"I now recognize the wrongness of my ways." That was Harold Ford Jr., then still a potential U.S. Senate candidate in New York, speaking in New York City on February 24th to the Stonewall Democrats, an assembly of gay and lesbian activists. This effort by the former Memphis congressman to expiate his former votes in opposition to same-sex marriage was greeted with hoots and derision.
"Snake Oil Harry, Go Away" and "Liar" read signs being hoisted. "You lie!" was shouted, and the chant of "No More Lies" resounded through the meeting hall, along with more spontaneously contrived catcalls. It was one of several events on Ford's "listening tour" of his would-be constituency at which, indeed, there was much to be listened to, not all of it music to his ears.
In the YouTube video on which all of this can be witnessed, the Stonewall event's moderator admonishes the crowd to let "our guest" be heard, but even the polite questions of Ford challenge his bona fides — and not on gay and lesbian issues alone. Ford is asked to account for his past support of officially licensed torture and government wiretaps and for his vote with congressional Republicans during the Terri Schiavo affair, among other issues.
It was all typical of the enhanced scrutiny administered to candidates, ballplayers, and other public figures in the Big Apple and the Empire State. Not all of it, for Ford, came from the left or from the socially heterodox. Custodians of the right were curious as well. And, in the end, explanations from Ford that he had formerly "been influenced by his constituents" (which is how he put it to the Stonewall Democrats) but had evolved in his thinking, did not suffice.
On both of the previous occasions that Ford let it be known that he was considering a U.S. Senate race, he let speculation build for months before saying no in one case (the 2000 election cycle) and yes in another (for the 2006 race he did make).
Both those circumstances were in Tennessee. Ford has now said no in New York and without wasting more than a few weeks in doing so. He had indicated that in March he would give an answer to New York Democrats — both those who wanted him to run and those who didn't, and there were many in both camps.
On Monday, March 1st, Ford gave his answer, as first reported in The New York Times, the flagship journal of the national media and an outlet which had, all things considered, cut the prospective transplant candidate more slack than most. All in all, Ford had spent not quite two months in the bubble. Soon after the New Year, he had indicated his interest in challenging incumbent Democrat Kirsten E. Gillibrand for the seat once held by Hillary Clinton, and that announcement had come not quite 10 months after he had apparently considered running for governor of Tennessee — ruling that race out only in March of last year.
Ford was backed by numerous influential New Yorkers, Democratic and otherwise — his most prominent supporter in the political world being New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent. He also had some key donors lined up, many from Wall Street and other financial sectors.
But the onetime Memphis congressman also met with serious resistance — much of it coming from Senator Charles Schumer and other members of the Democratic establishment in New York and Washington.
As interest mounted concerning his intentions, Ford embarked on a "listening tour" of the Empire State. Simultaneously, numerous articles appeared in both the New York and national media questioning the political emigre's apparent turnabouts on issues — generally, from the conservative to the liberal, though Ford, a vice chairman of the Merrill Lynch division of Bank of America, never deviated from his support of additional tax breaks and other incentives for the nation's financial industry.
In recent weeks, Ford had come under challenge as a probable recipient of a lucrative bonus from Merrill Lynch. This was a situation first publicly noted in a Flyer article in February 2009.
Rumored to be salaried in the neighborhood of $3 million annually for his work as a rainmaker, Ford was thought to have received a bonus in an equivalent range at the end of 2007, when Merrill Lynch, whose absorption by Bank of America was significantly financed by the taxpayers, paid its executives the add-on stipends.
Ford's involvement with Merrill Lynch/Bank of America was one of the factors, along with his marriage to native New Yorker Emily Threlkeld, that apparently had led him to think of himself as a New York resident. Ford, who maintained multiple addresses, in New York, D.C., and Tennessee, had not yet paid New York state income taxes, but his spokesman indicated recently that Ford intended to complete a state tax filing this year.
Ford apparently will resume his relationship with MSNBC and NBC as a political analyst. In a sense, he had never left that job. He appeared on Meet the Press as an analyst only two Sundays ago, discussing political events at large — including his own interest in the New York Senate race.
Ford, who serves as national chairman of the right/centrist Democratic Leadership Council, also offered an explanation for his decision not to run in an op-ed piece for the Times, which had covered his shadow campaign in great depth.
After several paragraphs in which he outlined the case for his running — a need for "change" being central to that possibility — Ford got to the meat of his decision not to run: "I've examined this race in every possible way, and I keep returning to the same fundamental conclusion: If I run, the likely result would be a brutal and highly negative Democratic primary — a primary where the winner emerges weakened and the Republican strengthened. ...
"I am a Democrat. But I am an independent Democrat. I am not going to stop speaking out on behalf of policies that I think are right — regardless of ideology, party, or political expediency. I plan to continue taking this message across our state and across our nation."
• Ford's erstwhile bailiwick of Tennessee had a significant dropout last week too. State Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle, one of two Memphians who had entered the 2010 gubernatorial race, exited the field Friday, leaving only District Attorney Bill Gibbons, a Republican, as a Bluff City entry.
Kyle said he thought he had a strong chance of winning the primary in August but had serious doubts about his ability to win in this fall's general election. Asked if he thought a Democrat could win, he said, "Yes, I think so, but I don't think I'm that Democrat."
That statement may have owed less to modesty than to the appraisal by Kyle, an able analyst of politics as well as a practitioner, that, in a season of amorphous tea-party activism and renewed political gridlock, in Nashville as well as in Washington, conditions were not ideal for a serious discussion of traditional, even updated Democratic positions.
As Kyle would put it, "I began to doubt if I could get my message across in the current environment."
• It was an appropriate, if not entirely auspicious, time for state Democratic chairman Chip Forrester to make a morale-building tour of Democratic enclaves in Tennessee.
In an address to Shelby County Democrats at the downtown Quetzal restaurant on Friday, Forrester commended Kyle and noted, as the senator himself pointedly had, that his candidacy was impeded by restrictions on fund-raising by legislators during ongoing sessions of the General Assembly.
Forrester minced no words: If Democrats could not win back control of the General Assembly this fall, he said, "three and possibly four" congressional seats now held by Democrats would be at risk through redistricting. "We will have one Democratic congressman in the 9th Congressional District, and that'll be it if we don't win back the House."
In an interview, Forrester professed an optimism at odds with that potential scenario. "We can win and will win if we have the right kind of resolve," he said.