Harold Ford's Wall Street Problem

Merrill Lynch’s Harold Ford Jr. is making inroads with Wall Street donors as he eyes a New York Senate run. But the wives of his banking buddies don’t like his abortion views.

02.10.10 10:23 PM ET

Merrill Lynch executive Harold Ford Jr. made headlines for nabbing a couple of big-ticket Democratic donors, Orrin Kramer and Steve Rattner, and he could appeal to more of his fellow financiers as he weighs a challenge to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who voted against the TARP bill as a member of the House. But even if Harold Ford’s Wall Street buddies do want to donate to his campaign, will their wives let them?

Ford has a somewhat squishy record on abortion: He described himself as “not pro-choice” and “pro-life” as a congressman in Tennessee. Ford now claims he is and always has been pro-choice, but still supports a ban on late-term abortions. Last week, Stephen Colbert lambasted Ford on his show. “Did you change from not pro-choice to pro-choice?” he joked. “Was that your choice?”

“You hear groans when his name is mentioned, and I’m talking about big donors, not small donors,” says Kelli Conlin, president of NARAL New York.

Kelli Conlin, the president of NARAL New York, said she has spoken to several pro-choice wives of big-ticket donors who are persuading their husbands not to back Ford.

“I think one thing you see for sure going on is a whole lot of people who supported Harold Ford when he was running for Senate in Tennessee and didn’t know his positions are now totally walking it back,” Conlin said. “You hear groans when his name is mentioned, and I’m talking about big donors, not small donors.”

Jacob Bernstein: The Woman Behind Harold FordHedge-fund manager Dan Loeb was spotted having lunch with Ford soon after he announced he was considering a run against Gillibrand. His wife, Margaret Munzer Loeb, told The Daily Beast that her family supported Ford’s campaign in Tennessee in 2006 because he was the “better choice,” but that “for me it’s a no-brainer” that she will support Gillibrand in this race, and that the senator’s strong pro-choice stance is an issue she feels passionate about. Munzer Loeb, who serves on the board of the National Institute of Reproductive Health, said her husband likes Ford personally and was interested in his plans to run, so she has had to assert herself on the issue. She says that now “everyone in my house is on the same page” about the need to support a candidate who is strongly pro-choice. (In a follow-up email, she added that she can't say definitively that her husband will support Gillibrand.)

A recent New York Times article about Ford splitting Democratic donors mentioned the billionaire hedge-fund manager Marc Lasry as someone who has pledged to back Gillibrand but is quick to praise fellow Wall Streeter Ford. He was quoted as saying Ford is “a very bright guy—I like him a lot.” The quote came after a sentence that said of the donors: “Some privately said that they might contribute to both candidates.” But it doesn’t seem likely that Lasry will donate to Ford any time soon. Lasry’s wife Cathy is the president of Eleanor’s Legacy, a PAC whose mission is to “build a new generation of pro-choice Democratic women candidates.”

“His wife will never let him [contribute to Ford],” Munzer Loeb said. “This is her whole thing, getting pro-choice women elected in New York state.”

Cathy Lasry says though she and her husband have amicably parted ways before on candidates and both really like Ford, they are both “very loyal” to Gillibrand and have no plans to contribute to Ford’s campaign.

Objections from pro-choice donors might be a small hurdle overall for Ford, a skilled fundraiser who pulled in about $2.38 million from New York state when he was running for Senate in Tennessee in 2006. (He lost.) But Gillibrand, protégé of ace fundraiser Senator Chuck Schumer, has already raised $7 million for her Senate run and has the firm backing of formidable women’s PACs like EMILY’s List, which has bundled tens of thousands for her since 2005. Against that kind of firepower, Ford will need all the financial help he can get.

Lorna Brett Howard, wife of the CEO of Irving Place Capital and the former president of the National Organization for Women’s Chicago chapter and a NARAL board member, says women also have more influence in fundraising than they’re given credit for.

“I wouldn’t underestimate the amount women fundraise,” she says. “I’ll tell you personally, I drive the fundraising in my house. I run it, I asked [my husband] to max out to the DNC in the last election cycle. He never would have done it if I hadn’t asked. It’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s just that I think women drive it more than men.”

Ford’s already had his share of trouble—and he hasn’t even announced he’s running. Though he enjoyed a reputation as a smooth and savvy politician in Tennessee, he’s stumbled badly in his first steps on New York’s political stage. His disastrous debut interview with the Times is still dogging him, and he’s been derided as a carpetbagger in a town that often forgives that trait in politicians. He can come across as tone deaf: explaining to The New York Post how he manages to “put food on the table” while on a 45-day unpaid leave from his executive position at Merrill Lynch, and referring to Gillibrand, four years his senior, as “young lady” on The Colbert Report. Gillibrand’s camp has pressured him to reveal if he received a taxpayer-funded bonus in a harsh political climate for bankers.

Still, Gillibrand is clearly vulnerable. In polls, she’s falling short of the crucial 50 percent approval mark, even though she’s facing off against an undeclared and largely unknown primary challenger. During the Dems’ question-and-answer session with President Obama last week, Gillibrand was among the few lawmakers picked to ask a question, along with embattled Dems Arlen Specter (PA), Michael Bennet (CO), Blanche Lincoln (AR), and Barbara Boxer (CA). In other words, she’s in the company of the most vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection this year.

Wall Street may have divided loyalties, but women’s groups are planning to go all out to fundraise for Gillibrand. The president of the Women’s Campaign Forum, Sam Bennett, says Gillibrand has been a “trailblazer” on women’s issues, and that her organization and its donors will do “whatever’s necessary” to get her reelected. “I was just with a donor in New York the other day who said, ‘I supported Ford when he ran in Tennessee, he has a lot of nerve coming to my state now and asking me to vote for him instead of Kirsten,’” Bennett said.

Jonathan Parker of EMILY’s List, the largest PAC in the country, says his members are “solidly behind Kirsten,” and that he hasn’t heard of a donor, “even anecdotally,” who has shifted support to Ford.

Political analyst Jennifer Lawless said that while Ford gathering a few Wall Street backers is “noteworthy,” Gillibrand has always been a good fundraiser, and the extra support from women’s PACs like EMILY’s List could secure her the win. “She’s an easy case for women’s organizations because they can say she’s doing everything she can, and support from PACs could be the extra edge she needs to beat Ford.”

Liz Goodwin is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast. She has written for the New York Sun, GothamSchools, the Tico Times, and Fodor's Travel Guides.