Kustoff vs. Marsha

Memphis lawyer won't rule out another try in 2004. Plus, Luttrell cleans up the Sheriff's Department.



Marsha Blackburn, the Nashville-area resident who defeated a largish field of opponents in last year's 7th District congressional race and then dusted off Democrat Tim Barron of Collierville, should have every reason to feel secure in her job.

After all, she won overwhelmingly in both primary and general elections, even managing to finish second place in Shelby County in the Republican primary vote, despite the fact that three -- count 'em, three -- of her major opponents hailed from Shelby. They were lawyer David Kustoff, who directed the 2000 Bush presidential campaign in Tennessee and the successful Senate campaign last year of Lamar Alexander; state Senator Mark Norris; and Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor. Only Kustoff finished ahead of Blackburn in Shelby County.

Upon her election, Blackburn promptly found herself named an assistant whip for the GOP in the House of Representatives and got the appointment she coveted to a government operations subcommittee that would give her good opportunity to capitalize on the conservative-populist image that she, as a prominent income-tax opponent, had established so successfully in the state Senate.

Moreover, she proved herself to be a more than adequate campaigner and has established district offices throughout the sprawling 7th, which runs from the suburbs of Memphis to those of Nashville. She even maintains a part-time residence along Highway 64 in Shelby County. Add to this the overwhelming advantages that normally allow incumbents -- absent personal or party scandal -- to win renomination and reelection easily.

Why then are there persistent rumors that Kustoff is aiming to oppose her re-election in 2004? And why does Kustoff -- who acknowledges having been encouraged to oppose Blackburn by "a number of people," especially in Shelby County -- choose not to rule out making the race?

"I just haven't made any decisions whatever about what I'm going to be doing this year, next year, or in 2006, or at any point thereafter," says Kustoff, who owns a reputation for being cautious and practical and not given to quixotic adventures.

The bottom line would seem to be that there is an appreciable body of Republicans locally who either see Blackburn's politics as being too hard-line or believe that the congressman from the 7th District should hail from Shelby County or its near vicinity -- as had the last several representatives from the district.

"I've heard a lot of that," concedes Kustoff, a favorite of former Governor Don Sundquist, himself a former 7th District representative, who mused out loud late last year about the likelihood of an opponent for Blackburn in 2004. Blackburn's operatives themselves are known to take the prospect of a Kustoff race seriously and periodically inquire about news of one.

Even if Blackburn draws no strong opponent in 2004, she will likely have a race on her hands in 2006 -- at which time she is almost certain to run for either governor or for the U.S. Senate, if Majority Leader Bill Frist, honors his two-term pledge and begins a campaign for the presidential nomination in 2008.

· Sheriff Mark Luttrell is another elected official who, like Governor Phil Bredesen, campaigned on the theme of governmental economy and was taken in some circles to be merely electioneering but, like Bredesen, seems to have been serious all along.

In dealing with the regime of his predecessor, three-term sheriff A.C. Gilless, Luttrell has been partly circumspect and partly scathing. He practices a form of charity and says that "after turning over every rock" his administration has seen no sign of fraud. But under those selfsame rocks, says Luttrell, was "an abundance of waste." In fact, maintains Luttrell, Gilless' budget -- the bane of the Rout administration and the county commission for years -- "was a mess."

What made it so messy was, according to the current sheriff, a superfluity of employees -- to the tune of some 600, in Luttrell's estimation. The lion's share of that excess, as he saw it, was in the county jail. And what worsened the situation was the pay parity awarded the jailers last year. Hadn't the jailers, whose representatives made frequent and impassioned visits to commission meetings, made the case that their job was as demanding, if not more so, than that of regular deputies in the field? Didn't they speak vividly of having to dodge human excrement and urine thrown (or splashed) their way?

"They wouldn't have had to dodge all that ... " (actually the sheriff used some vernacular) "if we'd had some effective procedures in place for dealing with inmates," Luttrell answered the other night after expressing some of his concerns to a neighborhood Republican club.

Luttrell, who was county corrections director before his election as sheriff, plans to conduct a formal study of jail operations preparatory to making what he suggests will be fairly drastic budget-cutting measures.

In this, he can expect the full support of Shelby County Commissioner Bruce Thompson, chairman of the commission's law-enforcement committee and a proponent of cut-to-the-bone conservatism himself.

Says Thompson, "Sheriff Luttrell's doing a fine job of trying to save the county money." The commissioner notes that the commission is in the throes of debating a Luttrell proposal to privatize the handling of inmates' assets, a function now served by publicly paid employees. The proposal, which has been criticized by Commissioner Michael Hooks as unfair to county staffers who might lose their jobs, was scheduled for committee discussion this week and for floor action by the full commission on Monday. ·

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