Throughout 2009, countless prominent politicians took a hard look at challenging Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. With much of the left apoplectic that a Blue Dog found herself appointed to the Senate and with Gillibrand suffering from mediocre poll numbers, she looked poised to face top-tier opposition. Yet, one-by-one all these New Yorkers ruled out a bid. By my count, at least 7 who would have given Gillibrand a very tough race seriously flirted with the possibility before giving up: Israel, Mahoney, McCarthy, Nadler, Serrano, Stringer and Giuliani. (Jon Cooper also looked close to a bid before giving up.) On Tuesday, Gillibrand dodged an 8th bullet: Bill Thompson, whose name had popped up in statewide discussions after his strong result in November’s mayoral race, announced he wouldn’t run for anything in 2010 so he could prepare for another mayoral bid in 2013.
So we’re done with looking out for new Democratic candidates, right? Gillibrand’s only primary opponent will be Jonathan Tasini, who got 17% in a primary bid against Hillary Clinton in 2006? Not so fast: In a bizarre development, the latest name that has popped up in the state’s Senate discussions is that of Harold Ford Jr., the former congressman who lost a close Senate race in Tennessee in 2006.
To imagine Ford might represent New York as a Democrat is such a grotesque proposition it took me a while to be convinced that I even needed to address the story. Yet, it is increasingly looking like the former congressman is so serious that the biggest figures in the Democratic firmament are getting involved in pushing him out: Harry Reid has reportedly contacted Ford’s new protector Mike Bloomberg to urge him to give up on his latest power play, while Chuck Schumer met with Ford last night to dissuade him from running.
Let’s first state that he registered to vote in New York a month-and-half ago. We first heard about the possibility he might run back in November, which makes this transition from non-resident to explorer-of-a-Senate-bid make Hillary Clinton look like a lifelong New Yorker. After all, the then-First Lady went through a lengthy listening tour across upstate New York before even announcing a bid. But the most important thing to consider about Ford is his ideology.
Ford might have been an appropriate candidate for Tennessee, but if he were to represent New York he would make Joe Lieberman look like a good fit for Connecticut and Rick Santorum for Pennsylvania. Just for starters, there is the fact that he is currently the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the party’s centrist apparatus that even the party’s moderates have distanced themselves from over the past decade. But a quick look at his record reveals just how far to the right Ford is compared to Democrats nationally, let alone relatively to one of the country’s most reliably left-wing Democratic electorates.
The most telling vote: In 2006, he was one of 34 Democrats to vote for the Federal Marriage Amendment, the constitutional ban on same-sex unions; at least 2 of the 27 Republicans who voted “no” were from New York. (He also trumpeted his support for a Tennessee ban.) But there’s more:
- 2000: Ford votes to normalize trade relations with China. Democrats oppose bill 138-73.
- 2001: Ford votes for the Patriot Act. Democrats support bill 129-75.
- 2002: Ford votes to authorize Iraq War. Democrats oppose bill 126-81.
- 2003: Ford is one of 63 Democrats to vote for the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act.
- 2005: Ford votes for House Republicans’ tough anti-immigration bill, the Real ID ACT. Only 42 Democrats did so.
- 2005: Ford was one of 43 Democrats to back legislation intervening in the Terri Schiavo case.
- 2005: Ford votes for bankruptcy reform, along with 72 other Democrats.
- 2006: Ford votes to permanently repeal the estate tax, along with only 42 other Democrats.
- He repeatedly voted in favor of a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning (2005, 2003, 2001, 1999). In 2005, the amendment fell just one vote short of the 67 it needed to clear the Senate; needless to say, Democrats can’t afford to give up one of the New York seats.
As we can see, we aren’t talking about a few minor votes but a record of backing the GOP’s top legislative priorities, including bills that were particularly repulsive to much of the Democratic Party: the FMA, the estate tax, bankruptcy reform, the Real ID Act. (One issue on which Ford appears to have a liberal stance is the death penalty, on which he has supported a moratorium. He could also point to his votes against making George W. Bush’s tax cuts permanent, against CAFTA and against Medicare Part D, though those votes received very little Democratic support.) What is especially striking is that Ford is the right of his party across-the-board: fiscal issues, social issues, immigration and national security.
This record is all the more reflective of his ideology that he represented a heavily Democratic district, which means most of his positions were at diametrically opposed to his constituents’. It’s one thing for House Democrats to end up with someone who votes like Bobby Bright in a district that gives Democrats more than 70% of the vote rather than less than 40%; it’s obviously far more consequential for such a misfit to happen in the Senate.
Some might say that Ford was positioning himself this far to the right because he intended to seek statewide office. However, the congressman started bucking his party early in his House career (there is no evidence he became more centrist as the 2006 cycle approached) and his profile today is the same as it was three years ago: He became head of the DLC after leaving Congress.
Most importantly, Ford appears to be interested in a Senate run because of a desire to promote economically conservative positions. For one, he appears to be peeved by Gillibrand’s support for health-care reform! At the very least, that’s what transpires from a New York Post article that reports Mike Bloomberg is pushing Ford because “he’s tangled [with Gillibrand] over health care reform in recent weeks.” Furthermore, The New York Times article that has created much of this week’s buzz revealed that Ford’s backers to be a who’s who of New York’s financial elites and “Wall Street executives who are now encouraging him to run.” (Add to that the fact that Bloomberg’s fingerprints are all over , and this is Caroline Kennedy all over again; I guess it’s a more conservative version, but then again we had no idea where Kennedy stood on any issue.) The article also mentions that some of Ford’s backers are alarmed that Gillibrand “abandoned some of her previous positions on issues like gun control and immigration.”
Indeed: Just a year ago Gillibrand was a member of the House Blue Dog Coalition and her voting record (while nowhere like Ford’s) provoked the consternation of many progressives. Even taking into account the fact that she has remade herself into a liberal since joining the Senate, it is rather far-fetched that she might face the prospect of a challenge from the right. And yes, we are talking about the Empire State: it might not be as staunchly blue as Massachussetts and Rhode Island, but the majority of the Democratic electorate lives in liberal New York City.
And yet, we cannot dismiss Ford’s chances - after all, Schumer and Reid are clearly taking his potential candidacy seriously. First, Gillibrand has had trouble imposing herself and her upstate roots still raise questions about how well she’ll play in New York City. Second, Ford should be able to raise as much money as he needs, as he is very well connected not only in national political circles but also to executives in the financial sector that look committed to helping him.
Most importantly, despite his conservative record Ford might benefit from solid support in the black community, a significant force in New York primaries: The New York Times reports that Ford has already met with the Reverend Al Sharpton, who is “did not seek to discourage Mr. Ford from running, and recommended that he begin to reach out to the state’s black leaders and clergy.” Ford is also scheduled to give the keynote speech at next month’s Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators conference. The Times quoted Brooklyn Assemblyman Nick Perry as noting the group would be open to Ford’s candidacy. I know little about Perry, but Sharpton can hardly be said to be ideologically close to the DLC.
So might the primary turn into a battle of strange coalitions - New York’s financial class, the DLC-establishment and African-American leaders on the one hand; the left’s activist groups, Latino groups and the Democratic establishment on the other? That would be quite a turnaround: It was one thing to see progressives give up on challenging Gillibrand, but if Ford runs we will be treated to the stunning spectacle of liberal groups, immigration and gay-rights advocates, probably unions rallying around New York’s junior senator.