Family Matters 

Is Harold Ford Jr. really a new generation of Democrat—or is he just another Ford?

Even as his poll numbers were beginning to mount last month, allowing him to catch and surpass Republican Bob Corker and to cast his net wide for Democrats of all stripes, Congressman Harold Ford Jr. still reserved the right to make an exception.
Even as his poll numbers were beginning to mount last month, allowing him to catch and surpass Republican Bob Corker and to cast his net wide for Democrats of all stripes, Congressman Harold Ford Jr. still reserved the right to make an exception. On the day of a monster rally at his headquarters, a local supporter informed the congressman that he might bring Ford’s fellow Democratic nominee, Steve Cohen, who’s running for the congressional seat Ford is vacating. “I’d rather you didn’t. We’re running two separate campaigns,” was Ford’s surprising reply. Even after he got that word, Cohen appeared along with Ford at a mid-afternoon all-candidates forum sponsored by the NAACP. Standing less then five feet away from Ford, Cohen made a point of referring to “my candidate for the U.S. Senate, Harold Ford Jr.” The congressman stared impassively straight ahead and did not reciprocate when it came his time to speak. And, indeed, when rally time came that evening, Cohen was one of the few name Democrats not on hand to celebrate Junior. Later that night, the two party exemplars held separate fund-raising affairs. As everybody in Shelby County is well aware and as people elsewhere in Tennessee are coming to understand, there is more than one Ford on the ballot this year. There is, for one, Aunt Ophelia Ford, a reclusive figure (publicly sighted, for the first time in months, at the Phil Bredesen-Jim Bryson gubernatorial debate in Memphis last weekend). She’s a candidate—again—for the District 29 state Senate seat she lost when the Senate, looking at vote irregularities, voided last year’s narrow special election victory over Republican Terry Roland, her opponent again this time around. And there is 33-year-old Jake Ford, a high school dropout who is running as an independent against Cohen for the District 9 congressional seat being vacated by his older brother Junior. (GOP candidate Mark White is also running.) Jake is the proximate cause of rising discontent among a number of Democrats supporting Cohen. The problem is not just that first-time candidate Jake Ford, a G.E.D. holder whose résumé has been something of a mystery, threatens to split the Democratic vote to Cohen’s detriment. It is—as the Cohen folks see it—that Jake’s illustrious brother, currently the national Democrats’ Last Best Hope to regain the Senate in a showdown with the GOP’s Bob Corker, is looking the other way. In short, is Junior really a new generation of Democrat, as he says, or is he just another Ford tacitly supporting his brother and the Ford family machine over the rightful Democratic nominee? The post-primary season had hardly gotten under way when Junior let it be known that, officially, he wouldn’t be choosing between party nominee Cohen and independent Jake. They were both Democrats, said the congressman. And things got even chillier when Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, a longtime Ford family antagonist and rival, made a point of simultaneously endorsing Cohen, ridiculing Jake Ford and insulting the Fords for seeking a “a monopoly on all elected positions in this state and this county.” Within minutes of that widely ballyhooed endorsement affair, Harold Ford Sr., the former congressman and family patriarch and now a Florida-based lobbyist stoutly on the Memphis scene for this election, responded by contacting the Rev. LaSimba Gray. Gray had led a movement of African American ministers during the primary season (when a dozen black candidates were on the ballot and eyeing the congressional prize) to find a consensus back candidate for fear that, as Gray put it, “for the first time in 32 years, African Americans will be without representation in the U.S. Congress from West Tennessee.” Nothing came of that effort, and Cohen, finishing first with some 31 percent of the vote, had demonstrated influence of his own in black precincts, getting perhaps as much as 20 percent of the African American vote. Now, Ford Sr., on behalf of the inner city’s most legendary clan, forged a de facto alliance with Gray and other seekers of a black consensus. Even before the connection with Papa Ford had been made, the race talk prompted The Tennessean to take scolding notice of the potential for racial-line politics as “too blatant to ignore.” Jake Ford himself, when asked whether there should be a racial line during the three candidates’ first televised debate last weekend, responded quickly, “Absolutely not.” But his first TV ad of the campaign showed him sitting at a table stating his case to the voters while behind him stood a phalanx of supporters—various in age and gender, but not in race. They were all black. One longtime Memphis operative, his political loyalties stretched like many between Harold Ford Jr. and Cohen, worries about the possible spillover of a racial aspect into the statewide campaign prospects of Harold Ford Jr., who responded to Corker’s mention of a “Ford dynasty” in their own TV debate last weekend by challenging the Chattanoogan to send him a “recipe” to pick a family. Otherwise, Ford said, “be quiet, and let’s run for the Senate.”

But Junior’s stay-away message to Cohen on rally day, and his continued silence on pary unity since, speak loudly. And, as the two campaigns wear on, aggrieved Democrats, not just Cohen supporters, are becoming unquiet in their turn about about what many of them see as a classic instance of Junior’s—and the Ford family’s—hypocrisy.

Jackson Baker is the political editor at The Memphis Flyer. 

But Junior’s stay-away message to Cohen on rally day, and his continued silence on pary unity since, speak loudly. And, as the two campaigns wear on, aggrieved Democrats, not just Cohen supporters, are becoming unquiet in their turn about about what many of them see as a classic instance of Junior’s—and the Ford family’s—hypocrisy.

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