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Harold Ford Jr., Prince of Memphis

The Memphis congressman, a poster boy for New Democrats, is eyeing the Senate in 2006

If Harold Ford Jr., U.S. congressman, rising Democratic star and national co-chair of the John Kerry for President campaign, could make one wish for this election season, it would be for all fuming mad Democrats to take a deep breath, relax and start getting in touch with their inner undecided American voter.

“We cannot win by being angry,” he says, moving his arms in smooth but tightly controlled gesticulations within his dark tailored suit. “You have to understand, people like George Bush,” he says. “He’s a nice guy. We need to learn from him. Remember what Bill Clinton did: He figured out what Republicans were doing well, and instead of complaining about it, he figured out a way to do it better.”

Sounds like a pretty good formula, but this kind of thing doesn’t sit well with people like Nikki Courtney, popular morning-show personality on WMAK 96.3-FM, Nashville. During a Q-and-A session following a recent Ford appearance, Courtney shouts into a microphone while apologizing to the 200 or so “Music Row Democrats” gathered at the the capital’s Belcourt Theatre to hear Ford speak. She takes him to task for telling the audience to stop acting angry.

“I am angry!” she bellows. “I am pissed off! I want to say that I’m angry!” Some applause follows, and Courtney continues.

Throughout, Ford listens patiently, waits a beat after she’s finished, nods in acknowledgment and then pretty much repeats what he had just said.

“Forget ‘angry,’” he concludes. “The word we need to focus on is ‘winning.’”

Mild grumbling in the peanut gallery begins to grow. This crowd wants some red meat, and Ford, irritatingly, refuses to provide it. There is mild doubt on the faces of some of the diehards as Ford continues to say things they don’t necessarily want to hear. The question is written on their perplexed faces: We like this guy, but is he really one of us?

It’s a question that all Tennesseans may be asking themselves in two years, when Congressman Ford runs for Bill Frist’s U.S. Senate seat. (Frist has indicated that he will not run for re-election in 2006.) But right now, Ford has the peculiar distinction of being better known nationally than he is in his home state. He’s trying to correct that, speaking at Knoxville’s Austin East High School graduation last week, for example.

Beloved by the national media, he’s been a virtual regular on Don Imus’ radio show and frequently appears on CNN, Fox News and other news networks. He’s even been named one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” by People magazine, a pretty good trick for someone who wore makeup to cover his acne during his first election when he was 26.

In Tennessee, though, at least outside of Memphis, Ford is not as well-known. To be more accurate, he is incorrectly known. Ask average Tennesseans their opinion of Harold Ford Jr. and odds are they’ll get him confused with somebody else in his notorious political family. The first thought for many is that he’s the state legislator who gets into embarrassing scrapes with the law, often involving firearms. But that’s actually his uncle, John Ford, who is a state senator. Or, they will confuse him with his father, thinking that it was little Harold, and not Harold Ford Sr., who was involved in some financial scandals way back when.

And then there are those who do know exactly who Harold Ford Jr. is, but they think he has no chance of winning a statewide election in Tennessee because he’s too young, too inexperienced, from Memphis, a Ford and, most significantly, he’s black.

They’re absolutely wrong: Harold Ford Jr. has every chance in the world.

As he will freely admit, that’s in large part because Ford has had every opportunity in the world. He led the charmed life of a congressman’s son in Washington, attending the blue-chip St. Albans prep school (where Al Gore Jr. also went). He had an Ivy League education, majoring in American history at the University of Pennsylvania, and went on to the University of Michigan School of Law with his father’s congressional seat waiting for him upon graduation. By any measure, life has dealt Harold Ford Jr. a very sweet hand.

It’s how he has so far chosen to play that hand that sets him apart. The fact of the matter is that Ford could have made one of two easy choices after becoming a congressman. On the one hand, he could have chosen to do nothing, or at least as much nothing as a congressman can get away with (a lot, as it happens). His seat is quite safe, and even if he did nothing more than basic constituent services, he could probably keep that seat for the rest of his life. Alternatively, he could have used his position to be an instigator, spouting racialist diatribes from the far-left end of the political spectrum as some of his congressional colleagues from demographically similar districts do. There would have been no political punishment.

Instead, Ford chose a third path. Rather than being a do-nothing congressman or a knee-jerk leftist automaton, Ford is extremely active and explicitly centrist in his political orientation. He is a Bill Clinton Democrat, ideologically far removed from Howard Dean, and not even in the same solar system as Al Sharpton or Dennis Kucinich.

Actually, to say that Ford has a political orientation at all may be overstating things. Journalist David Plotz, himself a classmate of Ford’s at St. Albans, wrote in the online Slate magazine that the school trains its charges to “trust cool analysis and the reasonable solution.” That’s a big reason why, according to Plotz, Ford and Jesse Jackson Jr., also a St. Albans alum, are “probably the least ideological black politicians in the United States.”

Ford himself confirms this notion. Standing in a Memphis Starbucks (Ford seems to be congenitally incapable of passing a Starbucks without stopping in for something, a caramel macchiato in this particular instance), he explains what informs his political philosophy.

“Just my experience and education,” Ford says. “I have no real ‘philosophy.’”

But probe a little deeper, and some themes emerge.

“I’m a Democrat because I think we are more often right. But there are some things some Democrats believe that I don’t. I don’t think government is an insurance program. Government is about making sure people have opportunities on their own; the safety net should be there when necessary, but not as an ongoing thing.”

Spoken like a true “New Democrat,” which Ford proudly is. He is also a member of the “Blue Dog Coalition,” a collection of self-described moderate-to-conservative congressional Democrats said to be “choked blue” by the national party’s liberal wing.

He has made some interesting political alliances during his tenure on Capitol Hill. As early as December 2001, Ford was out front on the issue of Iraq, signing a letter of support for action against Saddam Hussein. His co-signers were leading Republicans, including Sens. Trent Lott and Jesse Helms, Republicans from Mississippi and North Carolina, respectively.

He’s also been vocal about the Social Security issue, working with conservatives—including the libertarian Cato Institute—on ways to restructure the program. He is even open to some level of privatization for Social Security accounts, though he would not go nearly as far as many conservatives would.

Ford’s rationale for all of this cooperation with Republicans is twofold. The first is simply that he happens to agree with some of the things Republicans do, or, at the very least, he doesn’t turn up his nose in disgust. The second is more practical: There are more Republicans than Democrats in Congress. Unlike many Washington Democrats, who look back fondly on the days when they held the gavel, Ford has always been in the minority party. He views reaching across the divide as a way of getting things done.

This makes Ford suspect in the eyes of some Democrats, and it’s one of the reasons he didn’t make as much headway as he would have liked in 2002 when he sought the House minority-leader post, a pretty ballsy maneuver for a 32-year-old, three-term congressman to attempt.

For some Democrats, it was a little too ballsy. The post had become veteran California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s to lose, and up popped Harold Ford, who had the audacity to declare his candidacy on Don Imus’ show. Ford explained his upstart run by saying that the Democratic “party elders” had failed for five straight election cycles with their old and tired ideas, and that the time had come for a new face with fresh ideas to get the party back in the majority.

Ford was summarily trounced, garnering only 29 votes to Pelosi’s 177. Many of his colleagues on the Congressional Black Caucus turned their backs on him, including notables John Conyers and Sheila Jackson Lee, of Missouri and Texas, respectively. Thomas E. Mann, congressional scholar at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, said that Ford was “fighting the wrong battle at the wrong time.” For a short while, Washington’s chattering classes wrote Ford off.

Then he made what appeared to be another miscalculation. In April 2003, Ford chose to endorse Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was not, at the time, a particularly fearless thing to do, as Kerry was the favorite at that moment.

But then the Massachusetts senator began to sink like a stone. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean exploded onto the scene. Gen. Wesley Clark looked to be the default choice for moderate Democrats. Even John Edwards was making some headway. Kerry’s campaign, meanwhile, was this side of qualifying for federal disaster relief.

Ford relates the feelings he had at that point to a group of Democratic muckety-mucks at the Nashville law offices of Bone McAllester Norton. Holding an imaginary telephone, he does a self-mocking rendition of a January phone call to Kerry.

“Uh, Sen. Kerry,” Ford says into his right pinky, “if things don’t go too well, I would like, you know, the ability to join another campaign, perhaps a certain general....”

But then Kerry won Iowa. Then New Hampshire. Then the South, including Tennessee, with a big push from voters in Ford’s district. Suddenly, John Kerry was the man, and, just as suddenly, Harold Ford Jr. was back in the game, stumping for Kerry on the radio, on television and at political gatherings.

Ford is a natural extemporaneous speaker. When he’s asked a question, his answers have three phases. There is the initial answer—a yes, no, or maybe—utterly rare for a politician. Then there’s some elaboration on that answer. Finally, there’s the crisp, clear conclusion, in which he ends the exchange on his own terms. It’s not easy. Watch any talking head show and observe the political guest of the day meander his way to a point, or, just as often, to no point at all. It’s no wonder talk-show hosts love Ford; they don’t have to work as hard.

That’s not to say that he’s an orator. His keynote address at the Democratic National Convention was just OK. There was nothing particularly memorable about the content of the speech itself or his delivery, which, while perfectly adequate for the occasion, was nothing that made people want to shout from the rooftops.

But then, what recent keynote speech, with the possible exception of Barbara Jordan’s at the 1976 Democratic Convention, has ever been all that memorable? Ford’s strong suit is not so much the prepared speech, but the give-and-take of political discussion, communicating thoughts and ideas to people on a wide variety of policy topics in everyday terms they can understand.

As he does, a few verbal cues remind the listener that Ford, political star of the future, contender for higher office, is still just 33 years old. He talks like a young person, with a fondness for the term “joker,” as in “that joker Howard Stern” or “I’m not going to say anything about those jokers.” President Bush is a “guy’s guy” whose appearance at this year’s Daytona 500—replete with limos, Air Force One, the works—was “cool.” Bush also won the White House in 2000—he didn’t steal it—and Democrats should “get over it” already.

Living the life of a single yuppie—his one-time engagement to a lawyer for America Online ended a couple of years ago—in a trendy new development along the banks of the Mississippi near downtown Memphis, Ford’s policy interests tend to reflect his youthful lifestyle and post-baby-boomer outlook. The Social Security situation concerns him in part because his generation may never see the money. He has pushed a “Call to Service” plan, sort of an AmeriCorps on steroids, for the next generation. His current pet project is the establishment of “stakeholder accounts,” based on a program in Great Britain in which the government establishes small individual “nest eggs” for low- and middle-income children in return for community service. The money is invested, and when the kids turn 18, they can do what they want with it.

What about issues already on the table, like the war in Iraq? He’s all over that one. “I believe the country’s safer with Saddam Hussein in jail. I’m a hawk.” Gay marriage? He’s against it, but might consider allowances for “something else.” The Bush tax cuts? He’s a little iffy here. Ford’s not much on class warfare. (“I’m not a Democrat who thinks rich people have too much,” he says over a giant salad—dressing on the side, please—at the West End Houston’s. “I don’t think enough people have the chance to get rich.”) But he predicts the budget deficit may need an emergency crash cart soon enough. Listen to Ford talk, and he is the very measure of a modern Southern Democrat.

His voting record, however, tells a slightly different tale. Ford is among the most liberal members of the Tennessee delegation, with a lifetime rating of 20 (on a scale of 0 to 100, 100 being arch-conservative) from the American Conservative Union (ACU). The ratings index for that group’s liberal counterpart, the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), reflects the same thing, just in reverse, with Ford scoring anywhere from 60 to 85, depending on the year. It is worth noting, though, that the ADA’s numbers indicate a noticeable rightward trend.

Of course, labels are relative, and “liberal” in Tennessee is moderate in other places. Plus, the Ninth District is the most left-leaning in the state, and compared to his father’s voting record, Ford looks like a regular Tom DeLay. But is he conservative enough for the rest of Tennessee?

His own ambitions for a Senate seat aside, a few political observers have their own plans for Ford, one of which is unconstitutional. Writing for the conservative National Review Online, political reporter John J. Miller put Ford on Kerry’s VP short list. Can’t be done. To be vice president, you have to qualify to be president, and Ford will be three and a half months shy of the required age of 35 come Inauguration Day 2005.

Jackson Baker, a senior editor at the weekly Memphis Flyer, recently opined that Ford might score a cabinet post in a John Kerry administration, perhaps as secretary of education. In the first place, that would require a Kerry victory. In the second place, it’s hard to see what a cabinet post of any kind would really get Ford except a bunch of headaches. Politicians at the height or twilight of their careers, not younger pols on the rise, generally prefer cabinet positions. They are certainly prestigious, but they also tend to be the end of the political road.

The consensus among most observers is that Ford will do exactly what he says he will do. (And he says what he will do a lot, especially anytime he’s around a group of two or more people with a microphone in hand.) He plans to run for the U.S. Senate in 2006. It’s something he’s rather shameless about, telling a gathering of the Tennessee Fire Chiefs Association that he “would make a damned good U.S. senator.”

Maybe so, but first things first: Can he win? Perhaps, but to do it, he will have to overcome four obstacles, each one bigger than the last.

The first is his political inexperience. In terms of national political experience, Ford is golden. No other member of the Tennessee congressional delegation (on the House side anyway) even comes close. But it’s one thing to yuck it up with Bill Maher via satellite or butt heads with Sean Hannity on Fox News. It’s wholly another to wage a ground-level campaign across the state of Tennessee.

His toughest challenge actually may be the Democratic primary election rather than the general election that would follow. While Tennessee Democrats offer the usual tripe (“I think it’s great that a black man is being thought of this way...”), a few privately carp about Ford, complaining that he should wait his turn, that he has had too many unfair advantages, and that he’s more about himself than the party. He also has a bad reputation for being late—or for not showing up at all—for appointments and functions. The first question out of the mouth of one Democratic activist, after learning that the Nashville Scene was interviewing Ford, was whether the congressman had even bothered to show up. He was only half-kidding.

Ford partisans point out that his first race for Congress was a highly charged affair with opponents waiting to pounce on any false move. Even Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, a longtime archrival of the Ford family, was actively working against Ford’s election.

Please. Ford’s victory in 1996 was the closest thing to a silver platter affair there could be in politics. His father’s fine-tuned political machine was well in place, and his son’s name recognition was (for obvious reasons) already so high that the campaign signs didn’t even have his name on them. They just said “Jr.” in large white letters on a blue background. He won going away with 62 percent of the vote. Not exactly the Battle of the Bulge.

The second complication is Ford’s own hometown of Memphis, which has a reputation among many Tennesseans as a sprawling, urban, dysfunctional mess that, by historical accident, the rest of the state is stuck having to deal with. These Tennesseans think that while Memphis has its charms, those charms should stay right there in Memphis where they belong. They’re going to be skeptical about any politician from that city, especially one whose controversial family is so closely connected to it.

Which brings us back to the problem of the Ford family itself. The patriarch of the clan, N.J. Ford, wasn’t even a politician, unless you count his service as a delegate to the 1978 constitutional convention. But through a happy set of circumstances in 1974, three members of N.J.’s family—sons Emmitt, John and Harold—won elections to, respectively, the state House, the state Senate and the U.S. Congress.

Since that time, the Ford family has dominated Memphis politics, although Herenton’s 2003 election to a third straight term as Memphis mayor has established a clear diminishing of that influence. Still, it remains a force to be reckoned with, and the idea of a possible U.S. senator coming out of this mix rubs a lot people—even in Memphis—the wrong way.

Then there are the family members themselves. State Sen. John Ford, Harold Jr.’s uncle, is the most notorious example. Even by the standards of the Tennessee Legislature, John Ford is a bizarre and often embarrassing character. In 1990, he allegedly fired a pistol at a trucker on I-40 just outside of Jackson. A few years later, he was arrested for threatening utility workers at his home with a loaded shotgun. Just last year, he made headlines for using Federal Express as his personal courier service at taxpayers’ expense.

Congressman Ford’s father, Harold Ford Sr., fought federal bank fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy charges for six years until his final acquittal in 1993. He was among the worst offenders in the House banking scandals of the early 1990s, having written over $500,000 worth of bad checks. The elder Ford also raised hackles in 1994 when he characterized the mostly white residents of East Memphis as “devils,” something that reverberates to this day.

Completing the trifecta, the much lesser known Emmitt Ford was sentenced to 21 months in prison for tax evasion in 2000.

The colorful history of the Ford family would actually make a pretty good television miniseries, but that’s not a positive thing for someone like Harold Ford Jr., for whom a squeaky clean image is imperative. The political effect of his family ties depends solely on how much he can transcend their shortcomings in the minds of voters while cultivating close family relations. (He speaks with his father, now a consultant in Memphis, at least three times a day.)

“I love my family,” Ford once said. “I wish they were perfect.” Indeed.

Finally, there’s the biggie: his race. In all of American history, there have been exactly four black U.S. senators. Two of those hardly count for purposes of modern analysis, as they represented Mississippi during Reconstruction. The most recent was the erratic Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, who served a single term ending in 1999. The remaining one was, of all things, a Republican from Massachusetts named Edward Brooke who served two terms in the 1960s and 1970s. Ford actually has a connection to Brooke in a six-degrees-from-Kevin-Bacon sort of way. Democrat Paul Tsongas defeated Brooke in 1978. Tsongas later announced his retirement after one term from the Senate and was succeeded by John Kerry, whom Ford’s promoting.

The race issue has two dimensions. Let’s quickly dispense with the obvious one: people who will not vote for a black person, period, ever, end of story. How many Tennessee voters feel this way is impossible to know, but contrary to popular belief, these folks aren’t really Ford’s problem. It’s probably too small a voting bloc to make a real difference in a statewide race, and there’s nothing he could do about them anyway.

The other race dimension is more latent but much more important. That’s because moderate white voters are the most important demographic of all, without whom Harold Ford cannot possibly win. If race has a negative effect on Ford’s chances, it will be because of these voters, but probably not for the reasons many people think.

Ford’s popularity among national media types will more than suffice to generate interest in his race among Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Judy Woodruff and the rest. If they condescendingly cover the election as a question of whether these hick Tennesseans are ready to join the rest of the right-thinking people in the 21st century (like New York has ever elected a black U.S. senator), independent, middle-of-the-road voters may revolt, and Ford would go the way of Harvey Gantt, who lost twice to North Carolina’s notorious throwback, Jesse Helms.

Ford’s path to the Senate won’t be easy, but he’s spent 33 years being groomed and preparing for a life in politics. Everything else has taken a back seat to that. Even his first attempt at passing the bar exam fell by the wayside as he focused instead on his first run for Congress. (“I didn’t study, and the results showed,” is all he’ll say.)

On a bright Saturday morning, Harold Ford Jr. is tooling eastward in his shiny black SUV through Germantown, an overwhelmingly Republican East Memphis suburb. Following his driving is a little dicey, because, while he may be a political moderate, Ford is an absolute anarchist when it comes to respecting turning lanes, making simple left turns exercises in personal valor. Then, out of the blue, he swoops into a McDonald’s and rolls down his window.

“I’m hungry. I’ve got to get a sausage biscuit,” he says, and heads to the drive-thru window.

Ten minutes later, sandwich consumed, he’s already waxing nostalgic about it.

“McDonald’s makes the best biscuits,” he says to no one in particular, and with a touch of remorse, because he’s trying to go low-carb. It must be more of a maintenance diet than a means of losing weight. At 6-foot-1 and about 180 pounds or so, Ford cuts a healthy, trim and athletic figure as he enters the doorway of the Germantown library’s community room.

Inside, it’s packed with Germantown Democrats ready to hear him speak. He’s introduced, and off he goes, Starbucks coffee in hand, talking animatedly about how John Kerry can beat George Bush this year if everyone just focuses on winning instead of, well, being pissed.

Ford is business-casual today—slacks, a sport coat and no tie. Good thing too, because the room is incredibly stuffy, and it’s even worse inside the back doorway. Susan Simmons, an officer of the group, has crowded herself in, out of view of the congressman, but still within earshot.

“He’s got a wonderful sense of humor,” she says. “We just love him.”

Yeah, that seems to be the consensus. But what about his negatives? What about his family? What about his father?

“I’ve got a story about that,” Simmons replies. “A long time ago, I was at a function—this was back when he [Ford Jr.] was still in school, but everybody knew he was going to run—and I saw him. I went up to him and I said, ‘If you get elected, don’t you act like your father did.’ And then I immediately felt bad, like it wasn’t my place to talk to him that way. But you know what he did? He took my hand, looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Ma’am, I promise you I won’t. And let me tell you something... my father was the very first person to tell me that, a very, very long time ago.’”

June 3, 2004 • Vol. 14, No. 23
© 2004 Nashville Scene