Say this about Harold Ford Sr.: The former 9th District congressman hasn't lost his appetite for political combat. He made that clear last week when he accepted co-billing with his son Harold Ford Jr. at a Friday-morning rally at the Park Place headquarters of the current congressman, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
A "reception" for the two Harold Fords, it was called, and it drew a goodly crowd. With some time to kill, the senior Ford shared some thinking about his son's campaign as he awaited the arrival of Representative Ford's campaign bus. (Yes, if earlier that morning you were watching hometown idol Justin Timberlake on ABC-TV's Good Morning America, that was the selfsame bus that just happened to have pulled up behind the stage, flashing its Ford For Senate logo before the eyes of the nation.)
Nor has the old warrior lost his sense of strategy. It was clearly a mistake, the former congressman said, for his son's Senate rival, Republican nominee Bob Corker, to have invited President Bush to Memphis for a fund-raiser next week -- the second such occasion in Tennessee, following a public embrace between the two the week before last in Nashville.
"That's the trouble with those millionaires. They don't want to spend any money, especially none of their own," Ford Sr. -- a seven-figure type himself these days as a well-paid Florida-based consultant -- said of the former Chattanooga mayor, an entrepreneur whose considerable fortune has derived from low-income housing projects.
As the elder Ford explained it, Corker's misplaced frugality was making him over-dependent on a president with sagging polls and presumably frayed coattails. As a piece of analysis, it made sense. It was certainly true that his son's campaign seemed to be spending more money than his rival's just now -- mainly on a recurring and well-crafted series of TV ads that made the most of the younger Ford's mediagenic looks and reassuring stage presence.
Those commercials -- the most recent one made in a church! -- featured the same right-of-center rap (pro-Patriot Act, pro-curbs on immigration, etc.) that has driven the left wing of the congressman's party bananas. One effect of this approach has seemingly been to prevent Corker, fearful of being out-flanked on his right, from coming to the political center as newly minted party nominees usually do.
The audience for Representative Ford's typically rousing and generalized remarks at the Friday-morning rally included a generous collection of Democrats -- senior citizens, business types, Midtown Democrats, suburban types, etc.
Subsequent to the event, the impression got out in some quarters that it had been an affair for College Democrats (it wasn't -- though they, like other Democrats, had been invited and responded) in which, according to a widely circulated e-mail from a University of Memphis student: "Apparently, after Junior was done speaking, his fucktard brother got a chance to speak to the volunteer base that we acquired for Junior."
Hearsay of this sort begat further hearsay, and soon an honest blogger or two had picked up on a gathering outrage among supporters of 9th District Democratic nominee Steve Cohen that the "fucktard brother" (i.e., independent congressional candidate Jake Ford) had benefited from what had now, in some tellings, become a "handoff" at the rally from Representative Ford.
Actually, nothing of the sort occurred. Jake Ford had been no more than one member of the large and milling crowd. He had no role in the proceedings, which ended after his congressman brother left to go join the Rev. Ben Hooks for the dedication of a Whitehaven Job Corps center in Hooks' honor.
If Jake Ford "worked the crowd" afterward (as a revised version of the ever-shifting story had it), then so did anybody else who had been in the throng. It was just a case of a large gathering breaking off into isolated conversational clumps as people made their way out the door.
That so much was later made of a non-event merely served to underscore the existence of a very real schism in local Democratic ranks -- one that was bound to be exacerbated by Jake Ford's own claim in a radio interview this week.
Asked by a caller on a show hosted by Jennings Bernard why Representative Ford had not publicly endorsed him, Jake Ford maintained that his brother had in fact done so and, to further that contention, availed himself of the same rumors that were already in play concerning last week's Friday-morning rally.
"Quite simply, he [Representative Ford] endorses me every day," said Jake Ford. "I endorse him every day." As for why his brother hadn't "officially come out," Ford said, "I think most people should realize he does endorse me. I was just with him on Friday at his campaign headquarters for a rally. Make no mistake about it, he's my brother, and I love the guy. It's just two different races. He's running for the Senate and I'm running for Congress."
The bottom line was that now people were prepared to believe what they wanted to believe. When Jake Ford's radio remarks are carefully parsed, they don't authenticate the fact of an "endorsement" that, ultimately, could only come from Representative Ford himself. But they certainly put Ford Jr. in the position of having to speak to the issue himself, something he ultimately will be under great -- perhaps unavoidable -- pressure to do.
Understandably, proponents of state senator Cohen are vexed at Representative Ford for the statements of neutrality he has made so far concerning the race to succeed him. They, too, tend to regard the congressman's posture as indicative of de facto support for brother Jake.
In the long run, some believe, that feeling could grow in Democratic circles, even at the statewide level, and cost Representative Ford enough votes at the margin to threaten his chances in the Senate race. Right now, with Corker running like a dry creek and losing momentum in all the polls to Ford, it may not seem so to the congressman.
And his ex-congressman father has made no secret of his intention to pull out all the stops for both of his sons.
Meanwhile, Cohen continues to be regarded as the front-runner. He, after all, is his party's nominee, made what has to be regarded as a substantial primary showing in black precincts (17 percent overall), is regarded by many Democrats, especially liberal ones, as a longtime champion of their causes, and even has boosters in Republican circles.
That last fact, based on some isolated conservative positions (e.g., on gun control and the death penalty) as well as a general admiration for his legislative service and tenacity, is cause for some concern in the camp of Republican nominee Mark White, who has devoted much attention in his own campaign to social issues like abortion and gay marriage. It is areas like those where he perceives Cohen to have possible weaknesses.
In an address to the College Democrats at the University of Memphis Monday night, Cohen maintained that "both of my opponents" hoped to undermine him in such areas. He defended his opposition to constitutional amendments against gay marriage -- jesting, however, that he was firmly opposed to "intergalactic" marriage.
Cohen told the College Democrats that Jake Ford in his radio appearance had implied Cohen was a homosexual, a racist, and "a crook." In all fairness, the first two allegations derived more from innuendoes and more from callers than from anything Ford said. But candidate Ford did seem to be doing his best to nudge home the last charge.
"I think he's stepped over the line a couple of times, and we still cannot get the attorney general to be responsive to some of the allegations that we have become aware of pertaining to some dealings that he has had himself," Ford said on Bernard's show without elaborating further.
The very fact that he said something like that was taken by many Cohen supporters as ample confirmation that Jake Ford was intimately bound up with the appearance of a new Web site called CrookedCohen.org, which makes the very unspecified allegations alluded to by Ford. Blogger Derek Haire (rivercitymud.com) painstakingly traced that site and Jake Ford's own campaign site back to the same IP address.
No sign, by the way, of Ophelia Ford, unseen on the campaign trail during this entire season but still, for demographic and party reasons, the favorite in the District 29 state Senate race over the relentlessly campaigning Republican Terry Roland.