JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A not-for-profit group that promotes artisan handicrafts made in the Appalachian region of rural North Carolina has become a point of contention in a Missouri governor's race where the candidates are grasping for a "gotcha" moment.
Treasurer Sarah Steelman has made the North Carolina project a symbol of why she says Congressman Kenny Hulshof can't be trusted to conservatively manage Missouri's budget as governor. But the project is also symbolic of how Steelman has gone negative in the campaign -- and of how facts can get blurred in the heat of debate.
Steelman has relentlessly criticized Hulshof for supporting spending earmarks while in Congress, some of which she contends have been a waste of taxpayer money.
The projects aren't ones Hulshof personally championed and, in most cases, were approved by a majority of Congress as part of wide-ranging bills. To that extent, Steelman is simply trying to link Hulshof with the low public approval rating Congress receives in the national polls.
'Name just one thing'
Trying to turn around her criticism, Hulshof asked Steelman during a televised debate in Springfield last week to name just one thing she considered positive about his congressional record. Steelman instead chose to remain negative, with a somewhat sarcastic tone.
"Well let me see, out of all the earmarks you voted for, 11,000 earmarks," she replied, "the Perfect Christmas Tree, or the San Francisco urban center, or the Maine Lobster Institute -- all of which you had a chance to vote up or down on -- I'd say the Perfect Christmas Tree would be an interesting one, though that's not here in Missouri."
She never described the project. A viewer easily could have believed the earmark literally was intended to develop the perfect Christmas tree.
Hulshof sought to set Steelman straight.
"The Perfect Christmas Tree that you poke fun at was actually a sheltered workshop in North Carolina helping employ people that had some physical and mental challenges," Hulshof replied.
Except that wasn't quite right either.
The "Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree" essentially is a store. It was established in 2003 by a not-for-profit group as a way for residents of rural western North Carolina laid off by the furniture and textile industries to earn a little money by selling handmade crafts.
It now has about 70 product makers. Though none come from a sheltered workshop, local high school students with learning disabilities do sell lumps of coal wrapped in burlap with red ribbons, said Patti Jensen, one of the group's founders.
In 2007, North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry sought to earmark $129,000 for the Mitchell County Development Foundation for the Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree project. Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona, a leading earmark critic, sought to strip the money out of the bill.
During the ensuing House debate, Flake claimed the money would double the retail space of the gift shop.
Jensen said in an interview last week that the money actually would have created a business center on the floor above the retail space -- a place where people could learn how to run a small business.
But the project never happened, because House members voted 249-174 to eliminate the money. Hulshof sided with those wanting to keep it in the bill. He said in an interview last week that it was "an effort to provide some economic development."
Pros and cons of earmarks
During Missouri's gubernatorial debate, Steelman declared: "Earmarks, to me, are a use of taxpayer money that shows disrespect."
Hulshof countered that Missouri has benefited from its own share of dedicated federal funding. Steelman's earmark examples, he suggested, reveal just as much about her as they do his record.
"It's easy when you have over 7,000 votes to take votes out of context and mislead," Hulshof said during the debate.
As if to make that point, Hulshof highlighted past votes Steelman took as a state senator, including her support of a bill to let electric utilities pass on their fuel cost increases to consumers without going through a full rate case before the Missouri Public Service Commission.
During the debate, viewers could have gotten the impression Hulshof disagreed with that utility legislation.
Actually, he does not oppose it, Hulshof said in an interview two days later. His point was that Steelman's support of that bill seemed to conflict with her "Power to the People" campaign theme.
Throughout this campaign, Hulshof generally has appeared more hesitant to criticize Steelman than she has been to discredit him. That often has left Hulshof on the defensive. Hulshof's most common criticism, in fact, has been targeted at Steelman's criticism.
"I would much prefer, especially in a Republican primary, to focus on a positive message and vision for our state," Hulshof said.