Politics » Politics Feature

Willie or Won't He?: Ford Sr. Mulls Over a Reprise of 1991



Two full days after the campaign of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton announced his presence at a Tuesday night rally for Herenton, and on the very morning that the evening rally - at Mount Vernon Baptist Church - is scheduled, former congressman Harold Ford Sr. was keeping a mysterious silence about the matter.

As of early Tuesday morning, attempts to reach Ford had been unavailing, nor could intimates of the once legendary political broker, even some who had spoken to him by telephone on Monday, shed much light on the matter. It even remained uncertain as to whether Ford - who was in town last week to cast an early vote - had lingered in Memphis or had meanwhile returned to his current residence in Florida.

One thing was certain. Widespread public curiosity about the joint appearance of the two often warring political titans, plans for which were first reported in the Flyer on Sunday, virtually guaranteed a massive turnout for the affair, set to begin at 6 p.m. The Commercial Appeal weighed in on the matter in its Tuesday editions - a sure indication that things had reached a boiling point.

Along with anticipation of the Herenton-Ford team-up, however, came abundant skepticism - not only in statements from the rival campaigns of Herman Morris and Carol Chumney but in conversations among members of the city's political cognoscenti. After all, the rivalry between Ford and Herenton - and between their extended political families - has been a root fact of life in Memphis for almost 15 years.

Relations between the two men, already tense, became volatile in 1994 when they exchanged epithets and almost came to blows over what the first-term mayor regarded as a show of disrespect from Ford. The issue was then congressman Ford's insistence, in a manner that the mayor regarded as impertinent, that Herenton establish a summer jobs program for indigent youth.

The real problem, however, had been simmering almost from the moment that Herenton was elected as the city's first elected black mayor in 1991 - thanks largely to last-minute help from Ford. Suspicion and distrust between the two had already existed, and, once the historic victory had been achieved through their momentary solidarity, Herenton and Ford lapsed into the position of permanent rivals for power - almost in the Western-gunslinger sense that the town wasn't big enough for both of them.

Clashes were frequent between the two camps over the years (one of the newly elected Harold Ford Jr.'s first acts upon succeeding his father in Congress in 1997 was to renew the quarrel over summer jobs). In 1999 the former congressman's brother Joe Ford, then a city councilman, unsuccessfully challenged Herenton at the polls.

And last year saw a renewed outbreak of hostility when the mayor endorsed Steve Cohen, the ultimately successful Democratic nominee for Congress, and disparaged not only independent congressional candidate Jake Ford, the former congressman's son, but the Ford clan itself as a "power-mad" family. That galvanized Ford Sr., who was already active in the Senatorial campaign of son Harold Ford Jr. into steadfast efforts on behalf of his other son.

Is it possible that, only a year after that latest outbreak, all those wounds have healed and Harold Ford Sr. and Willie Herenton will have come full cycle in common cause? Or is it the fact, as some suspect, that the advertised rapprochement is as questionable as two other matters spoken to by the mayor in this election year - an alleged sexual-blackmail plot against him (still not verified) and his assertion that flaws in the city's voting machines had contaminated the results of early voting?

The answer to both questions would surely be revealed on Tuesday night.

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