Friday, March 15, 2002

Saying "Uncle"

As Junior and Bryant saddle up for a Senate race, John Ford eyes the 9th District.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 15, 2002 at 4:00 AM

According to sources, state Senator John Ford is the Ford family pick to succeed U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., now on the verge of a run for the U.S. Senate.

In one of those surprise developments which appear sensible and inevitable once they are thought about, Memphis' Sen. Ford, who confirms his interest, has become the Ford political clan's congressional candidate-designate in the increasingly likely event that Rep. Ford actively seeks the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat being vacated by incumbent Republican Fred Thompson.

Thompson, who had been reticent about a reelection bid until the tragic events of September 11th, made a surprise exit from the race last Friday, saying that after the recent death of his 38-year-old daughter, he "didn't have the heart" to continue. That aroused in a number of political figures long-dormant ambitions that were already close to the surface.

Sources close to key members of the Ford family and aware of their recent deliberations say that Rep. Ford has cast the die and will make the Senate race, although much preliminary work -- polls, organizational efforts, establishment of fund-raising machinery, etc. -- remains to be done.

Rep. Ford and the Ford clan in general ultimately concluded that he would never face a better opportunity for seeking higher office than now, when the full bloom of his national media celebrity is upon him and an open seat is available; nor would as formidable a candidate in family ranks as Uncle John Ford necessarily be available several years down the line.

For all his eccentricities and numerous brushes with notoriety (including frequent paternity suits, public marital disputes, and brushes with the law on weapons charges, and other matters), the senator is a respected player in Nashville, where he chairs the Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee and is a key member of the Finance and State and Local Government committees as well.

Rep. Ford, just back from a fact-finding tour of Afghanistan, spent the weekend calling influential Democrats and sounding them out about his making a race for the Senate this year. One of those called was Mayor Willie Herenton, who reportedly said he would be willing to support the most celebrated current member of a political family, the Fords of Memphis, with whom he has had a running feud.

Speculation on other possible Democratic candidates to succeed Republican senator Thompson continued at a lively pace, with most of it centering on other members of the state's Democratic congressional delegation.

Of these, the notoriously cautious John Tanner of the 8th District was considered a viable candidate but unlikely to take the gamble of a Senate race. Bart Gordon of the 6th District had not committed himself, while the 5th District's Bob Clement, who represents Nashville, is in the position of having possibly cried wolf too many times on statewide races, so far exclusively in aborted gubernatorial runs. The Clement camp, however, was putting out firm and decisive-sounding signals about a race.

The names of Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, who recently withdrew from the Shelby County mayor's race, and state Senator Steve Cohen have received some play, but Cohen indicated it was unlikely he would attempt another statewide race. (He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994.)

For his part, Byrd has renounced any interest in the 7th District race. He has been more or less incommunicado following the previous week's emotionally draining decision to terminate his mayoral efforts.

A footnote: One of Byrd's few appearances since ending his campaign was at the annual awards banquet of the University of Memphis Alumni Association. Cohen was there, too, and attempted, as he later explained, to commiserate with the Bartlett banker. Like Byrd, Cohen has also had an experience or two with what sports broadcaster Jim McKay memorialized as "the agony of defeat."

Byrd was not having any, however -- either because he took Cohen's manner to be patronizing or because he resented Cohen's highly public use of his influence on candidate A C Wharton's behalf or perhaps for both reasons.

In any case, the Bartlett banker told the state senator, in no uncertain terms, to remove the arm he had draped around Byrd's shoulder. He further directed Cohen, who had also attempted to address Byrd's sister Jo Tucker, to "stay away" from members of the Byrd family.

Accounts of the incident varied -- some including reports of shoving -- but friends of both men suggested that at least superficially cordial relations between the two would resume at some point.

Meanwhile, other Democrats looking at the Senate picture included Memphis entrepreneur John Lowery, an admitted dark horse who is hoping to put his business (Revelation Corporation) on a sound-enough self-sustaining basis in the next month so that he might consider running.

"If none of the congressmen end up doing it, I'm in," Lowery said over the weekend.

Events since then have probably made that formulation moot. As it happens, an ex-congressman has expressed some interest as well -- former U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, now a consultant living in Nashville, who lost the 1994 special election that saw Thompson first elected to the Senate.

And there was Jim Hall, the Chattanoogan who was a key aide to former Governor Ned McWherter and headed the National Transportation Safety Board under former President Clinton.

• The Republican part of the senatorial picture was somewhat clearer. Seventh District U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant eschewed any soul-searching and declared his candidacy on Saturday, thereby beating to the punch by two days former Governor Lamar Alexander, who floated a senatorial trial balloon last year when Thompson first seemed hesitant about running again.

Bryant, whose interest in the position had long been evident, was not exactly enamored of that. The Alexander boom may, in fact, have stemmed from a 2001 poll showing that the former governor and erstwhile presidential candidate would run better against potential Democratic opponents than would Bryant.

U.S. Senator Bill Frist, current head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, would later acknowledge having given Alexander some encouragement but has, Bryant says, declared a hands-off attitude toward a pending Bryant-Alexander primary, which might be fought out along conservative-vs.-moderate lines (with Bryant the conservative and Alexander the moderate).

Bryant's chief concern now is the White House, which some observers believe is pressuring him to withdraw from a confrontation with Alexander.

• At least four local congressional hopefuls are all for Bryant's staying the course of a senatorial campaign.

The latest to put his hat in the ring as a potential successor to Bryant in the 7th District is state Senator Mark Norris of Collierville. And right behind him could be former Shelby County Republican chairman Phillip Langsdon, who of late has been directing the Republican primary efforts of fellow physician George Flinn, a candidate for Shelby County mayor.

Norris, who introduced Bryant to Republican members of the Senate in Nashville on Monday, advised other Shelby Countians interested in running for Bryant's seat to "keep their powder dry" so as not to split the county's vote in the newly reapportioned 7th.

Dr. Langsdon, meanwhile, a facial plastic surgeon who served two terms as county GOP chairman during the '90s, when partisan primaries for countywide offices were introduced and the local Republican Party was in the ascendant, said in a press release that he would be making a decision on running "in the next few days."

Two other Shelby Countians have designs on the seat -- Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor, who has already announced as a G.O.P. candidate, and Memphis lawyer David Kustoff, who has said he plans to once Bryant's commitment to the Senate race becomes definite.

At least two potential Republican candidates for the seat hail from the Nashville area. They are state Senator Marsha Blackburn and radio talk-show host Steve Gill, both of Williamson County -- an archcon-servative suburb of Nashville which was added to the 7th during the most recent congressional reapportionment.

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