Harold Ford a Diva? In New York Senate Race, That Just Might Work

Well-connected Tennessee “diva” pondering a run north of the Mason-Dixon line.

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Linda Killian, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Harold Ford Jr., who has never held political office in New York state and has lived there only part-time for about three years, is considering a U.S. Senate run from the Empire State. With a 1,600-word, front-page profile in Wednesday's New York Times and stories about his possible candidacy in the Washington Post and other major news outlets, he's getting the kind of attention any politician would pay good money for, and not a few of them are wondering why. In considering his possible bid for the Senate, Ford has not courted party leaders or the state's congressional delegation, who along with the White House have indicated they do not support his effort. Instead, he has gone out of his way to dis them, telling the New York Times, "If I am elected senator from New York, Harry Reid will not instruct me how to vote."

Referring to Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to the Senate seat after Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, Ford said in the Times interview, "We have a fundamental difference on independence. We have a difference on the level, the kind and the stature of advocacy New Yorkers deserve. And we have some honest differences on issues."

Obviously Ford, who registered to vote in New York only a few weeks ago, thinks he could provide the kind of "stature" that New Yorkers need in the Senate--the kind of stature that other non-New Yorkers such as Robert Kennedy and Hillary Clinton provided them.

New York Gov. David Paterson, who appointed Gillibrand, told radio host Don Imus this week that Ford's relative newcomer status to New York shouldn't hamper his candidacy. If he believes he's "worthy," he should "take on Senator Gillibrand in the primary ... Now, he lives in New York. New York has had a tradition of allowing out-of-staters to come out and represent us," Paterson said.

There is no doubt that Ford's entry into the contest would spice up the race. The media love him--that's why he's getting so much attention already. He's attractive, charismatic, and quotable.

Ford is from an infamous Tennessee political family and represented the state in the House of Representatives for 10 years before making a failed bid for the Senate from that state in 2006. He said that he also mulled a run for governor of Tennessee last year but decided against it.

With the public Hamlet act over whether to run in New York, he has obviously decided his Tennessee political career is over and his political future looks brighter north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Ford is reportedly popular in tony New York social and financial circles. He is a commentator for MSNBC, a vice chairman at Merrill Lynch, and his wife is a fashion industry executive, and these connections would no doubt help him in raising the kind of money he would need to mount a serious challenge to Gillibrand.

Someone familiar with Tennessee politics suggests Ford may be a bit longer on style, of which he has a great deal, than substance: "He had a reputation of being a little bit of a diva in Tennessee." Such a temperament may not fly in a state where pick-up trucks are in far more abundance than limousines, but in New York, where divas are a dime a dozen, it might actually be a plus.

The other thing that has distinguished Ford's political career is a certain flexibility in his political positions. When he was in the House representing Memphis, he was considered a fairly liberal politician in Tennessee but "he moved to the middle and tried to get right of center for the statewide run," according to my Tennessee source.

Ford has been the head of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, headed by Bill Clinton before he was president, and has staked out many moderate positions in recent years. But now that Ford is thinking of running in New York, he is attempting to move to the left again and moderating some of his positions on abortion, gay rights, and gun control.

He is also staking out positions that would be extremely popular with the financial community in New York. He told the New York Times that we need to lower the corporate tax rate from 35 to 25 percent, make sure that dividends and capital-gains taxes not go up, and have a broad payroll-tax cut--a three-month payroll-tax holiday for businesses and workers.

Like all successful politicians, Ford does not suffer from a lack of self-esteem or ambition. There is very little downside to him making the Senate run, and he has almost nothing to lose.

He might irritate some Democratic leaders in the process, but it will certainly raise his national profile and should he be unsuccessful, position him for something else down the road.

And of course it would be a lot of fun to watch.

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