POLITICS

POLITICS

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MARSHA SAYS SHE'S READY FOR A CHALLENGE If there ever was a government official who was entitled to hold court, it was 7th District U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn on Tax Day, April 15, 2003. And the freshman congressman and seasoned anti-tax battler did it in the right venue -- with an open house in her branch office on Stage Hills Boulevard in eastern Shelby County -- the other end of the district from her own Brentwood residence but the home of her once and maybe future opponent, Memphis lawyer David Kustoff. “I’m just going to continue to try to be the best congressman I can,” said Republican Blackburn about the potential 2004 challenge, which Kustoff acknowledges he is considering. News of Kustoff’s intentions -- first reported in these spaces last month -- reached her almost instantly. “I wasn’t surprised,” she said -- something of an understatement since she and her staff people had been on orange alert for news of a Kustoff bid for several months. The premise of a Kustoff run is that Shelby County is -- and will remain -- the largest voter base in the sprawling 7th, which runs from Memphis to Nashville, and that, had not Kustoff been saddled with two major local opponents -- Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor and state Senator Mark Norris -- in the GOP’s 2002 primary, he might have had good one-on-one chances against Blackburn. “I’ve had a lot of encouragement to run,” Kustoff has said, and likely he has -- though it is still hard to estimate his chances against an incumbent who has worked Shelby County as often and as hard as Blackburn has (last year she finished a strong third in the county, to Kustoff and Norris) and who hit the ground running in Washington, where she serves as an assistant Republican whip and won another plum as vice chairman of the Government Operations subcommittee on government efficiency. The latter post gives Blackburn a chance to work out on her pet scenario of government as Big Bumbler. And she hasn’t laid aside the tax issue that boosted her fame (or notoriety) in Tennessee -- where as a state senator she became one of the focal points of opposition to a state income tax. Just now she is pushing legislation to allow taxpayers in Tennessee -- along with those in other states that have a sales tax but no income tax -- to deduct their sales tax expenditures on their federal income-tax filings. Whipping out her Blackberry, on which she has her research information recorded, she ran through a chronology which began, as she outlines it, in 1913 with the imposition of a U.S. income tax and continued through 1986 when state sales-taxes became the last of a variety of local and state taxes which had progressively been eliminated as a basis for deductions. “It was social engineering pure and simple,” Blackburn maintained in all seriousness , “ a way of forcing the states to shift from sales taxes to income taxes. I promised [state Lt. Gov.] John Wilder I would try to restore the sales-tax deduction when I got to Congress.” Did that mean she makes floor speeches using the vintage Wilder line “Uncle Sam taxes taxes”? Blackburn laughed. “No, and I haven’t said, ‘The cosmos is good,’ along with everything else.” That, of course, is an allusion to Wilder’s liberal use of the adjective “good” to describe virtually everything (notably and primarily, the state Senate itself). And Blackburn is the last person you would accuse of being liberal about anything -- except maybe in her consumption of the breakfast bars and nutrition supplements she says she substitutes for most regular meals.. In particular: “I can’t use sugar. It gives me headaches.” If last year’s election season was any indication, Blackburn knows how to exude sweetness on the campaign trail (she was one of the few contestants who eschewed mudslinging as such), but she clearly knows how to give headaches to the opposition, too -- even someone as shrewd as Kustoff, who ably directed George W. Bush’s crucial electoral win in Tennessee but has since seen Blackburn cop her own share of Republican mainstream action. If the race comes off, it’s one to look forward to in 2004.

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