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The Third Man

It wasn't racist "crackers" who cost Harold Ford Jr. the Senate.

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In the mob they call it "Omerta." It's a word of Spanish origin that can be defined more or less as, "Don't mean nothing." The Sicilians, however, adopted the word and gave it its darker current meaning: "The family doesn't talk about family business." If there's a word that sums up why Democratic Congressman Harold Ford Jr., the national media darling of the 2006 elections, lost his senate bid to a weak Republican candidate like Bob Corker, that word is Omerta.

In an attempt to reinvent himself as a Bible-thumping good 'ol boy, Ford consistently voted -- and ran hard -- against his party's mainstream and even harder against its left flank. He sided with the Republicans on such controversial issues as the bankruptcy bill, the Schiavo bill, the torture bill, and the wiretapping bill. Ford never missed an opportunity to crow over his ability to frustrate and confound fellow Democrats. At a Monday night campaign rally in Memphis -- the last official function of the political season -- he underscored his personal distance from both parties and unwittingly spelled out the very reasons his campaign strategy would ultimately fail him.

"There's no Democrat or Republican way to get a knock on your door and [hear that] a loved one was killed in Iraq," he said. "There's no Democrat or Republican way to pay too much for gas. There's no Democrat or Republican way to learn that we are more dependent today on the commodities that landed us in Iraq than we were on September 10, 2001. There's no Democrat or Republican way to learn prescription drug costs are going up. There's no Democrat or Republican way to see kids who've lost hope."

The rally, stage-managed by Ford's lobbyist father, former Congressman Harold Sr., centered around Junior's much ballyhooed bipartisan appeal and touched on subjects near and dear to conservative hearts. While Junior delivered what must have been the most pro-Republican speech in the history of Democratic rallies, his brother Jake watched from the crowd.

Ford Jr.'s fall from grace began in full when Ford Sr. left his cushy compound in Florida to help his unqualified, ill-tempered son Jake run as an independent candidate in the 9th Congressional District race against Democratic nominee Steve Cohen. Senior's campaign rhetoric flirted with racism and smacked of family entitlement. His activities on Jake's behalf were a reminder that papa Ford makes his cheese based on what does and doesn't get done in D.C.

Jake Ford's most vociferous support came from members of Memphis' black clergy, who claimed Cohen, a white Jew, couldn't properly represent the majority-black 9th District. In an interview with The New York Times, Reverend LaSimba Gray went so far as to speculate about whether Cohen was a homosexual. But no matter how dirty the attacks became, Harold Ford Jr. kept his mouth shut. Even when Jake caused a stir by calling Matt Kuhn, the chairman of Shelby County Democrats a "piece of shit," Junior kept Omerta.

When Junior's poll numbers began to slip below Corker's, the national media blamed it on a white-racist response to the shady "Harold, call me" commercial produced by the RNC. Throughout the controversy, there was nary a peep from the national press about Jake or Harold Sr. or the bitter race- and faith-based campaign they were running against Cohen. There was no speculation as to how the Yid-bashing might impact Tennessee's Jewish vote or how progressive Democrats might recoil from Junior's conservative rhetoric. Tennessee was simply red, and red hates black. And that was that.

It's easy for the national news media, in the absence of detail and context, to cling to traditional narratives about race and the South. But in order to fully grasp what actually happened to Harold Ford Jr., you must consider the scene going down at Memphis' Bayou Bar & Grill on Tuesday night after the election was over and the candidates had gone to bed. The Midtown watering hole was packed with serious, dyed-in-the-wool Democrats who danced and sang, "Hey hey, goodbye," every time Harold Ford Jr. appeared on television. A casual survey of the room suggested that most of the celebrants had actually voted for Ford but only because they wanted a Democratic majority in the Senate. Nobody at this party -- all stragglers from Cohen's victory celebration next door -- mourned the outgoing congressman's defeat.

There can be no doubt that Tennessee, like much of the South, still has plenty of problems with race. But when the election dust finally settles over Tennessee, Harold Ford Jr.'s Senate loss may say less about the Volunteer State's confederate past than it does about its progressive future.

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