Former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr.'s northern exposure

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010

Harold Ford Jr. has gone viral.

"You can judge from the editorials in the city, and just the response in the city and in the state that people don't want party bosses telling anyone that you can't run," Ford said in a phone interview between meetings in New York on Thursday afternoon. "People want an independent strong voice representing New York in the Senate."

The former Tennessee congressman has reintroduced himself as public muller of a primary challenge against New York's low-polling junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand (D). Ford has resided in New York for less time than many of the grad students taking his "political reality" class at New York University and he has no discernible support from the Democratic establishment. His conservative record on gay rights, abortion and gun control is so out of step with the party's primary voters that it makes Gillibrand's right-leaning record look progressive. Ford, the son of Tennessee's first black congressman, took a job as a Bank of America Merrill Lynch executive, and has cultivated a core constituency of Wall Street donors, many of whom are frustrated with President Obama's regulatory crackdown and what they see as a sudden cold shoulder from Sen. Chuck Schumer. Yet for all those moneyed ties, Ford has raised nothing -- literally, zilch -- to rival the millions of dollars in Gillibrand's coffers.

But as a shoestring publicity campaign for the Harold Ford brand, his 2010 media blitz has all been something to behold.

The New York political media, famished for a competitive political contest, has been more than willing to entertain this outsider as a potential contender for Gillibrand's seat. Ford, a talented 39-year-old with a book, titled "More Davids Than Goliaths," coming out a few weeks before the U.S. Senate primary this September, has cast his nascent primary challenge as that of a principled Democratic insurgent, staring down Schumer and Obama administration officials who have protected Gillibrand from opponents in the party.

In the interview, Ford said that the notion that he was doing this for publicity was "insulting to voters."

New Yorkers, he said, deserve a candidate who would fight for their interests, tax breaks and a health-care overhaul beneficial to the state, which he believes is not being done now. "Independence and jobs" were his echoing watchwords. "That's not about publicity," Ford said "That's real."

So, too, is the tacit approval of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who privately boosted Caroline Kennedy's Senate bid after Hillary Clinton was appointed secretary of state. A year later, Bloomberg appears less invested though decidedly comfortable with letting his loyal operatives make a few bucks; his pollster Doug Schoen and campaign manager Bradley Tusk are advising Ford.

Like Bloomberg, Ford defends Wall Street bonuses as critical to the city's tax base. When asked in the interview whether he himself had received a bonus from his employer, his spokesman, Davidson Goldin, interrupted, as he did on other topics not related to Ford's rationale for running, which the media handler understood to be the sole focus of the interview. At that point in the interview, Ford stayed silent, but Goldin later offered that Ford's "salary is set by contract."

While Ford refused to compare himself to politicians who ultimately dropped their primary bids against Gillibrand, he acknowledged that his has been received differently.

"Maybe it's the benefit of time. People have had the opportunity to experience some of the policies passed in Washington," said Ford, adding, "and there is dissatisfaction with Senator Gillibrand."

Gillibrand, who has sat back and waited for intervention on her behalf from Schumer or the White House, is getting more involved.

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