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02.10.10

The Woman Behind Harold Ford

After he was stung by racially motivated campaign ads in Tennessee, will Harold Ford’s interracial marriage become an issue in New York?

Last week, Harold Ford, Jr., a presumptive Democratic challenger to Kirsten Gillibrand for Hillary Clinton’s old Senate seat, explained his love for New York by saying that it was easier to be in an interracial marriage here than it is in the Deep South. “There was so much bad racial stuff out of Tennessee on Obama,” he told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “I’m in an interracial marriage. I don’t want to subject my wife to this.”

In 2006, the five-time Tennessee congressman, who was reelected four times with 80 percent of the vote—ran for Bill Frist’s Senate seat and lost by three percentage points, after being pilloried in ads for, among other things, his relationships with white women.

“I can tell you from my own experience, that some black people are very suspicious of black people who marry [outside the race],” says Janet Langhart Cohen, a prominent black communications expert, and the wife of former Defense Secretary Bill Cohen, who is white.

Following that loss, Ford, who comes from a dynastic political family tree in Tennessee (with the requisite bad apples), left the state and embarked on a new career, with a seven-figure job working for Merrill Lynch. He also married Emily Threlkeld, 29, a former fashion publicist, who is white.

The marriage seems less likely to become a campaign issue in the North, but some have raised the question of whether it could be a problem with the black electorate.

Liz Goodwin: Harold Ford’s Wall Street ProblemIn early January, Danielle Belton wrote a piece on BlackSnob.com, in which she noted the added hurdle a black politician faces among black voters when married to a white woman. “It is PRETTY DAMN HARD to get elected if you're a black politician with a white wife,” Belton wrote. “Not only do you have to deal with crap like the racist TV ad campaign that torpedoed Harold Ford Jr.'s Senate dreams in Tennessee, but there's that little problem with that usual Democratic lock— the black vote.”

Speaking to The Daily Beast, Belton said, “I think he could get around having a white wife if he was an outstanding politician. If he had a record as a champion for minority issues and women’s rights and the working class, it would be different. People might get over it. But he’s not.”

“It’s a scaled-down version of racism where racist practices are perpetrated by those who are black,” added Janet Langhart Cohen, a prominent black communications expert, and the wife of former Senator and Defense Secretary Bill Cohen, who is white. “I can tell you from my own experience that some black people are very suspicious of black people who marry [outside the race]. We think it’s a rejection of the rest of us.”

While there is a long history of interracial couples in politics, there are few black male politicians who are married to white women. Says Faye Wattleton, the first African American to head Planned Parenthood, “I’m not sure that we have any examples that give us guidance as to whether the electorate will overlook it.”

Still, Wattleton said that Ford’s biggest problem is that he looks out of sync with a number of things that are important with black voters in New York. For one, she said, there was his flip-flop on abortion rights—while running for office in Tennessee, Ford described himself as pro-life. He now says he is pro-choice, but supports a ban on late-term abortions. Pro-choice advocates are not convinced by his new position. For another, there is a clear carpetbagging issue, which might help to explain why Ford has had a somewhat lukewarm reception even from prominent African Americans in the Empire State. A few weeks ago, ex-New York State Comptroller Carl McCall said, “I don’t think we should tell Ford not to run.” Wattleton says she thinks “that was fairly faint praise.”

Threlkeld is not a highly visible political spouse, although a New York Times Styles section interview is reportedly imminent. After attending the University of Miami (she is from Naples, Florida), Threlkeld worked in the fashion industry for most of her career. Her mother, Debbie, is now the wife of Anson Beard, a well-known Wall Street investor and former chairman of Morgan Stanley. (Anson’s brother, Peter, is a famous fashion photographer and photojournalist.)

Until fairly recently, Threlkeld worked in public relations at Puig, a design conglomerate whose flagship brand is Carolina Herrera. In the few years she was there, Threlkeld held a variety of positions both at Nina Ricci and at Herrera, where several sources describe her as being “universally liked.” She handled a range of duties that involved some mid-level advertising work, and a fair amount of VIP dressing and event planning. (According to the New York Post, she is now her husband’s director of research.)

About five years ago, Threlkeld met Ford at a wedding in New Orleans. At the time, he was known in political circles as something of a player. Says one woman who dated him briefly: “He pursued women vigorously and passionately, there’d be a week or 10 days of him being totally obsessive and then it was over. With me he just didn’t show up for a date.”

Though Ford now says he was involved with Threlkeld throughout his Senate campaign in Tennessee, she was conspiciously absent from the trail. “As far as Memphis campaigning, I’m not sure she did any,” says a local reporter who covered Ford during the election.

There were a number of reasons for wanting to keep the relationship quiet. For one, it was relatively new. For another, a month before his defeat, the RNC put out a now-infamous commercial featuring an actress who claimed to have met Ford at a party at the Playboy Mansion. “Call me,” she mouths at the end. The ad smacked of racism—implying that he was somehow unfit for office because he was a womanizer who liked white girls. (In point of fact, the ad was also deceptive; Ford is said to have been fairly indifferent to race where the women in his life are concerned. He was formerly engaged to a black woman.) Even though the ad was vilified, it did its damage.

After his loss, Ford moved north, taking an apartment with Threlkeld in New York’s Flatiron District. He got the job at Merrill, and in 2008, married Threlkeld in Miami before a crowd that numbered around 300, according to various published reports.

When news of his nuptuals broke, The Washington Post noted that the Beards “contributed $18,500 to [Ford’s 2006 Senate] race and $10,000 to the Democratic Party of Tennessee. “Should clear them for a wedding present, don’t you think?” quipped writers Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts.

In January, Ford began to float the idea of a New York run. He did a softball interview with the New York Post’s veteran gossip columnist Cindy Adams in which he talked about being a devoted husband and a proud companion to Threlkeld’s 11-year old Chihuahua, Fabby. (Ford says he walks the dog, even though he gets “funny looks.”) And when Adams noted that campaigning for office is a “form of birth control” and asked Ford how he would he find “time” for the new wife, the former congressman from Tennessee replied, “Ohh, listen, I’ll find time for that. Always have, always will.”

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.