Pushing On 

State senator Rosalind Kurita challenges the odds and the opposition in her bid for a U.S. Senate seat.

In the high-stakes reality game that is Tennessee's 2006 U.S. Senate race, the players are through making nice. On the Republican side, former congressmen Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant never let a day go by without taking a shot at each other or at GOP rival Bob Corker, the former Chattanooga mayor and self-made multimillionaire who leads everybody else in fund-raising.

Bryant, in fact, puts out a daily e-mail attack called "Corker Fraud Watch." Hilleary fires away at both Bryant and Corker with regularity, too, and takes his share of hits from Bryant. Corker, seeing himself as the likely party nominee, reserves his fire for Democrat Harold Ford Jr., who's taking leave from his safe congressional seat in Memphis' 9th District to gamble on becoming a big-time national figure.

And then there's Rosalind Kurita, the Clarksville state senator who was running for the U.S. Senate way before most of the others, virtually as soon as she got reelected for a third four-year state Senate term in 2004. She's still running -- despite the fact that all the other candidates are concentrating on Ford or each other and ignoring her. But wait, that's not quite right.

Here is Corker in Memphis on March 6th: Asked about his strategy of ignoring Bryant and Hilleary and focusing on Ford, he says, "I believe in the 11th Commandment," referring to the injunction, somewhat apocryphally attributed to Ronald Reagan: "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican." As for Ford: "Obviously Harold Ford has a different view of the world than we have and has a totally different set of life experiences, and there's a large contrast there. So when issues come up, we point those out."

Okay then, so how about Kurita? Corker shrugs, almost apologetically. "She, uh ... I've actually been impressed by her when I've met her. She's been a nurse, has worked hard all of her life. It just appears to me that the likely person to be in this primary, the way everything is shaping up, is Congressman Ford."

In the curious WWE-like world of Tennessee politics, circa 2006, it may be something of a dis to be respected in this way -- especially when you've been out there longer than anybody else and working hard.

On the other hand, it just may be that a compliment's a compliment. And, even if Kurita should somehow get her party's nomination and Corker should get his, that he'd still be saying the same nice things about her. And maybe she'd even get the same kind of gentlemanly talk from Bryant or Hilleary -- both of whom have lambasted Ford but have yet to be recorded on the subject of Kurita.

Whatever it means, Kurita is the opposite of Rodney Dangerfield. So far, at least, she can't get no disrespect. And, for further evidence of how this can be a handicap, let's go to Murfreesboro, where Kurita spent a day last week campaigning at Middle Tennessee State University. After talking to a political-science class and a nursing class and doing a meet-and-greet with the students at the university center, Kurita, a registered nurse herself, is having lunch with the school's nursing faculty.

Some of the attendees had been in on the earlier session with the nursing students, and now they're picking up where they left off, peppering Kurita with questions about health and educational issues, all of which she answers specifically and at length. So far so good, except that the questions seem unerringly to come back to her experience as a state senator.

One of the faculty members asks about sources of funding for senior care in Tennessee: "Is there any additional money to be expected from a legislative perspective?"

Dutifully, Kurita goes through the arcana of legislative funding, pointing out that lottery money, about which one or two of the women have asked, can't be used for purposes other than education. She makes the case for a tobacco tax bill she has sponsored, saying that raising the price of cigarettes would possibly deter young people from smoking while providing money "for people who already have health problems."

Maybe it's her hands-on background as a nurse, but when Kurita talks about such things, she takes pains to be as specific as possible and suggests that the failure of others to do so has been the single greatest obstacle to achieving political solutions.

"When you talk about 'respite care,' that's a word that means nothing to them," she says, explaining how her fellow legislators might respond to one of the issues they have been poring over at lunch. "There has to be a concept. And there has to be some funding stream to pay for it -- a tax break or whatever. Without a definition, or a beginning and end, they won't do it."

Along the way, she employs a phrase that comes frequently to her lips as she campaigns: "They don't know what they don't know."

The conversation gives Kurita the opportunity for a segue she's been seeking, to move the talk in the direction of her U.S. Senate campaign. She tells the group of nurses that she needs them as a resource and asks if someone can provide her with a list of the membership of the Tennessee Nursing Association.

She reaches out for solidarity with her lunch-mates, rhapsodizing about their common profession: "We are the most trusted profession, and I'll never be out of work."

One of the faculty members helps her complete the segue: "That wouldn't be my concern, when we look at your competitors," she says. "They're well funded, but I don't see them as real -- as aggressive hard workers."

Kurita gratefully seizes the opening. "That's well said," she begins. "You know, Harold Ford's never even had a job in his life. Never had a job! I have, obviously. So there are a few differences when we talk about who is going to represent Tennessee."

"Have you thought about hooking up with OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration]?" interrupts one of the faculty members, bluntly and unexpectedly.

God only knows what this has to do with either the Senate race or even the previous conversation about line-item aspects of legislative funding.

But Kurita seems to know. "That's a very good idea," she says. "Does anybody have a sign-up sheet?" she asks one of the three youthful aides who have come with her. Soon one such gets started around.

"Are you going to be debating?" someone asks helpfully.

"Oh, I love that you asked that!" Kurita says. "I challenged Harold Ford, my opponent, to a debate last week when I was in Memphis, and they have yet to call us. We're going to continue to try to do that. There are such differences between us. My opponent is the son of a congressman who inherited a congressional seat. I am someone who built a lunchroom."

What that means, in one of Kurita's oft-told tales, is that back when her three children were still school-age, they had to eat lunch while sitting at their classroom desks. She found that intolerable, a failure of the System. "I just had to do something about it," she says. "I ran for the County Commission, and when I got on the County Commission, we built that lunchroom."

She and her husband, Dr. George Kurita, a Navy veteran and dermatologist of Japanese descent, are both originally from West Texas -- "out in the desert," as she tells it. After they each got their professional accreditation (she from a three-year nursing curriculum in Amarillo), they ended up migrating to north central Tennessee by "picking it off the map."

Memphian Paula Casey, who was working as a journalist at the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle in the late 1970s, not long after the Kuritas had settled there, recalls that the young nurse, even before she got into politics, already had her hand in virtually everything that went on in the community. "I was editor of the features section, called 'Modern Living,'" Casey says. "And the kids' section was called 'Lively Living.' [Kurita] would bring news in all the time relating to both sections. She was one of those people who, if you needed something, anything at all, you just had to know."

When Casey, a longtime local activist, got wind in late 2004 that Kurita intended to run for the U.S. Senate, she says she didn't hesitate. "I called her up and insisted on becoming her first volunteer in Shelby County."

Kurita got to the state Senate in 1996 by unseating Carol Rice, a longtime incumbent and, as Kurita never tires of pointing out, a Republican. District 22, which includes the environs of the Army's Fort Campbell and encompasses Cheatham, Houston, and Montgomery counties, went strongly for George W. Bush in both of the last two presidential elections.

"I'm a Bubba. I can win the Bubba vote," Kurita maintained when she got ready to declare her candidacy last year. Something she shares with many of her Second Amendment-minded constituents is ease around firearms -- shotguns, especially. Though she shies away from hunting game, she's won a few awards for skeet shooting and is not bashful about proclaiming the fact.

Kurita's vita on the Tennessee General Assembly Web site shows her as a member of no fewer than five gun or skeet clubs. It's a fact that occasionally draws a worried question from the audiences of diehard progressive Democrats who have begun to rally to her standard because they're even more worried about what they see as Ford's increasing conservatism.

Southwest Tennessee State College professor Steve Haley hosted a recent Memphis fund-raiser for Kurita. He asked her: "Would you support reasonable gun-control measures?"

"What do you mean reasonable?" Kurita parried, going on to answer the question in such a way as to indicate, without quite saying so, that she was open at least to conversation on the subject.

Given that Clarksville, Kurita's home base, is probably home to more military personnel per square mile than any other community in Tennessee, she might be excused for being cautious, or even evasive, on the question of Iraq as well. But she isn't. At Haley's Memphis fund-raiser, she stated point-blank, "I think we all know we're in Iraq because of the oil. We're afraid our children will die in a war over oil." In her home district, after all, the specter of the flag-draped coffin is more real than in most places.

Kurita acknowledges that on the war issue she's to the left of Ford, who voted for the war in 2002 and, though critical of President Bush's management of the war, has never disavowed his original support. Kurita has a concrete proposal: Take our ground troops out of the cities, where they are "magnets" to the growing insurgency, and maintain air support for the struggling new Iraqi government. It's a strategy that's arguably a prelude to orderly withdrawal.

Kurita's increasing forthrightness on the war and on Iraq itself ("Let's face it. Iraq ought to be three countries, not one," she has said on other recent occasions) is one of the factors that make her at least a theoretical alternative to the nationally ballyhooed Ford.

Another point of divergence -- cited in her public challenge to Ford to join her in a series of debates on the issues -- was the GOP-sponsored bankruptcy bill, passed in Congress last year under considerable pressure from the Bush administration and concurred in by a minority of Democrats, including Ford.

In fairness, it must be said that every other member of Tennessee's congressional delegation, Democrat and Republican, also backed the bill, which greatly reduced the number of bankruptcy options for middle- and working-class Americans. But Kurita says that had she been a member of the delegation, she would not have been among them.

"Memphis has the highest number of bankruptcy filings in the nation, and Congressman Ford is out helping credit card companies. He needs to explain that vote," Kurita said in making her challenge.

Like any viable contemporary politician, Kurita knows how to speak in "sound bites," those easily digested phrases favored by the broadcast media which can either illuminate an issue or exploit it or even obscure it. It is hard to find fault, though, with Kurita's basic oft-repeated slogan: "I am my brother's keeper," a scriptural echo which doubles as her definition of what a Democrat should be.

Understandably, she took satisfaction when Illinois' celebrated African-American senator, Barack Obama, who came to Memphis last month for a brief joint appearance with Ford, used a similar phrase to describe his own allegiance to the Democratic Party.

Understandably, too, Kurita is somewhat dismayed by the circumstances that underlay that visit by Obama, one that seemed clearly to have been orchestrated by the national Democratic establishment in general and by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in particular. (To her knowledge, though, the DSCC has not pressured her potential financial donors to withhold support -- something that did befall Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, a would-be senatorial candidate in Ohio who withdrew to make way for a party regular.)

When Ford needed to raise money in New York recently, no less a figure than former President Bill Clinton took the dais for him at a big-stakes fund-raiser. When Ford held his first big Memphis fund-raiser last year, Governor Phil Bredesen did the honors.

Whatever its formal protestations of neutrality, there is no doubt that the Democratic Party hierarchy, statewide and nationally, has decided to put its eggs in Ford's basket. This, too, is understandable, at least in part: Ford has indisputable star quality to go with a media-friendly storyline that runs something like this: "Can a bright young charismatic African-American congressman overcome racial bias and his family history to win back a Senate seat for the Democrats in the swing state of Tennessee?"

But Kurita offers another storyline. "I'm the only Democrat in this race," she has begun saying to her audiences. Though her chances for getting Ford into the kind of one-on-one Lincoln-Douglas debates she has proposed are remote, she did appear along with the congressman and the three major Republican candidates in a Nashville forum last month sponsored by the Tennessee Press Association.

The media took note of the fact that, unlike the others, Kurita declared herself opposed to the current orthodoxy of free trade. She put it this way: "I believe this is a nation of free souls, not a multinational corporation. I think we make a mistake when we believe the most important thing is to open new markets so some company can report higher earnings. I believe the most important thing is protecting American jobs."

Not that Kurita can be pigeonholed as an old-fashioned traditional Democrat. It would be truer to define her as a new-stripe populist, constrained by fiscal realities to fit the party's heady old wine into new and smaller bottles.

In one of two radio interviews she gave during her visit to Murfreesboro last week, she managed to shock a government-bashing talk-show host when she agreed with him almost to the letter that too much emphasis -- and too much expense -- had been attached to health insurance plans, both public and private.

Kurita's credentials on the issue of health care derive from more than just her experience as a nurse. She's named Legislator of the Year by a number of healthcare associations and organizations. Her 2003 Legislator of the Year award from the American Lung Association was largely in tribute to Kurita's success in pushing for the elimination of smoking from the state Capitol, including the Senate and House chambers.

She has a reputation in the legislature for being stubborn but fair. "She doesn't take no for an answer very easily," noted Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis as Kurita started tuning up for her Senate run in early 2005. "I don't expect to have to," she said at the time.

She may yet have to, of course, now that she finds herself on the low end of the political-odds board, trailing Ford and the three Republicans in most polls and lagging well behind all of them in money raised to date. (See Politics, p. 14.)

But Kurita plugs on before a variety of audiences, laying out her case and a brand-new sound bite: "We need more Tennessee and less D.C."

Late in the day, as Kurita prepared to leave the MTSU campus -- which was, ironically enough, in the throes of student elections -- she passed through a rally of students who had gathered in support of the candidacy of one Samantha Lyons.

Clearly unsure of Kurita's identity, the students nevertheless seemed instinctively to part, making an impromptu aisle for her and her modest entourage to pass through. And as she strode among them, smiling and nodding, they turned on both sides to regard her, their faces attentive and bemused, registering the fact that, whoever this petite but resolute figure was, she was obviously somebody -- and might even turn out to be somebody to reckon with.

"I would have to say that I am no stranger to having to push my way in," Kurita had told her fellow nurses at MTSU. With six months to go until the August 3rd Democratic primary, she's still pushing on.

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