Cherry Picker Reaches for Blunt’s Seat

Posted June 14, 2004 at 6:25pm

Attorney Jim Newberry’s choice of campaign transportation symbolizes the chore before him this November.

The Democrat travels the southwestern Missouri 7th district in a cherry picker truck owned by his brother. At campaign stops, he rigs a three-sided campaign sign to the vehicle’s crane and lifts it high above the ground as he speaks.

[IMGCAP(1)] Plucking Rep. Roy Blunt (R) from his lofty perch as one of the leaders of the House Republicans is Newberry’s far-fetched goal.

Newberry, a mediator between patients and doctors by profession, called the race a “huge task.”

First elected in 1996, Blunt served as Chief Deputy Majority Whip under Texas Rep. Tom DeLay (R) until the 2002 elections, after which he ascended to Majority Whip as DeLay became Majority Leader.

Blunt has maximized his leadership position to the hilt, especially on the fundraising front. He had $1.8 million in his personal campaign account at the end of March; his leadership political action committee, Rely on Your Beliefs Fund, had $404,000 in the bank at the end of April.

Newberry has not even filed a financial report with the Federal Election Commission and does not expect to raise substantial funds.

“My approach is not to spend all of my time trying to get special interests to give me money,” Newberry said.

In addition to his financial sway, Blunt is busy building a family political empire in the Show Me State.

His son, Matt, is the Republican nominee for governor this year after being elected Missouri secretary of state in 2000. He followed in his father’s footsteps in that job; Roy Blunt was secretary of state from 1984 to 1993.

Blunt has never faced a serious election challenge in the strongly Republican district, which includes Branson, a vacation destination catering to older tourists that has more theater seats than Broadway.

He won the open seat with a convincing 65 percent and has won his subsequent re-election races with 73 percent, 74 percent and 75 percent, respectively.

Knowing that he is a huge underdog, and unencumbered by the expectations of national strategists, Newberry is using a number of quirky gimmicks in hopes of drawing attention to the campaign.

The cherry picker is the most obvious manifestation of this unconventional approach but is far from the only one.

Newberry also hands out bars of soap to prospective voters while on the stump.

“I came up with the idea to approach folks to tell them I am cleaning up Washington and hand them a bar of soap,” he explained. “It breaks the ice, people open up and are willing to talk a little bit.”

Newberry’s first batch of soap, which came from a motel, did not meet his standards, however. He plans to go a bit more upscale with his next purchase.

He has taken his campaign to the ever-growing Web log community (aka the blogosphere) with a variety of catchy ads promoting the message “Boot Blunt.”

Though Newberry says he knows little about the Internet, his cousin, Stirling, was involved in the Web-based effort to draft retired Gen. Wesley Clark into the Democratic presidential race, and is handling the technological side of this campaign.

Newberry has spent roughly $4,000 on the ads, which appear on Democratic blogs like Atrios and Daily Kos, but maintains that he has taken in at least that amount in donations.

Newberry is quick to note that although he is using nontraditional ways to draw attention to the campaign, he has serious reasons for making the bid.

“Running for office was not in my life plan,” he said. “The reason I decided to run is that the more I saw of the process, the more I realized that people like Mr. Blunt don’t practice what they preach.”

Newberry said that Blunt ran on a pledge of limiting government spending and balancing the budget but has done neither.

He alleged that Blunt spends far too much time “serving the interests of big tobacco” for a district that grows none of the product.

Newberry referred to a June 2003 Washington Post story that alleged Blunt had inserted a provision into a homeland security bill — unbeknownst to other Republican leaders — that would have benefited Philip Morris. The provision was stripped from the final bill.

For now, Newberry is spending most of his time speaking to small groups of would-be supporters, trying to spread his message.

When asked about the challenge before him, Newberry is philosophical.

“It’s like trying to move a pile of bricks all at once,” he said. “You can move a pile of bricks, but you do it one brick at a time.”