Sen. Mitch McConnell's earmark power credited for revitalizing Louisville

The Senate's top Republican is accusing Democrats of wasting Congress' lame-duck session on issues like gays in the military and the environment when tax cuts are the real priority. (Nov. 20)
By Ann Gerhart and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 11:39 AM

LOUISVILLE - The once grand downtown of this city on the Ohio River is shabby, as the nation's old downtowns tend to be. Magnificent tall cast-iron-fronted buildings sit empty. So do historic brick tobacco warehouses, surrounded in razor wire, tagged with graffiti.

But the downtown of Kentucky's largest city also has a spectacular redeveloped waterfront featuring bike paths and open vistas, the spanking-new KFC Yum Center sports arena, and a medical complex of several hospitals that employ nearly 20,000 people, treat tens of thousands and conduct cutting-edge research.

This resurgence is a result of civic vision, pride, tenacity - and the impressive earmark performance of Louisville's Slugger: Mitch McConnell (R), Kentucky's longest-serving senator and the powerful Senate minority leader.

He has driven $62.4 million in federal funding to this city in the past three years, the largest chunk by locale of the $458 million that he earmarked from 2008 through 2010, according to data tallied by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Last week, McConnell flip-flopped. He said he would accept the hard-line austerity of Congress's new Republicans, elected on a wave of voter disgust over a federal government grown too large, and support a two-year ban on earmarks, through which members of Congress fund pet projects.

"Look," says Judi Schneider, 54, a woman in jeans and a work shirt walking her dog in the waterfront park here, "Government has gotten too big. But I don't think it's Obama's fault, or McConnell's fault."

She still has a job - as a medical transcriptionist in a city whose economic engine is fired by health care. But she says that "more than one friend has been out of work for more than a year."

"I love this park, and I love to come here with my dog," she says, waving her hand past the flame-red japonica plants and blue sky and gray water toward southern Indiana. "But there was probably corruption in the building of this park."

The messy, massive business of appropriations and bailouts during a prolonged recession has deepened public distrust, claimed political scalps and hardened the partisan divide. Rhetoric against Washington runs hot.

But here on the ground, where federal money has helped a river city of 722,000 become more vibrant and livable, people live with their contradictory feelings about government and its challenges, and their own senior senator.

"Earmarks are not just good," Schneider says, "and they are not just bad. It's more complicated than that."

Bringing home the bacon

That's just what McConnell said - that the earmark issue "is a lot more complicated than it appears" - right up until last week. His abrupt reversal stunned and unsettled people in Kentucky and could imperil existing projects.

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