Issue September 17, 2008

Breaking and entering

Two burglaries in a week have the Yarmuth campaign unsettled. And on the trail, he continues to ignore Anne Northup

Upstairs at U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth’s east downtown campaign headquarters, a thread of splintered wood hangs onto a deadbolt lock that is supposed to secure his financial office. Intruders had broken in early Monday morning and ransacked the room, cracking the door open with a crowbar. It’s the second burglary at Yarmuth’s campaign office within a week, and both times, thieves entered through a street-level side door.

“(They got) plenty of sensitive campaign information,” spokesman Christopher Hartman says. “This time, they got the information they were looking for.”

After the first break-in last Tuesday, Hartman told LEO Weekly they were lucky because thieves had only pilfered small items, including wireless computer cards, a jump drive and one unused computer server. This time was considerably more serious. According to Hartman, gone are three computers, one monitor, a jump drive, a TV, some Palm Pilots and other sensitive campaign documents and data. 

No personal donor information was taken, but the campaign has contacted both Metro Police and the FBI to investigate, he says; the FBI has said it lacks jurisdiction to pursue the matter. Although worried about a financial setback, Hartman says the loss of information is of greater consequence. 

LEO Weekly called Ted Jackson, campaign chairman for Republican Anne Northup, Yarmuth’s opponent, to ask if the Northup campaign was concerned about security at their offices. He says the conversation has never come up. 

“We lock the door when we leave at night,” he says.

“The not-so-subtle suggestion that we had something to do with this is outrageous,” Jackson says. “It sounds like Yarmuth has a security problem. Maybe they should look internally before they recklessly accuse others.” 

The Yarmuth campaign has not speculated on who was behind the burglaries, saying only that the missing political information would be of no value outside politics. 

Photo by Phillip M. Bailey: The deadbolt lock on the door to the finance office at John Yarmuth’s campaign headquarters was no match for a crowbar.
Photo by Phillip M. Bailey: The deadbolt lock on the door to the finance office at John Yarmuth’s campaign headquarters was no match for a crowbar.

Before Yarmuthgate, the first-term incumbent’s campaign was a yawn. He has barely acknowledged Northup, who he edged out in 2006. 

“Focusing on her is going to the past,” Hartman says. Instead, the campaign plans to focus on Yarmuth’s accomplishments in Washington and his relationship with the district. The campaign recently released a new TV ad, “Listening,” promoting Yarmuth’s votes to increase financial aid for college students, expand child healthcare insurance and secure $45 million for a new Veteran’s Administration hospital. 

Yarmuth’s approach is bothering some Republicans. 

“My criticism is he’s not running a campaign,” Brad Cummings, Jefferson County Republican Party chairman, says. Cummings says by ignoring Northup, Yarmuth is not engaging the debate. “That is a slap in the face to a large portion of the electorate in 3rd District,” he says. 

Stuart Perelmuter, Yarmuth’s congressional press secretary, says Yarmuth keeps busy enough to have a hefty résumé of accomplishments. Waking up at 7 a.m. and hitting the ground no later than 8, Yarmuth zigzags between home and Washington, working 14-hour days every day. 

“He comes home every weekend or whenever Congress is out of session,” Perelmuter says. “Washington is more of a business trip.” 

Perelmuter sends out a weekly schedule of Yarmuth’s appearances in the district, his work in Washington and interviews with the press, and says Yarmuth has made more than 1,000 community meetings and events, including starting the “Congress On Your Corner” initiative, meant to offer constituents direct access to Washington. 

“The Congressman tries to get face time with as many people as possible. It’s not easy,” Perelmuter says. 

The “Listening” ad showcases much of that by keeping voters focused on him, the accessible representative meeting you at your neighborhood grocer. It also helps people forget about what’s-her-name.

“That’s a common strategy for incumbents, to render your opponent invisible,” says Laurie Rhodebeck, a political science professor at the University of Louisville. “Yarmuth is coming back as a strong freshman who went off to Washington as a liberal Democrat. He returned with pretty strong credentials as a moderate with favorable responses from members of Congress.” 

Ignoring your opponent is a tactic often used by incumbents against challengers with a lower profile, less name recognition and shallow finances. None of those apply to Northup, who spent a decade in Congress representing a district where registered voters are Democrats by 2-to-1.

The first re-election campaign is the toughest for a freshman representative, Rhodebeck says. In 2006, Yarmuth ran an insurgency campaign that benefited largely from a wildly unpopular President Bush, who Northup had consistently supported. Now, it’s the Republicans trying to position Northup as the insurgent.