09.13.10

Harold Ford's Perpetual Campaign

The Tennessee transplant’s stumble on New York’s political stage hasn’t dimmed his yen to run again. The Daily Beast talks to Ford about his new book and his hints about a run for New York mayor.

Harold Ford Jr. is running. That much is evident.

He’s running in New York State, where he’s a registered voter.

And he’s running as a Democrat. You can take that to the bank.

For which office, during what election cycle, against whom and on what platform? These are imponderables, subject to political opportunity and calculation. It’s a line of work, after all, where timing is everything—so he’s not running against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

“I’ve been clear about the fact that if I run again, this is where I’ll run from—this is my home,” Ford says between bites of a western omelet, egg whites only, at the Hollywood Diner, his favorite greasy spoon in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. “I’m not planning a run. Not putting together any committee or group to organize a run. Do I have a passion for it? Clearly. But it is not something where I wake up saying, ‘By March 2012, I’ve got to get this thing done; by June of 2012, I’ve got to make 50 stops in Staten Island and Queens, and meet with 50 pastors by this other date.’ ”

Lean, handsome and looking younger than his 40 years, he’s easily the best-dressed guy in the diner. He wears muted gray pinstripes, tailored for a Hotel Regency power breakfast—where he’s to be found most mornings hobnobbing with the city’s business elite, as befits the executive vice chairman of Bank of America/Merrill Lynch (Ford’s multi-million-dollar day job that requires him that very afternoon to pull U.S. Open schmoozing duty). But he has chosen this humble venue, a few blocks from the apartment he owns with his wife Emily Threlkeld, a fashion stylist, for an interview with The Daily Beast.

“It is not something I wake up every day thinking about, but if it happens—if the opportunity to run and the opportunity to serve happens—I’ll be thrilled,” he says.

The former five-term Tennessee congressman hasn’t forgotten last winter’s baptism by buzz-saw.

“It is not something I wake up every day thinking about, but if it happens—if the opportunity to run and the opportunity to serve happens—I’ll be thrilled,” Ford says.

For several weeks at the start of 2010, Ford was slapped around by the tag team of Chuck Schumer and Gillibrand, New York’s senior and junior senators respectively, when he had the chutzpah to publicly explore a challenge to Schumer’s protégé in the September 14 primary.

Ford—whose father, Harold Sr., preceded him as the representative for Memphis’ 9th Congressional District—had landed in Manhattan after a heartbreakingly narrow loss in the 2006 Senate campaign to Republican Bob Corker, who insidiously injected Ford’s African-American identity and won in that majority-white red state by less than 3 percent of the vote.

“They went after me on the one thing I wouldn’t change and couldn’t change—that I’m black,” Ford says. “Also, they knew my serious girlfriend at the time [now his wife] was white—and they were trying to figure out how to get at that.” Yet when the Republican National Committee ran a racially charged television spot, in which a blond floozy purrs, “Harold, call me!,” Ford’s reaction was coolly professional. “It was cruel and certainly designed to stoke some racial concerns and fear,” he says. “But when I saw it, I thought it was brilliant.”

Ford, who had carved out a nearly-unique position as a center-right black Democrat, won 98 percent of the African-American vote but only 40 percent of the white vote. Compared to Tennessee, New York was a day at the beach.

By most accounts, Schumer demanded that Ford stop testing the waters, and, when that didn’t work, did everything he could to drown the defiant newcomer.

Ford has a history with Schumer, who was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006. In his recently-released, best-selling autobiography, More Davids Than Goliaths: A Political Education, Ford describes Schumer as dismissive and patronizing. “I wanted to say, ‘F--- you, Chuck,” Ford writes about one of their contentious meetings.

This time around, Ford was also assailed by naysayers in the news media, who lured him into bumbling confessionals about pedicures, Town Cars and helicopter rides, while Gillibrand suggested he was a carpetbagger and Wall Street shill who had renounced his previous, Tennessee-friendly convictions against same sex marriage and abortion rights (though he only opposed legalizing late-term abortions) in order to make himself palatable to liberal New York primary voters.

Ford—who today says he wishes he’d spent less of his time courting New York’s Democratic Party establishment (who mouthed encouraging words privately, he says, but declined to buck Schumer publicly)—is scornful of the media’s focus on his personal hygiene, Regency breakfasts, New York sports team preferences and other trivia.

“This shows you how silly and how simple-minded politics can be—just absurd,” Ford says. “People are worried about whether their fees on the subways are going to go up, if their taxes are going to go up in the city, if their taxes are going to go up in the state—not these silly things. I think at some level we condition people to want to watch and listen to the silliest things.”

As for Schumer and Gillibrand, Ford doesn't bother to disguise a cordial dislike. “You know," he says with a mirthless chuckle, "they beat me up pretty good.”

But, months later, he seems to have recovered.

“This is not only political terrain I could do well in; there are issues I still care deeply about—a lot of issues that transfer from Tennessee to here,” Ford says. “The nastiness of it? There was nastiness in Tennessee. But here, the stage is just much bigger, in terms of the media stage.”

Almost in passing, between chews, he adds: “I’ve been among a group of people who’ve told me to take a look at the mayor’s race in a few years—which was flattering.”

****

The night before, the guests at a packed book party for More Davids Than Goliaths included financier Steven Rattner, power broker Vernon Jordan, Loews Corp. billionaire Andrew Tisch, New York Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, 60 Minutes star Steve Kroft and dozens of other political, media and money mavens on hand to pay their respects (The party was co-hosted by The Daily Beast).

If not entirely plausible, the idea of New York Mayor Harold Ford Jr. didn’t seem completely crazy. And that’s not the only elected position he might have the option of seeking: If the appointed Gillibrand loses in November, leaving a Republican to fill out the last two years of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Senate term, Ford could conceivably try for real in 2012.

Yet his credentials and connections—as a political commentator on MSNBC; as the first black chairman of the center-right Democratic Leadership Council, Bill Clinton’s erstwhile springboard; as a visiting political science lecturer with a weekly class at NYU; and as a social animal who mixes with the likes of Ronald Perelman and Michael Bloomberg—don’t necessarily translate into electability.

“How does he create a bond with non-elites, non-media people, and keep a bond with people who actually vote here?” says veteran Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Are they going to vote for a former congressman from Tennessee who wasn’t right on gay issues? Probably not. He has to find a way to reinvent himself rather quickly. He’s got to create a local constituency that is absolutely unchangeable. They need to be Harold Ford lunatics. It doesn’t get done by television. You have to create it.”

Tennessee political consultant Tom Lee, who ran Ford’s communications operation in the 2006 Senate race, predicts that his ex-boss is up to the task. “I think you’ll see, going forward, that he’ll have more time in the state and more time with voters. You’ll never hear that criticism again [that’s he’s not a real New Yorker]… He has a remarkable capacity for bearing down on the person he is with, and making a connection. He is tireless at it.”

Lee adds: “He will be back, and the one thing you always bet on it is that it will never be dull.”

****

For now, Ford says he’s focused on the November midterms and on helping Democrats hold their tenuous majorities in Congress. Former House colleagues from the vulnerable Blue Dog Coalition, and even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have asked him to campaign for them, he says, adding that he expects to spend much of the next two months jetting around the country.

“My colleagues will call and ask political advice, and I try my hardest to be helpful,” he says. “I think after this election, my party’s going to have to be reevaluated. Even if we hold majorities, it’s going to be such narrow majorities, we’re going to have to step back and say, ‘Let’s take an inventory here. Let’s see what we did right and what we did wrong.’ I do hope to be part of that conversation—not just in New York but nationally.”

For Barack Obama, whom Ford got to know slightly when the future president was a freshman senator, playing a pickup basketball game in Chicago and later during a congressional delegation to Iraq, Ford has plenty of advice: Extend the Bush tax cuts, stress job-creation and talk about American exceptionalism, for starters.

Ford says he “couldn’t have been happier” when Obama broke the race barrier and proved that an African American could be elected president. But unlike the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was caught weeping on camera on election night in Grant Park, Ford stayed dry-eyed. “I’m not much of a crier,” he says.

It’s doubtful that Ford will shed any tears if Gillibrand—or, for that matter, Schumer, who is also on the ballot—loses in November (Gillibrand is legally required to face the voters in the first election since she was appointed, which explains why both New York’s senators are on the ballot in the same year). He has predicted to friends privately that Gillibrand, for one, will be defeated.

“I think it’s going to be a lot tougher than they think,” he says for public consumption. But he adds that he’ll have no problem voting for either of them. “I’m a Democrat,” he says.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.