POLITICS: The Twin Towers

Both Mayor Herenton and Rep. Ford, consistent rivals, have a penchant for surprise

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It is still a time when, despite the occasional pro forma denials that come from either side of the equation, the names Ford and Herenton can add up to tension, rivalry, and one-upmanship. In some ways, the rivalry symbolized by these two prominent Memphis political names is exponentially larger these days, though the opportunities for head-on confrontation are now relatively few.

In the last week alone, the public prominence of the one, statewide, and of the other, on the national scene, have served as a reminder of how much (a) ambition and (b) ability are involved as the chief exemplars of the rivalry, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and 9th District U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., continue to make moves that are both astonishing and unprecedented.

Note that “Jr.” suffix while you can, by the way, because, although the Ford clan patriarch, Harold Ford Sr., is still very much with it -- keeping his hand in local, state, and national politics, even from his main base in Florida Ð his son and namesake has cut himself loose from the qualifier. By conscious choice of both Fords, the current congressman now presents himself to the world as just plain Harold Ford.

Except that there is nothing plain about the way the 32-year-old African-American prodigy has gone about establishing himself as a national byword. Though Ford has for years been regarded as a comer by the Washington media, regarded as a likely Senate candidate in the near future and as an aspirant for national office in the longer run, and though he shows up regularly on the network political talk shows as a spokesman for every issue under the sun, his latest move caught everybody flatfooted and prompted a New York Daily News columnist to refer to Ford, without any undue shading, as an “upstart.”

Certainly some such notion must have been in the mind, these last few days, of U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the San Franscisco Democrat who had fairly easily forced her Texas colleague Martin Frost out of the running for the office of House minority leader vacated by Missouri’s Dick Gephardt after the Democrats’ debacle at the polls last week. When Ford declared himself a candidate for the job, contending that the liberal Pelosi represented an old, tired faction that had led the party for too long, Pelosi, elected deputy leader only this year, cracked, “Eight months must seems like a long time when you’re young.”

That Ford is not only running for the key post of minority leader (one electoral realignment away from being Speaker of the House) but doing so as a centrist adds to the uniqueness of his bid for national power. It also adds to the skepticism of those who, like Herenton, are not true believers.

Last week, only minutes after unveiling his own “surprise” by introducing victorious U.S. Senate candidate Lamar Alexander to a heady crowd of Republicans in Nashville, nominal Democrat Herenton faintly disparaged Rep. Ford’s claim to being “a moderate conservative” and contrasted his own “realism” with Ford’s ambition for more dramatic political perches.

“Let me give you this analogy. There are people who say, Ã"Herenton, you’ve done a good job. You ought to be governor of Tennessee. It would not be realistic to think I could be governor of TennesseeÉ.You follow me? No one could pat me on the back enough to make me think I could be governor. I don’t understand why people get off into this kind of egomania and think they can do these kinds of things. Nobody’s going to pump me up and make me think I can do these kinds of things.”

The kind of thing Herenton himself is likely to do is to cross party lines so as to influence a statewide election, as he did in favoring Alexander over 5th District U.S. Rep. Bob Clement of Nashville, his Democratic partymate. Deploying his son Rodney Herenton and longtime aide Reginald French as openly avowed shock troops in the effort, Herenton made conspicuous appearances with Alexander during the campaign but withheld an explicit acknowledgement of his support until last Tuesday night when he made his well-leaked introduction of the winner and was candid afterward about why.

A Clement win “just wasn’t going to happen,” Herenton said, and, aside from that, he and Alexander had maintained a relationship of “mutual admiration” for more than a generation, since newly appointed Memphis schools superintendent Herenton first encountered the newly elected governor in 1978. “With all due respect to Bob Clement, for all my friendship for Lamar, I just felt that Lamar was a far superior candidate.” Anyhow, said Herenton, “I don’t run a partisan raceÉI’m not deeply involved in a party.”

Acknowledging that his own ability to build bridges to the nominal political opposition had some resemblances to Ford’s centrist behavior as a political figure, Herenton said, “I’m just probably a little more forthright, in terms of -- if I’m really for a person, what you see is what I really am.” [HEAR THE WHOLE QUOTE BY CLICKING HERE.]

What he and Harold Ford Jr. both are is politicians of growing stature and scope.

From time to time they can and will make common cause (they were both on the line for victorious Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Bredesen, on whose victory platform Herenton stood only minutes after leaving Alexander’s).

But it is clear that neither is especially pleased when the other makes political waves. Head-on Ford-Herenton clashes have been unlikely since the 1999 city mayor’s race, when the incumbent Herenton easily put away a field including the congtressman’s Uncle Joe Ford, then a city councilman and now a county commissioner.

But there is, and will likely always be, a competitive edge to their dealings with each other.

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