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magazine home > archives > winter 2006 > features

U.S. Rep Marsha Blackburn's 7th Congressional District stretches a far mile - all the way from Memphis to Nashville. But that hasn't stopped her from focusing on matters important to the University of memphis and the Mid-South.

A watchful eye
by Blair Dedrick

A large painting of a flag blowing in the wind hangs on the wall of U.S. Rep. (Tenn.) Marsha Blackburn's Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C. An image of the Memphis skyline leans on the opposite wall and Elvis memorabilia hangs above the doorway. A reddish wooden bulldog that signifies her allegiance to her alma mater, Mississippi State University, glares at a wooden elephant on top of a cabinet in the office. But Blackburn's degree from MSU hasn't stopped her from throwing support to the University of Memphis.

Blackburn and students

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn visits with students from Memphis ' Christian Brothers High School during their trip to Washington last year.

In May Blackburn helped the U of M'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 says. "The war on terrorism requires that we seek out new sensor technologies, and we hope that the U of M can help."

In July Blackburn helped secure $5 million for the U of M's Herff College of Engineering Ground Water Institute to complete a study assessing the area's groundwater supply and quality. The Memphis aquifer system supports parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.

Blackburn also has given wholehearted support to the U of M's 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 Hurricane Katrina and Pakistan 's recent earthquake 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 says. "They have been working on preparedness and addressing the issue on a regular basis."

Blackburn says that the continuing education and adult learning outreach programs the U of M offers are also important. Well-educated adults are commodities that enrich the region, she says.

"One of the great things about the U of M is that it focuses so intently on our community in Memphis, Shelby County and West Tennessee," says the two-term congresswoman. "They're doing things that directly impact the area."

On stage, locally and nationally

An ax with the words "Ax the Tax" painted on its side also hangs in Blackburn 's office. Below it is a framed tax-deduction bill, signed into law by President Bush.

The ax is a token of the 2001 Tennessee state income tax fight Blackburn led. After the widely unpopular state income tax was proposed, Blackburn sprang into action. In one memorable incident, Blackburn e-mailed an assistant to spread the word of the proposed tax, and hundreds of citizens soon swarmed the state Capitol Building, chanting and honking horns. 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 sign of a 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 says. State sales tax revenues get a boost, too, when people have more money to spend, she says.

"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," the congresswoman says.

  Blackburn and songwriters

Tennessee songwriters talk with Blackburn about issues important to both the songwriter community and Tennessee in the representative's office in Washington. Blackburn is founder and co-chair of the Congressional Songwriters Caucus on Capitol Hill.

Blackburn has steadily moved up in the congressional ranks, as evidenced by her selection to the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee during the 108th Congress.

"It's really an 'A' committee," she says. "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 says.

Blackburn was born in Laurel, Miss., on June 6, 1952. In college, she was the first woman in the South to manage a division of door-to-door booksellers for Southwestern Co., based in Nashville.

"It really prepared her for politics," says Ryan Loskarn, Blackburn 's communications director. "All those doors slammed in her face helped develop a tremendous sense of determination and tenacity."

Loskarn says it also honed her communications skills, something not all members of congress have.

As an assistant Republican Whip, Blackburn circulates on the House floor serving as a teacher of sorts and educating members on the specifics of the legislation being considered.

A small-business owner since 1978, Blackburn was appointed executive director of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission in 1995. She was elected to the Tennessee Senate in 1998 and to the U.S. House in 2002.

In keeping with her Tennessee roots, Blackburn has co- sponsored bills protecting songwriters from capital gains taxes and protecting intellectual property rights. She even stores guitars so songwriters can play for other members of Congress when they visit the Hill.

She is always eager to discuss the University.

"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," says Blackburn. "It's important for our community to spread the word on the good things being accomplished."

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