01.13.10

The Making of Harold Ford

No wonder he moved to New York. As Harold Ford Jr. guns for a Senate seat, Memphis writer John Branston on the power, and crazy antics, of the family that got him where he is today.

No wonder he moved to New York. As Harold Ford Jr. guns for a Senate seat, Memphis writer John Branston on the power, and crazy antics, of the family that got him where he is today. Plus, Peter Beinart on Ford's implosion.

Only in Detroit is the name Ford as ingrained as it is in Memphis.

For nearly 40 years, the Ford family of politicians has been as much a part of local culture as the Mississippi River, barbecue, and Beale Street. Harold Ford Jr., now gunning for a Senate seat in New York, is arguably the most famous member of the family, but it’s close. And the incongruity and resourcefulness of a nominal Memphian—he grew up in Washington—who ran for a Senate seat from Tennessee in 2006 now running from New York is vintage Ford.

If Harold Ford Jr. says he is “in many ways” a New Yorker, well, he won’t get much of an argument here.

He used to be called “Junior” around here, but that was mostly before he became a national television talking head and a Wall Street millionaire. In Memphis, a town without many celebrities, he is the chosen one who moved on, leaving the local field to his troubled uncles, assorted family small fry, and former Mayor Willie Herenton, who dominated the local news for the last 18 years.

Says Edmund Ford Jr., 30, a Memphis city councilman and younger cousin of Harold Ford Jr.: “If he makes this run, I have full confidence he will let the people of New York know his interest is genuine.”

Peter Beinart: Harold Ford Implodes

That challenge hasn’t been made any easier by Ford’s strange interview with The New York Times Wednesday, in which he copped to rarely riding the subway (in favor of taxis and chauffeured cars) and touring New York’s five boroughs by helicopter. But the Senate hopeful plans an upstate tour this month, the kind of retail politics at which the family has long excelled.

When a cold snap hit Memphis last week, cousin Edmund, a math teacher at a public high school, helped pass out 450 sleeping bags to the needy. That sort of ear-to-the-ground constituent service is what made the Ford name famous.

But Harold Ford Jr., educated at private Eastern schools and the University of Michigan Law School before he went to Washington, was always a different model of the Ford brand—with his ambitions bigger.

And given the family history, no wonder. There are as many gothic Ford stories as there are Southern gothic writers. Like the movie title says, it’s complicated, but the highlight reel must include:

The father: Before becoming a well-heeled lobbyist with a home in the Hamptons, Harold Ford Sr. was a congressman for 32 years who broke the Republican stranglehold on his district, perfected the Election Day “Ford ballot” endorsement, and beat federal prosecutors in a celebrated corruption trial in 1993.

Uncle John: The brother of Harold Ford Sr., John Ford, now serving a 14-year prison sentence, was a powerhouse in the Tennessee General Assembly before being convicted on federal bribery charges in a sting called “Tennessee Waltz.” The trial featured undercover tapes of cash payoffs and of Ford threatening to shoot an undercover witness if Ford found out he betrayed him. (Years ago, John beat the rap after a truck driver accused him of firing a pistol at him through the sunroof of his car.)

Uncle Joe: Joe Ford is the mayor of Shelby County, which includes Memphis, and former operator of N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home, founded by his father. In 1999, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Memphis against Willie Herenton.

Aunt Ophelia: A latecomer to politics, Ophelia Ford is a state senator from Memphis. A few years ago, her weird histrionics and public rants caused family members to urge her to go to rehab. (She said she is anemic.)

Uncle Edmund: Edmund Ford Sr. was a member of the Memphis City Council who was indicted, and later acquitted, after a federal undercover witness videotaped him at his funeral home taking alleged payoffs. His son, Edmund Ford Jr., took his place on the city council.

There’s more, but you get the picture.

Still, Ford’s stardom was not such a surprise. Polished, telegenic, and ambitious, Harold Ford Jr. made his debut on the national stage as keynote speaker at the 2000 Democratic National Convention that nominated fellow Tennessean Al Gore. He had his father’s name, good looks, and political skills, minus his father’s penchant for demonizing “white devils” in East Memphis or putting the fear of God into reporters whose reports displeased him. Ford Sr. was in your face and on the streets. Ford Jr. was in your conference room or on your computer.

Since then, the Ford name has lost some of its clout. Steve Cohen, a white Jew running in a majority-black district, handily dispatched young Jake Ford in the 2006 election. Joe Ford only became interim county mayor in December by winning seven votes on the 13-member county commission a week after commissioners deadlocked 24 times.

The Ford buzz from New York doesn’t have many people buzzing back in Memphis, where the hot issues are schools, deficits, and basketball. If he says he is “ in many ways” a New Yorker, well, he won’t get much of an argument here. He has not been our congressman for four years, and he was a distant one with his eyes on another prize even then.

John Branston is a columnist for The Memphis Flyer and the author of Rowdy Memphis: The South Unscripted.