-million dollars in campaign expenditures over the past six years while at the same time failing to report $102,044 in contributions."
Blackburn said that her daughter, who is paid by the the campaign had discovered the "discrepancy." The reports say there were unreported contributions of $102,044 – mostly from her hotly contested 2002 campaign – and unreported expenditures of $286,278 as well as "routine accounting errors" of $52,024. More than $20,000 of those unreported expenditures were made to family members.
While on the surface, this campaign finance restatement will be difficult for Blackburn to brush away should she decide to run for governor in 2010, there is even more trouble brewing.
Over the course of the past few weeks, NashvillePost.com has reached out to GOP political operatives, contributors and elected officials to gauge the reaction to the charges initially made by Leatherwood. Those we spoke with said that they would talk only on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
What we found was significant frustration with the "threats and pettiness" Blackburn and her team have used to climb the political mountain. Reached for comment on this story, Blackburn's congressional communications director, Claude Chafin, stated, "On the Hill, this office has a reputation for graciousness. Marsha meets with all Tennesseans, regardless of what district they live in. Her district is the largest geographically and one of the largest population wise, giving her the most diverse seat in the state. She is a results-oriented legislator, the first one in in the morning and the last one out at night. When she is not in the office, she is on the floor pushing the message, or going through constituent e-mails. She works incredibly hard. She is deeply bothered that some people think she or her staff would be bullying, but she knows opportunities to get things done for Tennessee are finite, and sometimes you have to move fast."
However, a number of sources said that they have been directly threatened by Blackburn's campaign team or supporters. They said most often it was a "good cop/bad cop" scenario involving both Blackburn and her chief of staff Steve Brophy.
Typically, the sources say, that Blackburn would call and ask for support and have a relatively pleasant conversation with her target. That call, however, would be shortly followed up with a call from Brophy, a former West Point cadet, saying that if the source didn't support Blackburn, he would personally "end your career."
Those threats have done Blackburn's reputation plenty of damage, sources say. Those alienated by the strong-arm tactics and comments – even when they've been made with jocular bravado – say they expect Leatherwood to be the financial beneficiary. One major political activist who donates and works with both Democrats and Republicans as a lobbyist and a fund-raiser said that anyone who has had to deal with what is called the "Brophy treatment" would be anxious to write Leatherwood a check.
In the words of one, Leatherwood could make hay among the "'A-list' of influential Tennessee lawyers, lobbyists and business people, the very folks who now have to decide whether to write one check or two in this race."
So far, however, the checks have not been rolling in. Leatherwood has yet to break the $50,000 mark in fund-raising and is still seen as a long shot. When asked about the lack of support Leatherwood seems to be getting, the dominant response was hope that he would catch enough fire to dash the gubernatorial hopes Blackburn is well known to harbor.
NashvillePost.com sources were asked if they thought the recent speculation that former Sen. Bill Frist would run for governor in 2010 would dissuade the Blackburn team, and the response was unusually candid. Three separate sources stated that they were either told by Brophy or other Blackburn staffers that "Frist is damaged goods. He was a horrible Republican Majority Leader and Tennessee won't support him anymore." They went on to add that the Blackburn backers hoped he would run so "Marsha could beat him in a primary."
One Blackburn staffer said, "I am surprised to hear that take. Steve Brophy used to work for Bill Frist and I have only heard him speak of the senator in the most glowing terms."
While all of this points to the team surrounding Blackburn, some of the most serious issues people have is with the representative herself.
First, and as is well known, Blackburn employs family members to keep her books and do "consulting" work that is "reimbursed." For that, family members – including her daughter, Mary Morgan, son-in-law, son and husband – have been paid in excess of $150,000 over the course of six years. Most of that money went to her daughter and son-in-laws firm, and, according to Blackburn staff, just a few hundred dollars in reimbursements have been paid to her son and husband. While legal, the practice is becoming of increasing concern to Republicans we spoke with.
Asked about this, Chafin said "Mary Morgan is a paid fund-raiser for the campaign. She has her own company that is hired by the campaign. As is the industry standard, she is paid a percentage of the funds that she raises. Mary Morgan gets paid roughly 10 percent of what she raises, which is below the industry standard."
The other major beef with Blackburn personally is what various people have termed "outright pettiness." Blackburn's district reaches from the suburbs of Nashville to the suburbs of Memphis. While she says that reaches Tennessee's two biggest cities with her district, she doesn't have the heart of either city within her congressional boundaries. Thus, institutions like Vanderbilt University, the University of Memphis, and other major organizations fall outside her reach.
It is not uncommon for any large business, educational or healthcare entity in the state to invite members of Tennessee's congressional delegation to events at their facilities. These events generally will occur when some sort of congressional assistance has been given to an organization and are common in major metropolitan areas, where they are generally regarded as a good photo opportunity.
More than one NashvillePost.com source stated that Blackburn herself has threatened these groups when she was not invited to an event held by a group that had received congressional assistance, even if the event was held outside her district or she did nothing to obtain – and in some cases opposed – congressional support.
In response, Chafin said, "She doesn't seek out invitations and doesn't go where she is not invited."
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