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Memphis Magazine: Mr. Kustoff Goes To Washington

January 9, 2017
In The News

At 3:15 this morning — any morning — while the rest of us are sleeping, David Frank Kustoff, the newly elected Republican Congressman from Tennessee’s Eighth District, will be rising. Central Standard Time if at home in Germantown or doing an overnight elsewhere in his 15-county West Tennessee district, Eastern Time if in D.C. Wherever, he will shortly be on the job, perusing the day’s news, both from pulp on the doorstep or online or via TV, catching up with correspondence, planning his moves.

This is true whether he got to bed the night before at his preferred hour of 10 p.m. or, later, because of circumstances, which is increasingly the case these days. It was true when he was a student at the University of Memphis back in the 1980s. It was true when he started up his downtown Memphis law firm with Jim Strickland, the school buddy who was elected Mayor of Memphis in 2015, almost precisely a year before Kustoff won his own congressional race. It is still true now that he is entering the Washington mainstream, and it doubtless will be true for whatever comes later.

At 4:30 a.m., give or take a minute, Kustoff may consume a small cup of yogurt. Whether or not he does that, he will not have another meal until the evening sometime. This is an iron rule he has practiced for all his adult life. His regimen, which these days includes some evening work at home on a Stairmaster and a stationary bike, has melted him down from the modest bulk he had as a high school football player at White Station High School.

What the 50-year-old freshman Congressman sees in the bathroom mirror while shaving is a lean frame and an aquiline face that is vaguely (and appropriately, given his profession and his Republican affiliation) Lincolnian. So much so that, when he and his lawyer wife Roberta served as “Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln” at the 2010 Lincoln Day banquet of the Shelby County Republican Party, he was not required to don the fake whiskers, frock, and tall hat that had traditionally been de rigueur for that annual honorific function.

David Kustoff, clearly, is one of those people who has always known who he is, and he got where he is by the strictest attention to discipline.

Which is not to say Kustoff is an automaton. He has intuitive grasp, too, and an innate feeling for relationships. Here’s a true story: Jim Strickland, the Mayor of Memphis, happily married now, with two children, was for many years a bachelor. This state of things lasted well into Strickland’s twin career as a political activist and a lawyer. There are doubtless several good reasons for Strickland’s decision to delay the state of domesticated matrimony; whatever they were, they vanished quickly once the upwardly mobile young attorney was introduced to the stately and attractive Melyne Smith by law partner Kustoff, who matched the couple together for one of those rare blind dates that leads on to something.

As Strickland tells it, “He was going to fix Melyne up with me or another friend of ours, and he told her to pick, and she never would pick, so he just picked me for her.” That was in 1994, by which time Strickland and Kustoff were both making their way in politics, albeit along different ideological pathways.

Democrat Strickland and Republican Kustoff are one of those political odd-couples akin to Mary Matalin and James Carville. They had made each other’s acquaintance back in 1985, when the city’s future mayor was president of student government at the University of Memphis and Kustoff was a new arrival at the school, on one of 10 Leadership Scholarships granted to promising high school graduates in the area that year.

Neither has a precise memory of how they struck it up with each other. Kustoff just recalls that “Jim and the student government people became my friends, and we started doing things together.” The two of them became involved in reorganizing the U of M chapter of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.

ATO had been kicked off campus for some kind of hijinks back in the 1970s, but it would be resurrected in style, with a membership that consisted not only of Kustoff and Strickland but of such other future civic/political leaders as Mike Carpenter, the former county commissioner and city administrator who has headed several local foundations, and Tre Hargett, now Tennessee Secretary of State after many years of service in the state legislature.

That era of the mid-to-late Eighties at the University of Memphis was a veritable hothouse time for the number of political movers and shakers that it incubated. In addition to the aforementioned, other college students at the time — moving within the same general nexus of friendship, regardless of their varying political persuasions — were Maura Black Sullivan, David Upton, Jay Bailey, Harold Collins, John Freeman, Nathan Greene, Mark Schuermann, and Carol Chumney. All would later hold significant elected or administrative positions.

In any case, David Kustoff quickly rose to the fore of the ATO component, succeeding interim president Deke Sundquist (son of then Congressman, later Governor Don Sundquist) as president of the fraternity.

Recalling that time in a conversation just before Christmas, Kustoff said, “I ultimately became president of the Student Activities Council, which did all the events on campus — the speakers, the concerts, the homecomings, and so forth.” One of Kustoff’s triumphs was attracting to campus Larry Lindell, the actor who played Frank Burns in TV’s long-running M*A*S*H series. Another prize speaker he snared was former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

“Vanderbilt had just had a symposium with Carter and former President Gerald Ford. I wanted both of them,” Kustoff remembers. But University President Thomas Carpenter was concerned about speaker fees and travel costs. “So we settled on President Carter because his speaker fee was cheaper.” And, while Ford had been insisting on flying first-class with an entourage, local mega-entrepreneur Willard Sparks was willing to fly Carter in on his private plane.

That was one of young Kustoff’s first lessons in political logistics and the art of compromise. And there were other instructive experiences: “I remember one time we had Jim Lovell — Captain Jim Lovell, the famous Apollo 13 astronaut — come to campus. I was really up for that one, and I arranged for a big room, one that could hold 500 people.” The turnout was disappointingly small, however, and Kustoff learned a lesson in what political types today call optics: “I always try to schedule events in small rooms, so, whatever size the crowd is, it will look larger.” 

His own political inclinations,from as far back as he can remember, were toward Republicanism. That was something partly inherited from his family (his father Bernie was also an attorney), but the real kicker was his fascination for Ronald Reagan, who was president during Kustoff’s formative teen years at White Station High.

“I remember when I was a senior during the 1984 campaign passing out leaflets and going door-to-door for him,” Kustoff recalls. “Ronald Reagan, as we all know, was probably the most effective communicator of our lifetime. More so than Clinton. More than Obama because he had the ability to convey what people were thinking and feeling very concisely. He was just very eloquent, and he motivated me to get involved in the process.”

(A digression: As a journalist I normally cover both the Republican and Democratic quadrennial nominating conventions. In 1992 I was in Houston for the GOP convention, and had worked into the trip a vacation for my wife and two small daughters.

On the night that ex-President Reagan spoke what was probably the last major speech of his life, I was seated far back in the Houston Astrodome with my baby daughter Rose in my lap. That proved an irresistible tableau for successive sets of network cameramen, from CNN and from NBC. I never saw the CNN video, but Kustoff’s brother Edward had saved the video of NBC’s coverage of the Reagan address, and Kustoff, whom I knew by then as a prominent young GOP activist, was thoughtful enough to lend it to me for copying.

I was fascinated by two segments from the NBC coverage. One, clearly the prompter for Kustoff’s generosity, was a video segue from Reagan to wife Nancy, who was looking on dotingly, thence to Barbara Bush, wife of then President George H.W. Bush, and finally to a close-up of baby daughter Rose in my lap. All things considered, I appreciated the conjunction. But a second segment also caught my eye. At another point in the Reagan speech, NBC had panned the huge crowd of onlookers in the vast arena and settled on one lone figure standing in an aisle. That was David Kustoff, visibly transfixed by the speech and wearing the most gleeful, beatific grin I have ever seen on another human being.)

The David Kustoff of today, the newly minted Congressman, fancies dark suits and has a tendency to look sober-sided, sometimes to excess, but he still owns that grin, which has often proved useful for the political stump and for pressing the flesh.

Kustoff’s rise in Republican ranks was a steady, by-the-numbers kind of Odyssey. He went directly from his undergraduate degree (a B.S. in business administration) to law school, also at the University of Memphis. In between there was the summer of 1989, and an internship at Georgetown University through the aegis of the Fund for American Studies. “Half of the day we dealt with different political and economic systems around the world, and the other half was spent in the offices of different senators or congressmen. I interned at the Southern Governors Association. I kept telling everyone I was the chief intern. Anyhow, I learned my way around Washington.”

Back in Memphis that fall, Kustoff plugged on toward his law degree, moonlighting all the while at political gigs, including a stint in the ill-fated 1991 reelection campaign of then-mayor Dick Hackett, who would be narrowly upset by Willie Herenton, the city’s first elected black mayor. The fates balanced things out in 1992, when Kustoff had a hand in Republican Harold Sterling’s upset victory over then Assessor Michael Hooks.

Meanwhile, he had attracted the attention of Lamar Alexander, the former GOP governor who had served as Reagan’s Secretary of Education and was warming up for a presidential race in 1996. Impressed by what he’d seen of Kustoff and intrigued by independent presidential candidate Ross Perot’s use of town hall telethons in the 1992 election year, Alexander had the young Republican activist assist him in an effort to duplicate them.

Working in harness with Bill Gibbons, later to be a county commissioner, district attorney general, and state safety commissioner, Kustoff worked hard at creating what would be called the Republican Satellite Network, or RESN. “Every month he would do a broadcast on healthcare, say, or education, or some other issue,” he says. “Our job was to find a place for broadcast, a sports bar or whatever, and to get activists to come watch, so Lamar could become better versed on these issues as he plotted his presidential run. Then there was 1994, and I worked on all the local campaigns. That’s the year that we [Shelby County Republicans] swept all the local offices.”

Kustoff, the early riser and disciplined eater, ever pleasant, ever diligent, ever on course and on message, had not only made himself invaluable to Lamar Alexander, a once and future power in the larger Republican universe. He had also made himself useful locally to Philip Langsdon, the facial plastic surgeon who had taken over the reins of the county Republican Party, by tapping into its newly developing suburban base.

“When it was time for him [Langsdon} to step down, I ran for party chairman,” Kustoff recalls, matter-of-factly reciting the names of other, more senior Republicans who also sought the office. He beat the lot of them and became chairman of the Shelby County Republicans. He was 29, and would hold the office for four more years, until 1999, all the while impressing his party peers, both locally and elsewhere.

By the year 2000, his reputation had catapulted him into the highest levels of the Republican universe. He was asked to become the Tennessee state chairman for the presidential campaign of GOP nominee George W. Bush.

That, of course, was the titanic battle fought so closely between Bush and Democratic nominee (and former Tennessee Senator) Al Gore that it took an extra month beyond election day (and intervention from the majority-conservative U.S. Supreme Court) to decide on Bush as the winner.

The subsequent political history of Tennessee has made it clear that the Volunteer State’s days as a political bellwether, with both major parties having an equal chance at statewide power, were numbered even then. The year 2000, which would see Gore edged out in his home state, was close to being the Democratic Party’s last hurrah in Tennessee, though Nashville’s conservative Democratic mayor Phil Bredesen would take advantage of an internal Republican schism two years later to win the state’s governorship and serve two terms.

In any case, political tensions were high on the home front, and in one, uniquely painful way to Kustoff. He had attended a well-attended political forum as a representative of candidate Bush, and in the aftermath of it, he was approached by a well-known Democratic activist, Berkeley Wolff of Cordova, who, like Kustoff, was Jewish.

“How can you, a Jew, be doing this?” Wolff demanded, whether from a feeling that Gore’s vice-presidential running mate that year, Senator Joe Lieberman, also Jewish and the first of his faith to be nominated for a national office, was thereby being dissed, or in honor of the longstanding tradition that Jewish voters tend to favor Democrats or out of a sense of simple partisanship, or from a combination of those motives.

Kustoff’s response was to sport The Grin and extend his hand, which Wolff looked at without shaking it, then turned his back and walked away.

That story, told by Kustoff and confirmed by Wolff, indicates, among other things, the extent to which Kustoff was willing to cross various thresholds, come what may. (For the record, Kustoff notes that upon taking the oath of office in January, he will “double” the size of the Jewish Republican House caucus. Joining Ninth District’s Democrat Steve Cohen in Washington, he will also double the number of Jewish congressmen from Memphis. Both Kustoff and Cohen are members of the Temple Israel congregation in East Memphis.)

Jim Strickland tells another story about Kustoff’s singularity in that election year.

By then the two college friends, both now well out of law school and each politically ambitious in his own right, had formed a legal partnership involved in all-purpose civil litigation, sharing downtown space with Kustoff’s father, Bernie, who had his own firm. The Kustoff-Strickland relationship was based on various personal affinities, including a common love of baseball that often sent them on jaunts together to Florida to check out major league teams on the spring training circuit. (To this day, both parties are proud to say, they have never had a quarrel.)

Their bond had grown ever firmer despite their different partisanships — Kustoff’s for the Dodgers, Strickland’s for the Reds, and, of course, the one based on their opposite political leanings.

Strickland was a Gore delegate to the Democratic convention in Los Angeles in 2000. He recalls, “I got home and found out that David had organized a big rally for Bush the day after Gore’s convention. In Bartlett, in Gore’s home state! At the time I thought that was shocking. But there were thousands there. And it occurred to me that David and the Bush team knew something that most of us didn’t about the potential for Bush’s winning Tennessee.” Which, of course, Bush went on to do, as a harbinger of more drastic changes to come in Tennessee.

In 2002, another pivotal year in Kustoff’s career, Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson decided to retire, and Ed Bryant, the Republican congressman for the Seventh District, which then stretched from Memphis to Nashville, decided to leave his seat to make a bid for Thompson’s vacated one.

That was a signal to Kustoff that the time was right for his own emergence in the candidate ranks. He declared for the Seventh District seat, but so did two other GOP notables from Shelby County — Memphis City Councilman Brent Taylor and then County Commissioner (now state Senate Majority Leader) Mark Norris.

The presence in the race of three Shelby Countians chopping up essentially the same vote proved unfortunate, given that state Senator Marsha Blackburn of Nashville’s suburban Williamson County, famous for leading the resistance to a state income tax, was also a candidate. Blackburn capitalized on her legislative reputation and proved to be an able campaigner throughout the district. She won handily, though Kustoff, who was able to salvage Shelby County, finished second to her overall.

Luckily for the disappointed Kustoff, he had little time to lick his wounds. The day after the primary election, Lamar Alexander, who had meanwhile also declared for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Thompson, called up Kustoff and asked him to run his general election campaign. Kustoff talked it over with his then fiancée, Roberta Nevil, a fellow lawyer whom he’d met in Probate Court, and with law partner Strickland.

“They both encouraged me to do it. I’m glad I did, because, number one, it allowed me quickly to move past my loss while helping somebody become a U.S. Senator. And I learned a lot on that race. You learn something every time, what works and what doesn’t work. The Bush message had been run out of Austin. I helped push it, but I didn’t create it. In Lamar’s case, I helped develop the message and helped push it. And I learned how to develop a good ground game.”

Alexander won, with Kustoff’s help, and there would be another state chairmanship for Bush’s reelection in 2004. Meanwhile, Kustoff had married Roberta (with whom he would spawn two children, Maggie, now 11, and Jake, now 8), and in 2006 he was nominated by Bush and confirmed by the Senate to become U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee. The Justice Department’s “Tennessee Waltz” bribery sting had already taken place, netting high-profile offenders in state and local government. Kustoff got in on the prosecution, enabling him to say on the campaign trail later on that he’d served justice on John Ford, the state senator who’d been the biggest name involved in the Tennessee Waltz scandal.

And in 2007, Kustoff, working with My Harrison, the FBI agent in charge in Memphis, presided from start to finish over Operation Main Street Sweeper, which netted and prosecuted several more local officials on corruption charges. Aside from the satisfaction he derived from discharging his duties, Kustoff’s experience as U.S. Attorney, a position he held until 2008, would provide him with a law-and-order image that stood him in good stead with voters when he hit the campaign trial again in 2016, a year in which public concerns over crime, public safety, and corruption all loomed large.

Politics, all its practitioners know, depends on serendipities. After leaving the U.S. Attorney’s job, Kustoff had settled back into his law practice for the next several years, until opportunity struck again. Quite unexpectedly, Stephen Fincher, the Republican congressman for the Eighth District, decided in early 2016 not to seek reelection, and not only Kustoff but several other ambitious Republicans hastened to file for the seat.

It was a formidable field — including Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, state Senator Brian Kelsey, Shelby County Register Tom Leatherwood, and wealthy radio tycoon/physician George Flinn, a former County Commissioner whose wealth would allow him to out-spend everybody else by several million dollars.

Flinn’s hefty advertising budget had him in front until the very last week of the campaign, when Kustoff, ably assisted by campaign manager Chip Saltsman and consultant Steven Reid, managed to catch and finally surpass him. On election day Kustoff, who had run hard, shaking, as he put it, “thousands of hands,” speaking several times a day, polling consistently, and using social media sites, notably Facebook, for all they were worth, would finish with 16,889 votes, or 27.4 percent of the total. Flinn had 14,200, or 23.1 percent, and the rest were scaled down behind.

Kustoff had read the pulse of the times. Though he protests that he has always been a conservative, he had been considered the moderate in the 2002 Republican primary in the Seventh District. Running in much the same territory in 2016 in the redistricted Eighth, he was unmistakably a conservative populist.

As he puts it, “I knew what the issues were, because I was talking to people. They were tired of Washington, they were tired of how everything was run, the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives. The 8th District had clearly not recovered since the 2008 recession, and the agricultural community had been hurting the last several years. Everybody was concerned about national security and the economy.”

And, while many name Republicans in Tennessee were giving no more than lip service, if that, to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, Kustoff, once he had secured his own nomination, had been full-bore in his support of Trump, predicting a win for the New York billionaire and urging his party-mates to fall in line behind him.

“Everybody in the national media said it was impossible for Trump to win. So did the pollsters. They no longer have the pulse of this country. They all feed off each other. They weren’t talking to the people who ended up voting. Everywhere I went in my district, people were strong for Trump. Rural America stood up and voted!”

To repeat: David Kustoff has always known who he is. And now he knows the nature of the constituency he proposes to represent. And he intends to do just that. Starting at 3:15 each morning.