Fordian Slip 

Will John Ford's antics sidetrack his nephew's Senate run?

Will John Ford's antics sidetrack his nephew's Senate run?

It wouldn't be a 6 o'clock newscast these days without a report on state senator John Ford's ethical lapses. This year's round of corrupt Ford stories got going when the virile legislator revealed—in court—that he maintains two separate households, both of which may be outside of his Memphis district, and are at least partially funded by his campaign account. Things only got worse when WTVF-Channel 5 began airing (ad nauseam) footage of his daughter's campaign-financed wedding. And the final nail in the coffin—one hopes—came when Ford was revealed to have ties to a dental care firm that did business with TennCare, a program he theoretically helps oversee.

Yes, watching a mustached man with a microphone chase another mustached man (with blue tinted glasses) into a bathroom may make for good television, but if you're the latter man's nephew, it doesn't bode well for your political future. That's why all eyes are on Congressman Harold Ford Jr., as he continues to put off a long-expected announcement that he will seek the Senate seat that Sen. Bill Frist, M.D., is expected to vacate in 2006. Harold Ford's star may still be rising, but it can't seem to leave Uncle John in the cosmic dust.

This week, amid news that the state attorney general and a federal grand jury were investigating John Ford separately, the waiting for Harold Jr.'s announcement turned to whispering. The Memphis Flyer's Jackson Baker reported that members of Ford's family—including his father, a former congressman—were increasingly encouraging him to sit this race out. The name association between John Ford and Harold Ford would be too much to bear, they reportedly said.

Even Gov. Phil Bredesen publicly piled on, saying he thought the negative publicity surrounding John Ford was hurting his nephew's chances at the Senate seat. "I think the publicity against John Ford is hurting Harold, and frankly that bothers me," he said.

Who does that if they're really on someone's side? It was a classic act of saying-it-makes-it-so, and it was also somewhat baffling, since most folks think a Ford campaign could mobilize Memphis voters, helping Bredesen's chances for reelection. But if Ford is forced to campaign with his uncle as albatross, it could also hurt the governor's chances in 2006; after all, Bredesen is still expected to run on the Democratic ticket.

In the end, the governor hedged his bets. "I think the world of Harold Ford Jr.," he said, indicating that he's either too honest not to give a totally candid appraisal of Ford's chances, or politically savvy enough not to give Ford his unqualified support. You be the judge.

Given all the public speculation and second-guessing, then, Ford has been forced to change his tune from "wait and see" to "don't forget me," lest he get counted out before his campaign gets off the ground. "I intend to be a candidate for the U.S. Senate," he said Tuesday in a statement released to the Scene. "In the coming months, I will continue to travel across the state and listen to the issues that matter the most to Tennesseans: tax reform, the economy, health care, fiscal responsibility, national security and Social Security."

Of course, the road to life in the House is paved with senatorial intentions, so take Ford's statement with a grain of salt. But it's his seat to win if he wants it: most Tennessee Democrats, with the exception of state Sen. Rosalind Kurita, have cleared the way for a Ford candidacy, feeling that he's paid his dues in the House and it's time. 2006 may be the Democrats' best chance in a long while because it's the midterm election of an ambitious president's second term. Unless the free market democracy Bush is force-feeding the world begins to take meaningful hold and the economy picks up and Social Security privatization suddenly becomes popular, the Dems may make a good showing. This, in short, may be Ford's window.

His allies know that. They tell the Scene that there's no doubt he's running, that his conservative Democratic politics are the recipe for success in Tennessee next time around and that he'd be a fool to make a formal announcement of his candidacy while John Ford's political career disintegrates.

That last one is definitely true. As to his candidacy, there are a few Democrats waiting in the wings should the younger Ford fold. Congressman Jim Cooper, who's lost a Senate bid before, would certainly give it some thought before deciding not to give up his secure Middle Tennessee House seat. Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell might be a contender, although as usual, his people pretend that all the shrewd politician thinks about are sidewalks and schools, never his own open-ended political future. (Besides, he says being mayor is the best job in the world and is widely expected to seek a third term.) And there's Nashville attorney Bob Tuke, Tennessee co-chair of the Kerry-Edwards campaign, who would definitely enter a Ford-free race. He's got the senatorial look down, but few know his name.

It's a different kind of name recognition problem that plagues Harold Ford, but for now, at least, he says he's in—Uncle John be damned. Few expect the ambitious young congressman to pass up his opportunity to move up the ladder, but the political family ties that helped pull him up to where he is are now dragging him down.

So what's in a name? If John Ford decides to crumble, front-page story by embarrassing front-page story, Prince Harold may soon find out.

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