Harold Ford says he’s “gearing up” for a primary challenge against fellow Democrat and incumbent, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The former congressman and failed Senate candidate from Tennessee could beat her, I suppose; if he does, he could win and maybe even hold the New York seat for a long time. Surely it would be good to have an African American in the Senate after Barack Obama’s departure left the exclusive club of 100 soon-to-be-lacking yet again even one African American in a country where African Americans are about one-eighth of the national population.
But I hope he doesn’t run.
Now, let me admit up front my distaste for Ford. Writing for Salon three years ago, when Ford was announced as the new Democratic Leadership Council chair, I chided him for the despicable way he comported himself during his 2006 Tennessee Senate bid. By engaging in painfully transparent symbolism like wearing camouflage hunting caps, Ford bought into and reinforced nearly every trope Republicans have been peddling about Democrats for years. He spoke out against the gay marriage ruling in New Jersey, and in general talked the conservative talk on social issues. His behaviors do not excuse the patently racist television ad the Republicans ran against him, but Ford’s refusal, when asked on live television, to call that ad racist was a selfish act of electorally-minded cowardice.
I’m sorry–OK, maybe I’m not–but the bottom line is that this is a vanity bid. This is a man who thinks the single best possible development for a Senate increasingly paralyzed by filibusters would be his election to the chamber.
Ford knows that when it comes to the Senate, New York, despite the famous Frank Sinatra lyrics, is actually quite amenable to what might be termed the “reverse Sinatra” effect: You can maybe still make it there even if you can’t make it anywhere (else). Perhaps that’s why the Empire State has been a favorite magnet for carpetbaggers past. Bobby Kennedy could have won in Massachusetts had a seat been open there in 1964, but Hillary Clinton in Arkansas in 2000? Not so sure.
The point is that Ford would have a great shot in the general election, and knows it. New York is so reliably blue, even a reddish Democrat need not don a camo baseball cap to be competitive. Which means Ford’s bigger obstacle to office is Gillibrand in the primary. And yet surely Ford calculates that, because she attained office via appointment and hasn’t had sufficient time since then to introduce herself to everyone in what is still the nation’s third most populous state, Gillibrand is potentially quite vulnerable.
What’s galling is how Ford is sporting his bluer stripes now that he’s north of the Mason-Dixon line. Here’s the key excerpt from his op-ed in the New York Post in which he publicly confirmed that he’s “seriously considering” a Senate bid:
I am pro-choice–have always been since I entered politics almost 15 years ago. My cumulative grade with NARAL during 10 years in Congress was right at 80 percent. Any assertions to the contrary are false.
I remain committed to promoting gun safety and handgun control, and I look forward to working with Mayor Bloomberg and Newark Mayor Corey Booker and their coalition to reduce handgun violence in cities across America.
Despite what critics say about me, I enjoyed uninterrupted support from organized labor throughout my time in Congress.
And from the moment I arrived in Congress, I supported civil unions. Like New York’s senior senator, after listening to and participating in the national conversation about full equality and fairness, I support same-sex marriage.
Suffice to say this wasn’t the image Ford was projecting back in 2006.
Gillibrand hasn’t been perfect, but she’s darn good. Liberals in New York and Washington undoubtedly prefer that she be less of a Blue Dog and more of a bull dog. But, long term, I think she’ll make a fine senator, both back home in the state where I grew up as well as in committee and on the floor of the chamber. She also deserves special dispensation if only for one reason: She took out one of the slimiest Republicans in Congress, former Rep. John Sweeney.
Ford offers little, if anything, in the way of a trade-up from Gillibrand. He’ll only be wasting party resources that could be spent better elsewhere. And the fact that he is ignoring the wishes of the state’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, reveals the order in which Ford ranks his ambitions and his party’s fortunes.