The New Boss

Same as the old boss? A "unity rally" goes Harold Ford Jr.'s way.


Doubt that U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr. is nimble on his feet? Disbelieve that his organization lives and breathes and still has clout?


Two developments argue otherwise - one regarding the local Democratic Party's reorganization efforts and another concerning a closely watched special election race. • It's My Party, and I'll Crow if I Want To: One week after suffering a defeat at the local party convention which should have been decisive - at least, symbolically - Ford and the Fordites sponsored a "unity" breakfast at Café Francisco downtown in honor of new Democratic Party chairman Matt Kuhn and his freshly elected executive committee. Cutting to the chase, here, in part, is what Kuhn had to say on Saturday to the gathered faithful. (These included numerous members of the "Convention Coalition" and the party's Herenton/Chism faction, whose votes, together, elected young Kuhn over a Ford-sponsored candidate, the estimable David Cocke.) Kuhn: "It is so good to see everybody here together. ... Last week at this time we came together as a party. And I want you to know that the first call I received was from our congressman, Harold Ford Jr. [applause]. Thank you. Jack Kennedy once said that a rising tide raises all boats. ... I don't know a whole lot about sailing, but I know something about politics, and I just want to say that we need to understand and we need to realize this in Shelby County ... the rising tide in next year's election is sending a Democrat from Shelby County to the United State Senate. ...

"So when our candidate for Senate was not there with us last week, I actually smiled and knew what he was doing and thought it was a good thing. What happened last week was about coming together. And I want to tell you a little something about why I think that and why I think it's important. In 2000, when Al Gore needed someone to give the keynote address at the Democratic convention, Harold Ford Jr. was for us. And in the past election, when John Kerry needed someone from Shelby County to provide vision, leadership, Harold Ford Jr. was with us. This past Thursday, on the floor of the House of Representatives - you labor folks will know what I'm talking about - Harold Ford Jr. was with us. In August of 2006 and in November of 2006, we need to be there for him."

Afterward, Kuhn seemed to be aware that he might have crossed way over a line. (There's a primary on, after all, involving another candidate for the U.S. Senate - state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, who spoke at last week's Democratic convention, which Ford, as Kuhn indicated, had been absent from - and party officials are normally obliged to remain neutral in such matters.) When asked about what he'd said, the new chairman tried to maintain that his remarks weren't really an endorsement.

Not an endorsement? That's like saying Breyer's Ice Cream is non-caloric. Stuff most folks with such a "non-endorsement," Mr. Chairman, and they'll turn into pigs and look for something to run for themselves!

To be sure, not all of Kuhn's votes from last week's convention at the University of Memphis were from Democrats miffed at the congressman's cautious-to-conservative political posture over the last couple of years. Many were, though, and many of those who weren't were seriously out of love with his local organization. And that's not even to mention the Herenton/Chism organization, chief rivals to the Ford people.

The fact is, no other candidate for chairman - not even longtime loyalist Cocke himself - could have sung such an open-voweled hosanna to the congressman as did Kuhn. What does he say to Kurita the next time she comes around? What does he say when his committee meets this Thursday night at the I.B.E.W. union hall on Madison to reorganize?

Estimates as to what will happen then vary widely. Some say that Chairman Kuhn will be asked to backtrack on his Saturday remarks. Others excuse these as merely a sop thrown to the Ford forces. Still others suggest that, afforded such favors, the Ford organization will soon own the sop shop.

In any case, give it to the congressman and give it to his people: They turned around a messy situation in record time and converted Saturday's "unity" rally into a de facto Ford-for-Senate rally. Besides the congressman himself, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton - who had co-sponsored Cocke - addressed the throng on Saturday. The third member of Cocke's triumvirate, assessor Rita Clark, kept her silence, though she was an elbow's length away from the action, putting (as they say) her hands together.

Even some of the congressman's habitual Internet scourges - like Steve Steffens of - were caught up in the swoonfest. In the first post-breakfast posting on his blog, headed "It Was a Good Morning for the SCDP," Steffens praised Ford's "rousing" speech and pledged henceforth to keep his remarks "constructive."

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Hmmmmm, we'll see. But never again doubt that Harold Ford Jr. is one hell of a politician - perhaps one more formidable than his adversaries can hope to match. One might sum up the last week thisaway: The King is dead (not). Long live the King!

Sisterhood Is Powerful: And speaking of kings, the onetime undisputed champion of inner-city Democratic politics is at it again. This would be another notable Ford - Harold Ford Sr., who was the 9th District's congressman for 22 years before bequeathing the job in 1996 to his namesake son.

The senior Ford, now a highly paid consultant living in Florida, was heard from again this week in Shelby County. Literally. Voters throughout the 29th state senate district, where one of two special-election primaries will be resolved this Thursday, received a robocall from the senior Ford making a forceful pitch for sister Ophelia Ford, one of several Democratic candidates for the seat that was vacated by brother John Ford as a result of his Tennessee Waltz indictment and other legal woes.

Making no reference to that background, Ford Sr. reminded listeners of his longtime congressional service and record of constituent service and suggested that Ophelia Ford can be depended on for more of the same. The message concludes: "I strongly recommend Ophelia Ford. ... I would personally appreciate it, and I'm asking you as you go to the polls this Thursday to continue to pray for the Ford family."

Simultaneously, a forest of yard signs for Ophelia Ford began appearing in South Memphis, and a last-minute mailer was scheduled to go out on her behalf. Suddenly, Ophelia Ford's campaign began to resemble an old-fashioned get-out-the-vote effort of the sort that has largely been eschewed by the current congressman.

Before the late push for Ophelia Ford, many observers saw state representative Barbara Cooper to be at or near the lead in the Democratic field, with House colleague Henri Brooks close behind, and another state representative, John DeBerry, making an impressive last-minute effort of his own.

As the last week of the campaign got under way, Southwest Tennessee Community College professor Steve Haley was soldiering on in a campaign that has been more than usually issue-conscious. Haley actually espouses an income tax - at least to the point of having it "on the table," and he doesn't shy away from criticizing Governor Bredesen's TennCare cuts as unnecessary.

Kevin McLellan, another white candidate and a former Southwest cadre himself, takes a contrary view that Bredesen is more sinned against than sinning.

On the Republican side, Millington businessman Terry Roland should win easily against a largely inactive John Farmer.

• The House race is confined to this week's Democratic primary (though Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges will be on the September 15th general election ballot as an independent). The candidates are Alonzo Grant, Andrew "Rome" Withers, Omari Faulkner, and Gary L. Rowe. Grant and Withers have made no great impact but have some degree of name recognition. They come from politically oriented families and have access to tried and true G.O.T.V. techniques. Newcomer Faulkner, a former Hamilton High basketball star, has image factors in his favor, plus endorsements from the Memphis Education Association and the Memphis Area Association of Realtors. Rowe, active in business development and community affairs, earned an endorsement from The Commercial Appeal.

Other Political Notes

Two likely candidates for the position of Juvenile Court judge, which the ailing longtime incumbent Kenneth Turner is said to be vacating next year, are municipal judge Earnestine Hunt Dorse, a 1998 candidate who has declared for the race, and Shelby County commissioner Walter Bailey, who - pending the outcome of an appeal of a term-limits ruling - has not.

• There is no official Ford candidate yet for the 9th District congressional seat which Harold Ford Jr. will be vacating, but former local Democratic chairman Mark Yates, a Ford ally, is said to be thinking long and hard about it.

• Thursday's meeting of the newly elected local Democratic executive committee could feature contested races for party offices. Brad Watkins, a representative of the "Convention Coalition" group Democracy for Memphis, is campaigning for the office of first vice chair, but so is Cherry Davis of the party's Herenton/Chism faction.

• During the local Democrats' chairmanship race, union delegates tended to split along lines analogous to the labor movement's national schism, with AFL-CIO members supporting David Cocke and Teamster members going for ultimate winner Matt Kuhn.

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