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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, September 14, 2018

View from the Hill: Come fly with Phil, Marsha on gilded wings




Early in his U.S. Senate campaign, former Gov. Phil Bredesen shied away from talking about his opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, preferring to focus instead on ideas.

But a new TV ad paid for by Majority Forward, a Democrat-leaning group, dubs her as “Air Blackburn” for taking all sorts of junkets and voting herself pay raises over 10 years in Congress.

It started running on the heels of a $2 million ad campaign by Americans for Prosperity, an arm of the conservative Koch Foundation, accusing Bredesen of backing higher gas and business taxes during his eight years as governor, all while renovating the governor’s mansion, complete with “gilded bathrooms” and a bunker or “party cave” costing several million dollars. Never mind the fact he put to rest the idea of a state income tax.

While it is clear the gloves are coming off in this race for a key Senate seat, the big takeaway is that we learn both of them are living “the life” or the “high life.”

“Congressman Blackburn lives the high life at our expense,” the ad by Majority Forward says.

Meanwhile, the AFP ad says, “Phil Bredesen lived the life. We paid the bill.”

Not exactly, of course. Bredesen didn’t take his governor’s salary, according to reports, and he didn’t live in the executive residence, either.

After all, he doesn’t need the money, based on reported disclosures of total investment assets of $88.9 million to $359 million early this year and income between $3.3 million $20.1 million. Reports show his assets include Silicon Ranch Corp. which he founded after leaving the governor’s office. If elected, he would be among the top 10 richest members of Congress.

It makes you wonder why he needed to take a Greenbelt tax break by cutting hay on his Davidson County properties, as reported. But he isn’t apologizing for taking advantage of state laws designed to cut farmers some slack for having large tracts of land.

Blackburn, on the other hand, isn’t quite in the same tax bracket, reporting an estimated net worth of $568,000 in 2015, according to opensecrets.org. In a more recent tally by Roll Call, though, she had $200,000 in assets and $400,000 in liabilities, meaning she is in the red, ranking her 473rd in Congress and last in Tennessee’s delegation.

Politifact rated the AFP advertisement as false, and Bredesen himself has appeared in ads calling it untrue. He might have mentioned the need for a gas tax increase but didn’t follow through on it.

But based Blackburn’s net worth, one has to wonder if she’s really living “the high life” or trying to live “the high life.”

Sure, most Tennesseans with a mortgage are technically in the hole because they probably owe the bank about $250,000 and keep only a few thousand dollars in their checking account. They’re living paycheck to paycheck.

So while Blackburn appears to be living high on the hog, jetting hither and yon on the backs of political action groups, she’s like the rest of us: struggling to pay the bills and maybe even living beyond her means.

The rest of the team

While we’re at it, let’s take a look at the worth of Tennessee’s congressional delegation, according to Roll Call, and determine whether they are “living the life” with our own little ratings.

Republican U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin is ranked the 14th richest member of Congress, with net worth of $38 million, including $14 million in investments and $21 million in real estate. She and her husband David sold Aegis Sciences Corp. several years ago after making a mint on it and now have a small fortune in property.

Rating: Definitely “living the life.”

Ranked 25th in Congress, vacating Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Chattanooga is worth $23.1 million, including $10.7 million in the bank and $8 million in real estate. Corker started a construction company out of college, then set up a real estate development firm and also owns part of Sweetgreen D.C. salad chain.

Rating: Definitely “living the life”

Coming in at No. 37 in Congress, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper has net worth of $12.3 million. The son of a Tennessee governor, Cooper’s share in Cooper Brothers Land Co., is more than $10 million and he has $2.8 million in real estate, in addition to making $20,000 a year teaching part time at Vanderbilt.

Rating: Definitely “living the life.”

At No. 65, Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has a net worth of $5 million, with investments of $3.2 million, real estate at $1.2 million and trusts totaling $3.9 million. The former governor has liabilities of $3.6 million.

Rating: “Living the life.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, isn’t doing too poorly, either, coming in at No. 95 with a net worth of $3.1 million, almost all of it in investments.

Rating: Nearly “living the life.”

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Republican from Ooltewah, is ranked at 143 with a net worth of $1.9 million, about half of it in investments and the other half in the bank.

Rating: Nearly “living the life.”

Republican Rep. Phil Roe of Johnson City ranks 145th with a net worth of $1.9 million, about $1.8 million in investments and $300,000 in real estate.

Rating: Nearly “living the life.”

Republican Rep. David Kustoff of Germantown ranks 180th with net worth of $1.3 million, including about $600,000 in investments and $800,000 in trusts.

Rating: Nearly “living the life.”

Republican Rep. Jimmy Duncan of Knoxville comes in at 339 with a net worth of $200,000, including $100,000 in investments and $100,000 in the bank. The retiring rep has been the subject of investigations to determine whether he used his campaign account for personal and family benefits.

Rating: Trying to “live the life.”

Ranking 431, Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais of South Pittsburg has a net worth of negative $100,000, with $200,000 in assets and $200,000 in liabilities

Rating: Hoping to “live the life.”

The analysis

Clearly, money can’t buy love, as The Beatles told us years ago, and Rep. Black proved in a failed gubernatorial bid. But somehow all of these folks are managing to get by without having to resort to liver cheese for dinner.

More than likely, they know how to work the system. Or, in the case of Bredesen, they just know how to make money. Maybe he really is “living the life,” but probably not on the backs of taxpayers.

Blackburn, oddly enough, could identify more closely with the majority of Tennesseans up to their necks in hock, even if she lives in Brentwood. It’s hard to keep up two homes, one there and one in D.C. She owes twice as much as she’s worth, according to Roll Call, and that’s not a criticism.

Rating: Hoping to “live the life.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter coving the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.