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

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.

"Nearly every day that the Senate has been in session for the past two years, I've come down to this very spot and said that Democrats were ignoring the wishes of the American people," McConnell said Nov. 15 from the well of the Senate. "When it comes to earmarks, I won't be guilty of the same thing."

This move brought him in line with upstart Rand Paul, the state's Republican senator-elect, and elicited praise from President Obama, who also wants to curb earmarks, a spending cut many criticize as symbolic. The slip-ons amount to about 1 percent of the overall federal budget.

In speaking out against "the abuse of the practice" in his remarks, rather than repudiating earmarks outright, McConnell may have left a small window open to return to them. Asked to comment on his reversal, a spokesman referred to McConnell's full remarks on Nov. 15.

For much of the past decade, McConnell hasn't treated earmarks as complicated at all.

Seeking reelection in 2008, he ran ads that bragged about the bacon he brought home, and the numbers flashed on the screen: $280 million for universities, $70 million to fight crime, $1 billion for parks and conservation.

Days before the election, McConnell shrewdly announced that he had secured $75 million to build a new Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Louisville. After he won, he told reporters that the strategy helped him survive that year's Democratic wave.

Given all that, David Weilage is aggravated and confused by McConnell's switch.

"It always concerns me when they start talking about cutting off the money," says Weilage, 53, who is waiting for a bus at the edge of the medical district, which covers about 20 city blocks. He is a semi-retired Vietnam War veteran who "kind of leans on the federal government myself" and considers the construction and new sports-and-entertainment arena "good for the city, good for the state."

"What they do with the deficit," Weilage says, "or how they work out what to cut, I have no control over that. I'm just trying to make ends meet myself."

Reaping more than most

The $458 million value of McConnell's earmarks over the past three years is not insignificant compared with the state's annual revenue of $8.4 billion. Through his efforts and those of other members of the delegation, Kentucky has regularly reaped more than most states.

The single largest individual recipient over the past three years has been the Army's pilot plant in Blue Grass, where scientists have been given $66 million to figure out how to turn outmoded, illegal chemical weapons into disposable chemicals.

McConnell made sure that students at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green would have better rides around their campus by securing $1.2 million for new shuttle buses.

He also appropriated $700,000 for the college to "complete a monitoring system that will collect real-time weather observations through a statewide grid of stations," a program that caused the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste to comment, "Apparently the Weather Channel is not sufficient."

Then there was the now-concluded project in the mega-cave under the Louisville Zoo.

There, in a former limestone quarry, University of Kentucky researchers experimented with ways to encrypt and preserve essential computer data during a natural disaster or terrorist attack. They share the vast underground space with public rental storage for RVs and boats, Department of Homeland Security emergency supplies, a pigeon-eating hawk, schoolchildren on tour grossed out in the worm- tasting room and, this time of year, carloads taking in a cavernous holiday light show sponsored by a bank.

No area of the state has benefited as handsomely as Louisville, where McConnell has lived since he moved to the city at 13 from Alabama. He graduated from the University of Louisville, where he was student body president, and received a law degree from the University of Kentucky at Lexington.

It is a politically anomalous place in this reliably red state. So staunchly Democratic as to be progressive, its mayor has been in office for 26 years, and its congressman wrote a liberal opinion column as publisher of the Louisville Eccentric Observer, an alternative weekly.

In Washington, McConnell and his wife, former labor secretary Elaine Chao, are a Republican power couple. In Louisville, they are political outsiders in their leafy, liberal neighborhood of Belknap, where residents mounted a fierce fight and kept a five-bay gas station from despoiling their upscale enclave.

At the University of Louisville, the couple's names are sprinkled around buildings made possible through the senator's private fundraising or through earmarks.

When she was a student there, Sara Renn was annoyed that the school's premier programs in political science, her major, were under the mantle of the McConnell Center. "Funded by him, named by him as the hosted speaker, all while he is still in office," says Renn, 27, a restaurant hostess who grew up here. "You couldn't disengage his name from the program."

Now she finds his disavowal of earmarks to be craven.

"So he's moving even farther to the right than he was," she says as she sits on swings at the park with her friend Diane Tran, 26, visiting from Minneapolis. The women met while organizing for Global Justice. "I would have hoped that as the minority leader, with even more of an edge, he would be a leader, a filter for some of these other elements. Instead, he's becoming a mouthpiece."

Asked what impact the senator's about-face might have, the university's president, James Ramsey, issued a statement: "We know he will continue to be a friend to U of L while trying to address the fiscal realities facing our country."

Kent Gardner, the medical school's technology coordinator, addressed another reality:

"This is never going to get fixed," he says, flatly, while leaving campus at dusk last week, "because everyone's local essential entitlement is someone else's wasteful government spending. To fix the fiscal problems, we are actually going to have to do without stuff, but no one can agree on what that should be."

And what will happen in the meantime to Louisville, its medical district, its regrowth?

"Do you really think my senior senator is going to stop bringing money home to his state and this city?" Gardner says with a grin. "He knows how to do what he needs to do to maintain his political position. That's why he's still my senior senator."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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