After November defeat, Marshall ready to move on

habdullah@mcclatchydc.comDecember 20, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The walls of Rep. Jim Marshall’s former congressional office suite once held pictures of World War I battle scenes.

The choice in art, like Marshall, was thoughtful, the images meant to evoke a sense of reverence for the type of courage it takes to take on tough odds. Nearly a month after the veteran Democratic lawmaker lost to state Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ashburn, Marshall thinks fondly of those battle images and of his time spent on his sailboat gliding across the Potomac River.

Sometimes choppy waters enhance the ride.

“I don’t think a different campaign strategy would have made much of a difference,” Marshall, a fiscally conservative Democrat from Macon, said on a recent weekday afternoon as he packed boxes in his office. “We had a good plan, and it was solidly implemented. Voters just decided they wanted to go a different way.”

Marshall, who represents a district that went for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, nevertheless defeated Rick Goddard, a retired Air Force major general, with 57 percent of the vote in that election.

But this election, the national environment was very different.

And Marshall, who has treaded in Georgia’s oft-mercurial political waters for 15 years, just knew it in his bones.

The frustration was palpable in August when Warner Robins resident Richard Nadler questioned Marshall about his often right-of-center voting record during a town hall meeting with about a dozen Houston County residents at Perry City Hall.

“Why do you call yourself a Democrat?” Nadler asked. “Did you even vote for Obama?”

During the meeting, Marshall defended his votes for the $700 billion bank bailout -- a vote, he said recently, in which he “was one of the most influential voices on the Democratic side to get it passed, even though I knew it could cost me my job, because I saw no real choice.”

When he then went on to defend President Barack Obama’s January 2009 economic stimulus bill as another proactive piece of Democrat-backed policy, the backlash from the other side was immediate.

“We are in such better shape than we would have been had we not taken the steps that we took,” Marshall said in August.

“You have no facts to support that,” Jack James, a Republican and an attorney in Perry, quickly retorted.

The mood from 2006 to 2008 glossed over how difficult it is to win as a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Report.

And so, Marshall was swept out of office in a tea-party fueled, anti-incumbency tide like almost half of the nearly 50 fellow moderate-to-conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House of Representatives from largely rural and conservative-leaning Southern and Midwest districts.

Marshall, who voted against his party’s massive health care overhaul, vowed to help repeal it and refused to endorse Obama during the 2008 elections. He is the type of Democratic lawmaker that Republicans feel they can negotiate with. After all, this is the same congressman who this year penned a column for the conservative National Review calling the health care mandate “a few boxcars added to a runaway economic freight train hauling the nation toward bankruptcy.”

Before Chuck Shaheen was elected mayor of Warner Robins, he once called Marshall to question him about an issue and was shocked when the lawmaker returned the call personally.

“I wanted to know his opinion on pro-life and gay marriages, and he told me he was pro-life and for the sanctity of marriage. I was very impressed,” Shaheen said.

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Marshall have known each other for years. Despite their previous history as political rivals -- Marshall lost a congressional bid to Chambliss in 2000 -- they put away political differences and enjoy a warm and cordial relationship, the senator said.

“Jim is not a member of the left wing, liberal wing of the caucus, so often the result of what he wanted to see was what I wanted to see,” Chambliss said. “Jim was trying to do what he saw as the best interests of the 8th District, and I think his votes reflect that.”

Marshall, a decorated Vietnam veteran and the son and grandson of Army generals, is a dogged defender of the military and a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

He frequently traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan to assess the situation on the ground and to bond with troops.

He also worked very closely with Chambliss on such issues as establishing a software support facility at Robins Air Force Base.

Early in his congressional tenure, Marshall zeroed in on Robins as a critical economic engine for the region and the state, and he has been heavily involved in a variety of avionic issues, including the retirement of the C-130E aircraft and the use of the C-17 cargo aircraft.

On a recent Friday afternoon as Marshall packed boxes, newly elected members of Congress and their staffers wandered into Room 504 of the Cannon House Office Building, Marshall’s office, checking out their new digs.

“This one guy who probably just beat one of my buddies told me he was with the 82nd Airborne,” Marshall said. “He stood at attention and offered his hand and said, ‘Sir, I just wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done.’ ”

All of a sudden, the business of packing it in didn’t seem so bad.

“Jim’s an interesting guy,” Chambliss said. “His background is entirely different from my background, having been an Army brat. He has a very quick mind about him, and he has really utilized that quick mind. And he’s quick to tell you a joke if he’s heard a new one.”

That’s the quirky, brainy side of Marshall that few people except family and friends get to see.

The former law professor side of Marshall is given to professorial musings on tort reform and the legality of challenges winding through the legal system.

For years, Marshall camped out in his office on a cot and showered in the House gym rather than rent in Washington’s pricey Georgetown or Capitol Hill neighborhoods like many of his congressional colleagues.

“The least expensive place to stay is in your office,” he said matter-of-factly. During a recent quick session in the House gym, Marshall ran into Republican Reps. Darryl Issa of California and Trent Franks of Arizona, who commiserated with the congressman about his loss.

But as disappointed as Marshall is about his defeat, there is also a bit of relief and hope in his household about the next phase of his career. Years of traveling back and forth between the district and Washington can be taxing, and he’ll now be able to spend more time with his family, including his wife, Camille. He has an offer to teach a course this spring at his alma mater, Princeton University, where is son, Robert, is a student. His daughter, Mary, also is a Princeton alum. From there, whether he’ll make a return to politics one day or teach full time, who knows?

“I’ve been warned by other ex-members of Congress to go slow,” he said.

He’s also thinking of his staffers, whom he recently treated to a tour of the U.S. Capitol dome.

“I’m trying to make sure my staff lands on their feet,” he said. “These are great people, and it’s not their fault that I lost.”

And, of course, he’s thinking about transitioning the more than 2,000 open constituent cases to the two Georgia senators’ offices and to Rep.-elect Scott.

On a recent sun-splashed autumn afternoon in Washington, Marshall eagerly looked forward to taking a road trip back to D.C. with his son by his side in a U-Haul.

The congressman has also offered fellow outgoing Blue Dog Rep. Gene Taylor a place to stay on his sailboat, a 1983 Hans Christian 38 that sits on a channel in southwest Washington, during the Mississippi lawmaker’s return visits to D.C.

“I got a pretty good deal on it. I hate to have to sell the doggone thing,” Marshall said. “I bought it to have a place to stay and sail around in.”

Then he grows quiet and considers the possibilities that stretch before him like the shore.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

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