Kentucky Polar Opposites Are Racing for House

Former welfare mother, Democratic state Rep. Eleanor Jordan, is trying to unseat formidable U.S. Republican Rep. Anne Meagher Northup in a contest critical to Democratic strategy to retake the House of Representatives.

Kentucky Democratic state Rep. Eleanor Jordan

LOUISVILLE, Ky. Twenty-nine years ago, Eleanor Jordan was a pregnant, unmarried teen-ager from a working-class neighborhood in Louisville, the daughter of a maid and a billiard-hall clerk. Ultimately, she would go on welfare to feed herself and her son.

Across town, Anne Meagher Northup was a newlywed and newly minted economics graduate from Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind. One of 11 children of a successful Louisville businessman and college-educated mother, she became a teacher and later a millionaire.

Their paths cross this year in the race for Louisville's 3rd Congressional District: Jordan, 47, now a Democratic state lawmaker, is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Northup, 52, in what is considered one of “the hottest races in the country” by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Kentucky Congresswoman Anne Meagher NorthupThey couldn't be more different, but both are considered personally impressive and politically effective. One is a black liberal Democrat, the other a conservative white Republican. Their positions are far apart on key issues like strong gun control, abortion rights and expanding certain federal safety nets to help those who can't yet make it on their own. Jordan is a relative newcomer, with four years experience in the state legislature; Northup has served 13 years in state and national office.

“Jordan represents one of the Democrats' best opportunities to take away a Republican-held seat,” campaign committee spokesman John Del Cecato said in an interview. Kentucky will be a bellwether state for national elections this year and it is critical to the Democrats' efforts to win back the House this fall. Democrats need to pick up six seats to regain the majority in the House; they are targeting three in Kentucky, including Northup's.

Northup's and Jordan's positions on issues of interest to women are poles apart. Jordan supports strong gun control measures, broad abortion rights and strengthening the federal safety net. While the welfare system she once depended on may have needed reforming, she says, “the idea of government having the responsibility to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves-no, that never needs to be reformed.”

Northup is both a social and fiscal conservative: She opposes strong gun control, abortion except in rare cases and even modest expansions of certain safety net programs such as the Women, Infants and Children program of prenatal and early childhood nutrition.

Jordan speaks eloquently about her early experiences and her determination to protect women's right to abortion:

“As a pregnant teen-age mother, I was urged to have an abortion, but I thought about it long and hard. I decided to deliver and keep my baby. And it was the right decision-because it was my decision.

“Every woman should have the right to make her own person medical decisions...In Congress, the right to choose is in danger. You can count on me to be a forceful voice protecting women's right to choose from all attacks.”

Jordan won a rare endorsement from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in her primary race last spring. She has raised more than $800,000, putting her well on her way to matching Northrup's $1.2 million in the bank. And her moderate district is 2 to 1 Democratic.

But Northup is formidable. The former state lawmaker won her first term in Congress in the Republican sweep of 1996, the first time in 26 years her party had captured the district. Articulate, energetic and unabashedly partisan, she is a favorite of House Republican leaders, with a plum seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Her gender has also been a plus: “She has become a role model for thousands of women and their daughters, women who would normally vote Democratic,” says Al Cross, political writer for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, the state's largest newspaper. Northup has six children, including two who were adopted.

Northup was known for independent stands in her nine-year career as a state lawmaker. She challenged one of Kentucky's sacred cows, tobacco, by pushing legislation to stop sales of cigarettes to minors. Today she refuses to take money from the tobacco lobby, according to the Courier-Journal.

In 1990 she broke ranks with her party to vote for the state law that reformed Kentucky's public schools. She has pushed high schools to offer fast-pitch softball for girls and campaigned against tax deductions for private clubs that discriminate for racial and other reasons. She has won money for many projects in her Louisville district, including the mostly African-American West End.

Critics say she should have taken her independence to Congress, instead of pleasing the House leadership. Her party-line votes on issues such as safety nets have mobilized some Democrats.

The criticism of Jordan is predictable: She's just too liberal across the board, and relatively inexperienced. She would not have been the candidate of choice for some Democratic regulars two years ago, when only white men were being discussed as challengers for Northup's seat.

But Jordan had an immediate impact on the mostly white and rural General Assembly: An eloquent and forceful speaker, she developed a reputation for saying what needed to be said, although not always to receptive ears. “If we continue to put juveniles to death,” she argued in support of her bill to raise the age for the death penalty to 18, “we are, in fact, giving up.” The bill failed.

Jordan decided to go to Washington, but Kentucky political observers doubted she could raise the money to challenge Northup. Jordan turned to the biggest political-action committee in the country, EMILY's List, which supports pro-choice women candidates.

As her campaign fund grew, so did her credibility among state and national Democrats. Gov. Paul Patton endorsed her and her strongest challenger dropped out of the race. In a visit to Washington she wowed Rep. Patrick Kennedy, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who later campaigned twice for her in Kentucky. The Congressional Black Caucus supported her.

Jordan and Northup will also go head to head on their party line differences over prescription coverage for seniors on Medicare, the protection of Social Security benefits and education policy.

Jordan, the unwed teen-age mother, worked her way into politics after attending college at Western Kentucky University and becoming the director of urban child-care centers. Along the way she also married and had two more sons, whom she reared in the increasingly violent Parkland neighborhood of Louisville. She is now divorced.

If Jordan wins, she will make history among African-Americans in Louisville. But ironically for a single mother who has accomplished so much, her family has become a problem in the race. Her middle son, Alex, was arrested for drug trafficking this spring and then was slightly wounded this month in one of a series of drive-by shootings.

Jordan admits her “troubled” son consumes her thoughts these days. “I'm certainly not going to abandon him. He needs love, and he needs support, and he needs for me to continue to ‘stay in his way,' so to speak.”

But she says her experience with Alex also makes her even more determined to do something about America's youth and the availability of guns. “Anne (Northup) probably doesn't live in a neighborhood where she hears gunshots several nights a week, but I do,” Jordan says. “It motivates me to be a louder voice.”

Fran Ellers is a free-lance writer based in Louisville, Ky., where she previously reported for the Louisville Courier-Journal.