Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Ford in Our Future?

The New York Times profiles Rep. Harold Ford (D-TN), who is running for the Senate in Tennessee.

Mr. Ford, 36, is a Democrat in a conservative state that has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1990. He is the scion of a polarizing political family with an uncle under indictment on federal corruption charges, or, as Mr. Ford dryly puts it on the campaign trail, “You may have read a few things about my family.” He is an African-American in a region that has not sent an African-American to the Senate since Reconstruction.

Moreover, the South has become a Republican stronghold in recent years, the castle keep for the party’s Senate majority. Democrats lost five seats in the region in 2004. Of the 22 Senate seats in the South, only 4 are now held by Democrats. Party leaders are keenly aware that until they make inroads in the South, any stable majority in the Senate will be hard to achieve. But they have hopes that Mr. Ford can begin to turn the tide.

And Mr. Ford, a five-term congressman from Memphis, rouses his audiences, white and black, with little parables of political possibility: How he was driving back to Memphis one day on the campaign trail, fired up after a meeting at a church, and decided to stop and shake hands at a bar and grill called the Little Rebel. How he looked with some trepidation at the Confederate flag outside and the parking lot filled with pickup trucks, covered with bumper stickers for President Bush and the National Rifle Association.

And how he was greeted, when he walked through the door, by a woman at the bar who gave him a huge hug. “And she said, ‘Baby, we’ve been waiting to see you.’ “


It was viewed as a measure of Republican concern when the National Republican Senatorial Committee began a series of personal attacks with a Web site called “Fancy Ford,” mocking Mr. Ford for vacationing in the Hamptons, socializing and raising money with stars like Sarah Jessica Parker, and wearing Armani suits. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee responded with a Web site called “Fancy Frist,” cataloging the patrician tastes of the current Republican senator.

“My grandmother used to say, ‘bless their hearts,’ ” Mr. Ford said of the attacks while campaigning across eastern Tennessee. “When people don’t have anything meaningful to say, they go on the attack.”


In the tradition of other Southern Democrats who prospered in conservative times, Mr. Ford presents himself as a pro-growth, centrist, fiscal hawk.

He voted for the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq (he has also called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld), for a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage and for the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. NARAL Pro-Choice America considers him “mixed choice” on abortion; the National Rifle Association gave him a grade of C in the 2004 election. He also backs a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget.

Mr. Ford is known as something of an ambitious maverick in his party; he challenged Representative Nancy Pelosi of California for the minority leader’s job in 2002. According to Congressional Quarterly ratings, he voted with his party 83 percent of the time in 2005, below the average Democratic party unity score of 88 percent. Republicans say he is still the most liberal member of the Tennessee delegation.

Mr. Ford agrees that “the most toxic word in the political vocabulary in this state is liberal” and fights the ideological characterization. He is an accomplished, seemingly effortless campaigner, slipping comfortably between the old cadences of Southern populism, “new Democrat” optimism and the rich oratory of the black church.

About 16 percent of Tennessee’s population is black; in addition to “campaigning everywhere,” as Mr. Ford puts it, his campaign needs a major turnout in black communities. “I can’t do this without you,” he told a group of black ministers in Knoxville. After a day of frenetic campaigning, with more to come into the night, he ended simply: “I just want to be a good senator. If we make some history, fair enough.”

And best of all, he’d replace the retiring Bill Frist.

Should Mr. Ford win, it will be a sign that not only is the Republican grip on the South losing some of its power but that the next generation of Democrats is beginning to step into office. They’ve seen how the Republicans treat government as both a weapon and an enemy, and they saw the possibilites that government can be a force for good in some aspects of the Clinton administration; at the least they knew how to handle a budget. The next generation seems to be both more pragmatic and more hopeful, not afraid to buck the old guard or incur the wrath of some progressives (for example, he has some ‘splaining to do about that vote in favor the Federal Marriage Amendment), and appeal to their constituents at home rather than look for a spot on “Meet the Press.”

If Mr. Ford intends to follow the lead of someone like Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), the Democrats could do a lot worse.