Dirty family politics in Tennessee

Harold Ford's father and his not-so-Democratic "Democratic ballot."

Topics: War Room,

All kinds of factors have influenced the pivotal Senate race in Tennessee between Democrat Harold Ford Jr. and Republican Bob Corker. There are TV commercials (good, bad and ugly), the charisma factor (Ford is considered to have it, while Corker gets by with an image of competence), and possibly race (though home-grown Tennessee analysts are not nearly so sure about that as the national punditocracy is). But there’s another factor that’s little discussed outside Tennessee, and could be crucial in determining whether Harold Ford becomes a senator - Ford family politics.

The congressman who is this year’s consensus political prodigy did not spring from a political vacuum. The Fords of Memphis have been a force in state politics since 1974, when Rep. Ford’s father, Harold Ford Sr., was first elected to the 9th District seat. He in essence bequeathed the seat to his son and namesake, then only 26, in 1996. By such means as Election Day “Ford ballots,” printed mockups of the real thing that offer specific instructions to inner-city voters, the family managed over the years to elect city councilmen, county commissioners, state representatives and state senators, all named Ford. Several members of what Memphians came to call “the Ford machine” have run into legal trouble. The current Senate hopeful’s Uncle John Ford resigned from the Tennessee Legislature after being indicted for bribery and extortion in an FBI sting and is still awaiting trial.

By general consent, Harold Ford Jr. is squeaky-clean and has so far avoided any taint of scandal. But questions about his family associations never altogether died down. Corker himself made sure to mention them, and eyebrows were raised when his brother Jake Ford filed as an independent against Steve Cohen, the Democratic nominee for Rep. Ford’s vacated 9th District seat. Cohen is a favorite of Tennessee progressives, who may be voting for Harold Ford Jr. today but distrust the congressman’s increasingly conservative slant. Rep. Ford himself made a point of staying neutral in that race. His father, however, who is now a Florida-based lobbyist but is very much in town and on the case for the election, has worked relentlessly for son Jake. Harold Ford Sr. has made public remarks (“This is a Christian city”) that some thought bordered on anti-Semitism. Cohen is Jewish.

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Today, the senior Ford has published and distributed one of his patented ballots for inner-city voters. Though headlined “Ford Democratic ballot,” it lists Jake Ford, not Democratic Party nominee Cohen, as the choice for the 9th District. The deceptively labeled ballot has infuriated Tennessee Democrats. Says Liz Garrigan, editor of the weekly Nashville Scene, it “confirms what Harold Ford Jr.’s liability is in Tennessee: his family.”

“Nationally,” says Garrigan, “these midterm elections are a referendum on the Iraq war. In Tennessee, it’s pretty clear to me that this election is a referendum on Ford, the Ford family and Memphis politics in general.”

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