Mark Luttrell hasn’t exactly announced a decision to run for Congress, but the current Shelby County Mayor and former Sheriff has let it be known this week that he is indeed interested in the 8th District seat being vacated by incumbent Republican Stephen Fincher.
And, in a leisurely telephone chat on Wednesday, Luttrell made a compelling case both for his reasons for considering a congressional race and for his chances of winning it against an ever-expanding field of potential rivals, many of them Shelby Countians like himself.
At first blush, it might seem a bit startling that a local administrative official pushing 70 (Luttrell is about to be 69) would choose to run for a job that, however prestigious, is an entry-level position in a federal hierarchy where, even in the accelerated pace of these times, it takes a modicum of seniority and gradual acculturation to acquire real power and influence. That’s especially so, given a previous signal or two from Luttrell that he might at some point seek the governorship.
But the mayor’s explanation for his interest doesn’t come off as contrived or whimsical or misguided or anything such-like. “I always had a fascination with Congress, and that was magnified when I had an opportunity as a youngster to serve as a page in the House.” That was in the summer of 1963, when the young Luttrell, a native of Crockett County (like Fincher), did a stint in the office of Robert A. “Fats” Everett, the longtime Representative for the district, which is focused on Northwest Tennessee.
“I was keen on the idea of someday serving in Congress, and with the House more than the Senate. I never thought I would have an opportunity, but the opportunity has now presented itself.” He chuckles modestly: “Of course, it could be like the dog who chases the bus and has to figure out what to do with it once he catches it.”
But Luttrell has a pretty good idea of what to do. As he sees it, a congressman can make a difference — not necessarily in terms of national authority or weight in policy matters, but in constituent service, which happened to be Rep. Everett’s specialty. “I see things pretty thoroughly from the local perspective. The House of Representatives is probably the legislative body closest to the electorate. And I like the idea of trying to be a conduit for services government can provide.”
He cites as an example the Veterans Administration and how the V.A. facilities in this area can impact the large number of veterans who are dependent on them.
Luttrell, a Republican, says he has talked things over with other people seeking the congressional seat, apprising them of his interest in running, and with people within the GOP-leaning district — which, as he points out, contains his original home county of Crockett as well as Madison County, where he attended Union College, and Tipton County, where he has numerous relatives. He notes further that his service as Sheriff acquainted him pretty thoroughly with his fellow sheriffs and the other governmental jurisdictions of the 8th District.
And, of course, there is Shelby County, which has an estimated 55 percent of the district’s population and where he is a major figure with an existing political network and donor base. To be sure, there are several declared candidates for the Republican nomination who also hail from Shelby — state Senator Brian Kelsey, former U.S. Attorney David Kustoff, Register of Deeds Tom Leatherwood, radiologist and broadcast executive George Flinn, and Shelby County Commissioner Steve Basar.
Two other GOP entries hail from Jackson: former Madison County Commissioner Mark Johnstone and Ron Kirkland, a fellow physician who, like Flinn, previously sought the seat in 2010, when it was won by Fincher. Yet another hopeful is Shelby County assistant District Attorney Mike McCuskey, a Democrat.
Candidly, Luttrell would seem to have at least as good a chance of winning as any of these. He’s giving himself a week to make up his mind about running. “And longer than that, if I need to,” he says.