The conservative Democrat: Since we have to take the Harold Ford speculation seriously

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.

20 Responses to “The conservative Democrat: Since we have to take the Harold Ford speculation seriously”

  1. 1 fritz

    If there is a word that best describes Harold Ford it’s not conservative or moderate or centrist it’s ambitious. His political history is all about seeking higher political office.
    His House voting record was all about running for Senator in Tennessee and his move to New York was based on the fact he had no chance to get elected in Tennessee anymore. Bob Corker is now a high profile Senator and he had no chance against Lamar Alexander. His votes & statements may be his real views but I expect if he is serious about challenging Hillebrand he stances will move dramatically to the left (much as McCain has moved to the far right).
    Bloomburg and his Wall St. backers they are only mischief making and Al Sharpton would support any black candidate that had a chance.
    I expect this is a power play to get a high profile political job, like DNC head, sometime in the future.

  2. 2 Panos

    I find it hard to believe that even the most consrvative/gullible Newyorker will just turn a blind eye to Ford’s transparent opportunism and vote for him.
    If Gillibrand doesn’t blast him as the definition of carpetbagger every day up to the primary, then she will be commiting political malpractice.

  3. 3 njgoper

    Any chance he could running as a Republican?

  4. 4 kewgardens

    “If Gillibrand doesn’t blast him as the definition of carpetbagger . . .”

    Well, this IS NY’s carpetbagger Senate seat.

  5. 5 Taniel

    njgoper, I don’t think that is a possibility. While he has a conservative profile, the fact that he is being talked about this much is because he is very well-connected in Democratic circles; most of the people the NYT mentioned are pushing his bids are wealthy Democratic donors; and he would obviously have no chance of gathering any support from African-American leaders if he were to run as a Republican.

  6. 6 Gerard

    If Senator Gillibrand (not Hillibrand) can shift sharply to the left, surely Ford can too, even though it is a very unimpressive trait. When Gillibrand first came into office one year ago, she had a poor record on gay rights issues, she changed and now the gay rights community seems to be fine with her. Again, this is hard to understand or respect, except that these individual constituencies must figure they need to work with her just as much as she needs to work with them, and they’d do better with a Democrat than a Republican. Gillibrand has changed (or clarified, hehe) other views too, such as immmigration and gun control. With Governor David Patterson, who is African-American, facing a possible primary on two fronts, from AG Andrew Cuomo and Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy (who was reelected in 2007 with 96% of the vote, but who also has some very serious challenges with the Latino community), with Patterson standing a good chance of losing this year, this helps Ford in that NY is big on representing different geographic and ethnic groups on its statewide tickets. Yes, a woman elected statewide is also important, but the African American community is not going to be thrilled about losing the first African American governor in a Democratic Party primary, even though most know that he has been ineffective. Also, with Illinois Sen. Burris leaving, Ford would be the only African American in the US Senate. If Gillibrand wins this year, she will conceivably hold the seat for a long time, she is fairly young. So anyone who is ambitious enough needs to take her out now, or risk another Massachusetts or West Virginia situation, where a US Senate seat doesn’t come along all that often. In terms of winning the primary, a large part of the campaign will be done in around the NYC metropolitan area, meeting and greeting people, going to ethnic parades and street fairs, all of which are in abundance there. Ford is telegenic and charismatic. He will do great in this environment. I wouldn’t give up on Gillibrand at all, but it will be a great contest to watch. As far as this being a carpetbagger’s seat, NY is chock full of immigrants from other countries and people from other states who moved there to make it big or escape life in a red state, so this isn’t much of an issue.

  7. 7 fritz

    Gerard: Thanks for the typo correction.
    If Ford moves to the left on many of his policy positions then yes I agree; he has a chance against Gillibrand. If he stays on the center right course he is on now, over the next few weeks, then he’s not a serious candidate and just pressuring the Democratic leadership for a high profile job.
    I don’t think there being only one AA Senator or Ford being a carpetbagger will be a really big motivating factors to NY voters.

  8. 8 Nathan

    One thing is unclear to me: just how liberal and influential are New York African Americans? I believe African Americans nation wide are more conservative than Dems in general on social issues, in part because those with conservative views stay in the Democratic Party for reasons of racial solidarity. If that holds true in NY too (a big if), then its conceivable Ford may find some support within the party for his conservative stances on abortion and gay marriage. That, combined with his race and the support of influential business groups, could make this fun to watch.

    As a center-right guy myself, I like Ford. However, for better or worse, it does seem harder to elect someone like him in NY than in TN.

  9. 9 Gerard

    It isn’t as much a big deal to the voters as it is to the party leaders who want to be seen as inclusive. Interesting about him leveraging this into other opportunities, who knows?

    Speaking of party leaders, anyone else think GOP Chairman Michael Steele’s days are numbered. He said he didn’t think that the GOP would take back the Congress, but, worse, he said they aren’t ready to lead? This is how it is being spun, anyway. Not a good week for him.

  10. 10 Native Manhattanite

    I was torn in the Tennessee Senate race between a real thinker (not a cookie cut) in Harold Ford - who, if he won, would have made a better Black president than B. H. Obama - and an effective city mayor (Chattanooga) in Bob Corker.
    I am glad that Ford has another chance. He’ll be another Patrick Moynihan, an intellectual heavyweight. Moreover, he can work with Republicans, unlike Gillibrand who is a non-thinking liberal robot. Furthermore, against a strong GOP candidate (if they can find one), Gillibrand could lose in a Republican national sweep. There’s no way Ford could lose in New York - Dems, A-As, Jews, Catholics AND independents will flock to his candidacy in November. Doesn’t Chuckie Schumer see this? Let alone election challenged Harry Reid?
    If he wins the NY Senate seat, Harold Ford may be a future president! Gillibrand never will be - and each re-election will vulnerable.

  11. 11 dsimon

    Native Manhattanite: He’ll be another Patrick Moynihan, an intellectual heavyweight.

    I’m on Ford’s mailing list, and I’ve found his statements and opinion pieces to be thoroughly unimpressive. After his Senate run, I expected more from him and have been consistently disappointed.

    Gillibrand could lose in a Republican national sweep.

    I think the Republicans have to find a candidate first before making such a dire prediction. No top-tier contender has come forward, and time is running out. I think this seat is pretty safe regardless of who the Democrat is.

    Moreover, he can work with Republicans, unlike Gillibrand who is a non-thinking liberal robot.

    Gillibrand is very, very smart. I’ve heard her at many events, and her comprehension of the issues is impressive. Believe me, she is no “liberal robot” as I’ve seen her deftly address questions from an audience more to the left than she is.

    Perhaps one should have a little more contact with the candidates before making such sweeping conclusions.

  12. 12 Gerard


    Primary voters of course tend to be more liberal. In NY, there are plenty of Black churches whose members tend to be more conservative and would be very comfortable with Ford. In fact, a lot of campaign stops are on Sunday mornings, visiting baptist churches, Ford will do well there. There are also plenty of blue-collar Democrats who are also more moderate to conservative in nature. Gillibrand was also a conservative Democrat, although she has moved sharply to the left this past year. The abortion rights issues will be a very very big deal too. Ford already ran a statewide campaign and so he will do well as the race heats up, which it will. This is Gillibrand’s first statewide contest, so we’ll have to see how she does under pressure. If Ford is willing to take on the establishment, Schumer, Reid, the White House, and so on, he will certainly gain the respect of many New Yorkers, and this is certainly the year to take on the establishment. I realize that he will have his own establishment support in terms of fundraisers and etc., but this is a real challenge to the Democrat Party hierarchy, although once the primary is over, life will go on and the Dems will get together and move on. Other NY Congressional members were less than thrilled with Gillibrand, because she only had 2 years experience in the House; whether that means that they will flock to Ford remains to be seen. If he starts to do well, who knows, everyone likes to go with a winner. We’ll have to see if some of the NY members of Congress start pulling back their endorsements (Gillibrand has about 20 of the 27 NY Congressional Dems in her camp, however tentative some of them are.) I realize that Gillibrand will fight back hard, so this will be a real interesting race, for sure. Ford certainly has a lot more experience under his belt, 10 years in the Congress and he actually went up against Nancy Pelosi for a leadership position while he was there, so he isn’t afraid of taking on the bigshots. As of today, he already started putting a staff together, including some of NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign workers, so he is off to an aggressive start.

  13. 13 Maurice


    I agree that we need intellectual heavyweights, and the first names that come to mind are Moynihan, Church, Wellstone, McGovern and Terkel. In other words, not power-hungry feather-brains. I supported Ford in ‘06 because he’s better than nothing, but I’d rather Bruce Lunsford be there than Ford. If you want a heavy thinker, give Hinchey a call. In fact, it might be better if Steele was President than Ford. Then the Republican party would no longer exist.

  14. 14 dsimon

    Addendum to prior post: Gillibrand could lose in a Republican national sweep. There’s no way Ford could lose in New York - Dems, A-As, Jews, Catholics AND independents will flock to his candidacy in November.

    I think to the extent any Democratic candidate would be vulnerable to a Republican wave in 2010, Ford would be in more danger than Gillibrand. Ford will be running to Gillibrand’s right. In a mid-term election where turnout is key, progressives who are not entirely thrilled with Gillibrand but nevertheless satisfied with her good voting record in the Senate may very well stay home if Ford is the candidate. Perhaps some voters may “flock” to a Ford candidacy in the general, but an equal number may run away from it as well–or just stay in their living rooms on election day.

  15. 15 Gerard

    It’s going to be interesting for sure. The GOP doesn’t yet have a candidate to run in either of NY’s two US Senate races (Sen. Schumer is running for a full term and Sen. Gillibrand is running for the remainder of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s term, which is only two years, then another election in 2012 for a full 6 year term.) NY is in such bad shape and so disfunctional it is hard to know what will happen. Former GOP US Rep. Rick Lazio is running for governor, so it remains to be seen what he can pull off. If Gov. Patterson makes it through the primary, a tall order, he won’t be the most formidable candidate for the job. If this is all enough to keep the Dems home, who knows? It doesn’t seem as though NY’ers would want to send a Republican to the US Senate to work with Mitch McConnell, but, stranger things have happened. Now if only the California governor’s race would heat up, there is certainly a lot to discuss out here!

  16. 16 Curmudgeon10

    Too funny!! I believe Mr. Ford has actually lived in New York for several years, but hasn’t voted until recently. I guess that would be the equivalent of Hillary’s “listening tour,” which this blogger actually believes could have resulted in a decision by her not to run. As if.

    I don’t see what all the panic is about. If Ford, his record, and his philosophy is so foreign to the chablis and brie set, he won’t win. What’s the harm in giving the voters another choice? I thought you lefties were all about “freedom of choice…”

  17. 17 Moira

    Curmudgeon, you certainly live upto your name. I thought you Conservatives were for freedom of choice yet pressure plenty of candidates to run or not run.

    No-one is saying the Democratic establishment is stopping Ford, quite the opposite it seems. He is getting establishment support so no-one is stopping the voters having a choice. You need to find new evidence to support your biased and preconceived ideas.

  18. 18 dsimon

    Curmudgeion10: What’s the harm in giving the voters another choice? I thought you lefties were all about “freedom of choice…”

    I have nothing against him running. I’m all for giving voters a choice. I just think Ford’s running would be an unproductive consumption of time and resources. But if there are enough primary voters to suggest otherwise and make it a real contest, then have at it. After all, I don’t recall the DNC considering a “purity test” for funding….

    Moira: He is getting establishment support…

    He is? Schumer just met with Ford to dissuade him from running. I’d bet the DSCC doesn’t want a primary because it would rather preserve resources for other races.

    I’m more in line with Fritz’s initial post. Maybe it’s a play for the seat, but it’s also a way to keep his name in play for other political positions.

  1. 1 NY-SEN: Horald Ford to seek GOP nomination | TheWorldPolitics
  2. 2 Balloon Juice » Blog Archive » I still don’t think this will happen

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