As a junior high student in 1960, Anne Clifford Meagher was one of many young baby boomers captivated by the charisma and energy that radiated from Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. But as the election wore on and as the ever-curious Meagher asked more questions about Kennedy’s philosophy and policies, she began to reconsider.
“By the time Election Day came, I was not for him any more,” she recalled recently. “I was for Richard Nixon. But it was very painful because Richard Nixon wasn’t easy. He didn’t bring the sort of joy or the emotive” ability of Kennedy.
She had picked her side. And begrudgingly backing the stiff and sour Nixon wouldn’t be the last difficult road she would take.
Anne Meagher Northup, with her conservative ideals, went on to win 10 elections in the heavily Democratic Louisville area.
Now, she has embarked on a quest to defeat Gov. Ernie Fletcher in the Republican primary, which she concedes is her greatest political challenge yet.
“It’s the hardest one I have ever been in because it’s against someone in our own party,” said Northup.
She won a House seat few observers thought she could, unseated a Democratic congressman, fought off the toughest opponents the Jefferson County Democratic Party could throw at her and even debated Nancy Pelosi on Meet the Press.
But this is the first time she’s taken on a fellow Republican — and an incumbent governor at that.
“You’re really out there by yourself,” Northup said of this race. “… But that’s OK.” Path to principles
Last June, Northup told a crowd of 150 Republicans that, in the face of a national wave of unrest over the war in Iraq, they should keep in mind one of the key lessons that she learned while growing up.
As the second-oldest child in a Catholic family of 11 athletic children, including Olympic swimmer Mary T. Meagher, she realized the power that comes from unity.
“Our role: We ran the neighborhood. All we had to do was stick together,” she told the audience.
While her siblings also helped foster her competitiveness, it was her parents, Jim and Floy, who inspired her interest in issues and civics.
“Probably, I got more from my mom — my intellectual curiosity,” Northup said during an interview in the kitchen of her renovated 1916 colonial home.
Her father, president of S&T Industries’ chain of hardware stores and a Republican precinct worker, helped spark her interest in GOP politics.
Two years after that Nixon-Kennedy race, Northup volunteered to argue the Republican side in a school debate.
“I can remember a conversation I had with my Dad and saying, ‘Why is it that it seems so simple on the other side: They’re for the poor, they’re for the sick.’ And I said, ‘I am too,’” Northup recalled. “And Dad said, ‘Because they believe that government can solve all those problems.’”
Northup said she came to see that government should lay a foundation with schools and services, but individuals must want to learn and “go to work every day … to have a life of economic independence and opportunity.”
“That’s always sort of stuck with me how difficult sometimes it is to be on the Republican side,” she said.
Trail to Frankfort
Northup went on to earn economics and business degrees at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, where she met Robert Wood “Woody” Northup on her first day of freshman year. The two were married in 1969 and raised six children, including two they adopted.
Their son Joshua died last summer at the age of 30 of an undiagnosed heart condition. Woody Northup, in 1985, founded Radio Sound Inc., which manufactures audio systems for motorcycles and snowmobiles. The Northups listed their personal income from Radio Sound as between $1 million and $5 million a year, according to a 2004 congressional financial disclosure report.
By the mid 1980s, Anne Northup, who had taught high school math, began volunteering as a policy analyst for the General Assembly.
“She did that, and began appearing in our caucus meetings and started telling us what was wrong with the budget,” said former GOP state Rep. Bob Heleringer of Louisville. “And we started thinking, ‘Who is this woman?’ Well, we found out who she was when she ran for office a couple years later.”
Partially at the urging of Heleringer, Northup sought the eastern Jefferson County House seat being vacated in 1987 by Democrat Fred Cowan. Few people thought a Republican, let alone a political newcomer, could win.
She did — and kept the seat for nine years.
During her tenure, Northup received national attention for pushing legislation that would raise the legal age for buying cigarettes from 16 to 18 and fund research to wean small farmers off tobacco. Some rural legislators, including many Republicans, initially were wary of Northup’s position on tobacco.
“She was after the big tobacco companies … but at the time we didn’t think so,” said former Rep. Richard A. Turner of Tompkinsville. “We thought she was getting in us tobacco boys’ business. But she was proven to be correct.”
At one point, the GOP caucus even awarded Northup with a “Brass Balls” award in recognition for her tenacity, Turner said. “She had more gall than anyone we knew.”
While she routinely took conservative positions, such as favoring making abortion illegal, Northup was not beyond crossing party lines. She was one of five Republican House members to approve a tax increase as part of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. She said the reforms were necessary, even if that meant swallowing unpopular provisions.
On to Washington
In 1996, Northup opted to leave her comfort zone and challenge freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Ward.
Again, she defied expectations, becoming the first Republican to represent Louisville in Congress since 1971 and only the second congresswoman from Kentucky.
Over the next eight years, she defeated a state representative, a former attorney general, a former aide to Gov. Paul Patton and a circuit court clerk to keep her seat, raising nearly $18 million in the process, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Republican leaders rewarded her ability to win a seat in a Democratic district with a plum post on the appropriations committee. From that perch, she helped direct more than $1 billion in federal funds and grants to Jefferson County.
But her candid style sometimes came off as abrasive, said former Democratic U.S. Rep. Scotty Baesler of Lexington.
Baesler, a tobacco farmer, said that after serving with Northup for two years, he questioned whether she could relate to Kentuckians in small towns and rural regions.
“I don’t think she can. I think Ernie can identify with people,” he said. “Anne was always wanting to torpedo tobacco — that was my first impression of her — even though it was the lifeblood of rural Kentucky.”
Sherri Craig, Northup’s field director in Louisville for more than nine years, said Northup refused to pander. “If she disagreed, she would let you know and why,” Craig said. “She’s not one of those people who says she’s with everyone.”
Tobacco companies were never high on Northup’s list. She voted against the first draft of the federal tobacco buy-out bill in 2004 because that version required the federal government — not the cigarette makers — to pay $13 billion to growers. She later voted for the bill after the U.S. Senate put the big tobacco firms on the hook.
In 2006 came a new challenger: John Yarmuth.
Voters, frustrated with the war in Iraq, were ready to vent on President Bush and Republicans, polls showed. Yarmuth, a millionaire and founder of the Louisville Eccentric Observer alternative newspaper, effectively challenged Northup for her loyalty to the Bush administration. To this day, Northup offers justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq to dethrone Saddam Hussein.
“Maybe he didn’t have anything to do with 9/11, but when we drove the Taliban and al-Qaida out of Afghanistan … he was becoming quickly the country of choice” for terrorists, Northup said this month. she conceded that the war strategy “could have been handled differently,” which led her to call for then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation last fall before the election.
That did little to stem the tide. Northup was crushed in Democratic precincts in which she had previously held her own.
“No question,” said Chris Gorman, a former Democratic attorney general who ran against Northup in 2000. “She didn’t get beat by John. She got beat by George Bush.”
Rough trail back
Gorman said Northup remains “absolutely the toughest campaigner going.” After deciding in January to take on Fletcher and Paducah businessman Billy Harper this spring, Northup hit the state Lincoln Day dinner circuit spouting her message that Fletcher couldn’t win re-election.
She listed a litany of political sins: the hiring investigation that led a grand jury to indict 15 officials including Fletcher; the governor invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to testify before that jury; and the broad pardons Fletcher issued to his administration — all after promising to clean up the mess in Frankfort.
Her frank message about Fletcher’s problems and electability clearly rankled some of the governor’s supporters.
“Any time you attack another candidate, the people who are vested in that candidate feel personally attacked as well,” said Jessamine County Attorney Brian Goettl, a Fletcher supporter and conservative blogger.
Beyond the political troubles, what seems to baffle Northup most about Fletcher is his management and leadership style. Fletcher has tended to be highly deliberative — often creating blue ribbon commissions to look into pressing problems — and largely hands-off when dealing with the legislature.
“It’s astounding to me that we have a governor that … doesn’t have the sort of compelling interest to be in the middle of that every single minute, every single day,” Northup said.
Still, she said she’s tired of talking about Fletcher’s problems. And she said she expects Kentuckians are, too. That, she added, is why she leaped into this race, so the debate this fall would be about “things that really matter to Kentuckians.”