More Ford

Toting up some assets and liabilities.

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Last week, we began what will be a continuing examination of the forthcoming U.S. Senate race of 9th District congressman Harold Ford.

In Ford's case, as in that of his Democratic primary opponent, state representative Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, and in those of the several Republican hopefuls now in the field, we intend to look beyond and beneath the PR statements, position papers, and stump platitudes for a nitty-gritty take on the candidates' persona and politics.

Promise: In all instances, you will get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. No spin, no kowtowing, and no shying away from either positives or negatives.

First, the good news for Ford: Despite the widely held belief of some, mainly local, observers that Ford's race will be handicapped by 1) his race and 2) bad publicity about his uncle, state senator John Ford, my interviews and observations statewide over the years have not borne out that concern.

In 15 years of reporting state and local politics, I have yet to hear the first disparaging comment about Ford that is race-based -- even from the kind of thinly reconstructed types one might expect that from. And as Ed Cromer, the respected editor of the Nashville-based Tennessee Journal says, "I think that, even with the kind of bad publicity that John Ford is in for now, people will be able to distinguish between the nephew and the uncle." As if to make doubly sure, the congressman has repeatedly made remarks distancing himself from his uncle (something, John Ford's intimates say, that the currently beleaguered state senator isn't crazy about).

More good news: It is no secret that the congressman has proved a fascinating figure for much of the national and statewide media, and in his race he can expect the kind of lavish attention that was given the Senate races of candidates like Hillary Clinton in New York and Barack Obama in Illinois.

There's bad news that comes with this good news, however: As we have noted, and as others are likely to discover, the congressman's reactions to news coverage are sometimes impulsive and even, when he doesn't like the facts reported, characterized by kill-the-messenger tendencies.

Two years ago, when another writer for this newspaper pointed out, accurately, that Ford's local supporters were supporting state representative Kathryn Bowers, the eventual winner for local Democratic chairman, the congressman, looking ahead to his statewide race and no doubt galvanized by fear of party division, reacted swiftly and angrily. He repudiated the effort of his minions and made a point of endorsing then chairman Gale Jones Carson.

Complicating the issue was the fact that Carson doubled as press secretary for Mayor Willie Herenton, who has never been close to the Ford political clan.

Though Ford's local supporters sucked it up and kept their peace publicly, several of them simmered privately and insisted that the congressman himself had initially signed off on their pro-Bowers efforts. One or two of them had serious words with Ford over the matter.

Ford's composure under fire is sure to be tested in a Senate race. Kurita herself has a reputation for tenacious, even bare-knuckled campaigning, and, assuming Ford gets by her, he can surely expect some heavy weather from the eventual Republican nominee. As Cromer says, "No doubt about it. He's never had to endure the kind of stressful opposition he can expect in a Senate race, and that could be a problem for him."

Even Ford's well-established celebrity glow could turn into a hindrance. Two recent items in Roll Call, the widely read Capitol Hill newsletter, began to highlight Ford's private life. One called attention to his conspicuous presence at a lavish party thrown by Playboy magazine during Super Bowl week. Another made fun of his penchant for regular pedicures.

Though he was briefly engaged some years ago, Ford does not have the kind of visible ties to a Significant Other that Tennesseans will see in the case of his various opponents. This fact might even help him with some younger voters, however.

One other potential obstacle for Ford: A number of state Democrats were unsettled by Ford's protracted dawdling over a potential 2000 campaign for the Senate seat of Bill Frist -- the same one that Frist will vacate and Ford intends to seek next year.

Still other Democrats were miffed by what they saw as the inattention of Ford, a national co-chair of John Kerry's campaign, to the Democratic nominee's race in Tennessee. One major-county liaison official communicated misgivings about Ford to the Kerry campaign at the highest level.

For all that, no one doubts that Representative Ford, an undeniably dynamic figure, is likely to energize the Tennessee Democratic base in ways beyond the ability of the party's Senate nominees of the past decade or more. And this too will be spoken to here. Stay tuned.

Bowers Gets Feisty

Alternating between irony and promises of sustained direct action, state representative. Kathryn Bowers, chairman of the legislative TennCare Oversight Committee, vowed Sunday to continue resisting Governor Phil Bredesen's recently announced TennCare cuts and to try to maintain the state-run insurance system as close to its current level of enrollees as possible.

Bowers appeared, along with Nell Levin of the Tennessee Alliance for Progress and Beverly Owens of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, at the monthly meeting of the Public Issues Forum at the Central Library.

Maintaining that Bredesen's reforms amounted to "telling people to jump before they've got a safety net set up," Bowers concurred with attendees who said the proposed Bredesen cuts threatened their very lives. Paying homage to Judge William J. Haynes Jr., the Middle Tennessee federal jurist who last month issued an order delaying the cuts, Bowers said, "Thank God for Judge Haynes. We're not going to sit on our hands and let them take 323,000 people off the rolls."

Attributing to the governor and his aides variations on the mockingly enunciated refrain "We don't know yet," the diminutive state representative said Bredesen had acted before possessing reliable estimates of the economic and health costs to Tennesseans. She said she would organize groups of citizens to come to the General Assembly and lobby legislators against the Bredesen reforms.

Judge Haynes has meanwhile set a March 28th hearing to determine whether the governor's plan is in compliance with federal consent decrees. And the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled an April 26th hearing to review the matter. Some news reports indicate that key legislators are considering seeking a monthlong recess, pending the outcome of the two hearings.

Levin said she thought public reaction to the governor's proposals would be bad politically for Bredesen, who has recently been mentioned by national magazines as a potential 2008 presidential contender. Owens said she thought the TennCare issue might once again revive prospects for a state income tax, but Bowers, who intends to run for the state Senate seat vacated recently by Roscoe Dixon, now a Shelby County governmental aide, said she thought the income tax was a dead issue.

She touted instead a measure introduced jointly by herself and state senator Steve Cohen that would raise cigarette taxes enough to pay for maintaining the current level of TennCare enrollment.

n Bowers v. Hooks v. Chism v. Herenton? The feisty Bowers has more than Bredesen on her plate. As she prepares to run against current Shelby County Commission chairman Michael Hooks for Dixon's old state Senate seat, she confronts the reality of a political adversary serving as interim senator. This is former Teamster leader Sidney Chism, a longtime confidante of Mayor Herenton and a de facto Hooks ally, who got seven commission votes Monday -- just enough to turn back two other aspirants, former Dixon aide Barry Myers and former state representative Alvin King.

"I'm not comfortable with Sidney in there," Bowers confided Saturday after presiding over a special meeting of the Shelby County Democratic Committee in her role as local Democratic chairman. Bowers is one of several legislators who believe that Chism went out of his way to recruit primary opponents for them in the last election.

Chism, who has denied doing such recruitment, said Monday that some of the offended legislators had lobbied against him with Shelby County mayor A C Wharton. After the vote, Chism was given a formal welcome by state senator Jim Kyle, a close Bredesen ally and the current Senate minority leader.

The state Senate primary race has settled into a one-on-one affair, Hooks v. Bowers, after the withdrawal of state representative Joe Towns, who confronted unpaid fines for longstanding failures to file financial disclosure in previous races.

n Saturday's special Democratic meeting had dealt with another thorny issue -- the question of whether Shelby County Democrats would hold their biennial nominating convention in July this year, as Bowers and her supporters wished, or in April, along with the rest of the state's Democratic county committees.

Bowers had requested the change, and the state Democratic committee had voted last month to permit it, so long as the local committee approved the request. The bottom line: Chairman Bowers' contingent had the numbers, winning by voice vote.

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