WASHINGTON – A large painting of a flag blowing in the wind hangs on the wall of Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn's Capitol Hill office. The Memphis skyline leans on the opposite wall. Elvis memorabilia – framed in gold,of course – hangs above the doorway. A poster from a Blackburn-sponsored guitar jam sits atop a cabinet half hidden by a red-and-white sign with roosters announcing the 4th annual Nashville Songwriters Conference.
Making an Impact
Inside the cabinet is a picture of the 108th Congress,Blackburn included. During that session,the second-term Republican from Brentwood was named to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Blackburn,who represents the 7th District,was one of three members selected by the House Republican Conference to join the committee.
“It's really an ‘A' committee,” she said. “We have jurisdiction over nearly three-fourths of the legislation.”
The committee deals with national energy policy,Medicaid reform and national telecommunications policy reform,among other things.
“All of these issues have tremendous impact,not only on the 7th District but on the nation,” Blackburn said.
Slammed Doors Produce Politician – and Husband
Blackburn was born in Laurel,Miss.,June 6,1952,to Mary Jo and Hilman Wedgeworth. Her father sold oil-field production equipment,and she said her family always paid attention to politics. She attended Mississippi State University,graduating in 1973 with a degree in merchandising textiles.
In college,Blackburn was the first woman to sell books door-to-door for Southwestern Co.
“It really prepared her for politics,” said Ryan Loskarn,Blackburn's communications director. “All those doors slammed in her face.”
Plus,it honed her communications skills,something not all members of Congress have,he said. As an assistant Republican whip,Blackburn circulates on the House floor telling other members how to vote and why.
Though they both worked at Southwestern Co.,Chuck Blackburn didn't know Marsha Wedgewood when he saw her on “What's My Line?” He tracked her down the next day,and they were engaged two years later. Married for 32 years,they have two children,Chad,25,and Mary Morgan Ketchel,28. Chuck Blackburn works in bank sales and marketing.
Marsha Blackburn rose to sales manager in the Nashville-based Southwestern and later owned a marketing firm. After moving to Brentwood,Tenn.,she founded the Williamson County Young Republicans,her first move into politics.
In 1995,she was appointed executive director of the Tennessee Film,Entertainment and Music Commission. She was elected to the Tennessee Senate in 1998 and to the U.S. House in 2002.
As Blackburn dashed from a committee hearing to vote on a recent Friday,she worried about whether she could make a 3:30 p.m. flight home to start a congressional recess that would allow her time with her family.
“It's my son's birthday next week,” she said,visibly relaxing. “We have a special cake I always make him: German chocolate caramel brownies.”
“Ax the Tax”
An ax,with the words “Ax the Tax” painted on the side also hangs in her office. Below it is a framed tax-deduction bill,signed into law by President Bush.
The ax is a token of the 2001 state income tax fight Blackburn headed. Then-Gov. Don Sundquist,R,proposed a widely unpopular state income tax. In one memorable incident,Blackburn e-mailed an assistant to spread the word,and hundreds of citizens soon swarmed the state Capitol,chanting,honking horns and breaking a few windows. The tax failed.
In 2004,the National Taxpayers' Union named Blackburn a “Taxpayers' Friend,” saying she was “one of the strongest supporters of responsible tax and spending policies.”
The framed bill is another Blackburn tax victory. When the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 became law,her federal sales tax deduction provision was attached. Tennesseans can now deduct local and state sales taxes from their federal taxes. It was the first bill Blackburn worked on when she arrived in D.C. in January 2003.
“It is always good when you can put money in the pockets of Tennesseans and money in the main streets of Tennessee,” Blackburn said. State sales tax revenues get a boost,too,when people have more money to spend,she said.
“I have to say,even though it was a priority for me,I was surprised that we were able to get it done so quickly,” Blackburn said in an e-mail.
“One of the Good Guys”
A plaque in the cabinet reads,“Nashville Songwriters Association International is proud to name U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn ‘One of the Good Guys' with the ‘White Hat Award' for her outstanding contributions on behalf of songwriters.”
The award is one of nine the organization has given in its 40-year history,executive director Barton Herbison said. “The members were practically jumping out of their seats to pass the motion,” he said.
Blackburn has worked with the Nashville-based advocacy group since her days with the Tennessee Film,Entertainment and Music Commission,bringing entertainment business to Tennessee and forging relationships among other organizations and entertainment cities.
More recently,Herbison said Blackburn's work with intellectual property rights has brought such matters to the political forefront through the Congressional Songwriter's Caucus,a group of 40 or 50 legislators who monitor and act on such issues as illegal downloading and copyright infringement.
Blackburn has co-sponsored bills protecting songwriters from capital gains taxes and protecting intellectual property rights. She even stores guitars so the songwriters can play for other members of Congress when they visit the Hill.
When Blackburn found out she was getting the “White Hat Award,” she didn't want a big ceremony,Herbison said. Instead,she received it at a songwriters' event. “She wanted to come get it where the songwriters hang out,” he said.
She's a Party Girl
A wooden elephant sits on top of the cabinet,and gold elephants hold her books. Blackburn is a consistent party-line voter. Both the Americans for Democratic Action and the American Conservative Union have recorded her votes as Republican on every issue in 2004 from gun control to abortion to taxes.
“Our view is that she has basically been a lapdog for the president,” said Robert D. Tuke, Tennessee Democratic Party chair. “She seems to vote for every single thing the White House wants and doesn't seem to be able to cast a vote independently.”
In 2004,Blackburn ran unopposed in her solidly Republican district that stretches from the suburbs of Memphis to the suburbs of Nashville,but Tuke said the Democrats have a strong candidate to run against her next fall.
Bob Davis Jr.,Tennessee Republican Party chair,said Blackburn has consistently helped the party,including campaigning in the last state election.
“She hasn't forgotten where she came from,” he said,giving her credit for helping the Republicans take control of the Tennessee General Assembly for the first time in 150 years.
Davis said he and others have encouraged her to run for a statewide office. Although Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's seat will open up in 2006,Blackburn said in February she would seek a third term in the House. That decision hasn't quelled her supporters,who hope she might run for Senate or governor.
“She's exactly the kind of person you can put your trust in,” Davis said.
The Democrats hope she'll run statewide,too. “We would welcome that because we feel we would beat her like a drum based on her record,” Tuke said,laughing.
A Bulldog Helping Tigers
A reddish wooden bulldog glares at the wooden elephant on top of Blackburn's cabinet. Her degree from MSU hasn't stopped Blackburn from throwing support to the University of Memphis.
In July,she helped secure $5 million for the Ground Water Institute to complete a study assessing the groundwater supply and quality. The Memphis aquifer system supports parts of Tennessee,Mississippi and Arkansas.
“One of the great things about U of M is that it focuses so intently on our community in Memphis,Shelby County and West Tennessee,” Blackburn said in an e-mail. “They're doing things that directly impact the area.”
Blackburn also gives wholehearted support to the U of M Center for Earthquake Research and Information. Memphis lies on the New Madrid fault,where a series of large earthquakes struck in the winter of 1811-1812. Natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma and the earthquake in Pakistan have renewed talk of another such catastrophic earthquake hitting the area.
“The U of M and the earthquake center are not new to this,” she said. “They have been working on preparedness and addressing the issue on a regular basis.”
In May,Blackburn helped the University's Herff College of Engineering receive a five-year,$1.5 million grant to establish a Center for Advanced Sensors. The center is connected with programs at Vanderbilt University and the University of Alabama-Huntsville to develop new imaging devices for military applications.
“We've worked to support the research as a component of our defense policy,” Blackburn said. “The war on terrorism requires that we seek out new sensor technologies,and we hope that U of M can help.”
Blackburn said the continuing education and adult learning outreach programs the U of M offers are also important. Well-educated adults are a commodity that enriches the region,Blackburn said.
“One of the things I can do on a daily basis in Washington and when I'm traveling is to talk about the U of M,” Blackburn said. “It's important for our community to spread the word on the good things being accomplished.”