Friday, January 17, 2003

POLITICS: Frustrated Suitors

POLITICS

Posted By on Fri, Jan 17, 2003 at 4:00 AM

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WASHINGTON -- Ostensibly, last week was a quiet one for Harold Ford Jr., the 9th District Memphis congressman whose meteoric rise in the national consciousness has been counterpointed at home by long-term questions about his statewide electability. Congress reconvened last week but will not start its real business until late in the month, after President Bush’s State-of-the-Union address.

But, as previously reported here, there is new movement on the Ford front. This time it’s not among his fellow Democrats, whom the 31-year-old congressman courted last fall in an unsuccessful race for House minority leader against the better-known Nancy Pelosi of California. This time it comes from Republicans, who -- well off the media radar screen -- have been carrying on a running courtship of Ford for some time now.

“I’ve had a number of approaches from them,” Ford said last week of the overtures from the GOP, both national and Tennessee-based, and he confirmed that, in response to their invitation, he would be sitting down this week with area businessmen who presumably have interests at large to discuss but who have made no secret of their belief that Ford should consider changing parties prior to any statewide run.

Considered a possible Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2000 against Senator Bill Frist, Ford gave public consideration to running even long after his political base had been somewhat undermined by the defeat in the 1999 Memphis mayoral race of Uncle Joe Ford, then a city councilman, by incumbent Willie Herenton. In March of last year, the young congressman had also wanted to run for the seat which Fred Thompson, then the state’s senior senator, announced that he would be vacating but was forced by party elders to defer to Bob Clement, his congressional counterpart from Nashville.

Clement’s efforts proved futile against a political comeback by the self-assured former GOP governor Lamar Alexander, and many of his partymates thought the more dynamic Ford would have had better chances. Ford is known to be eyeing a race for the Senate in 2006 if Frist, the newly elected Senate majority leader, follows through on his long-standing pledge to serve two terms only. But there is a skeptical contingent among Tennessee Democrats who continue to doubt that Ford, as an African-American, could prevail in a statewide race, especially considering that Tennessee Republicans have clearly established parity -- or better -- vis-ˆ-vis Democrats.

The efforts by Republicans to entice Ford to their standard offer, at least on the surface, a corrective of sorts to those doubts. The congressman’s partisans, both in Tennessee and in Washington, have long insisted that his appeal transcends not only racial lines but the usual partisan divides as well. Though he occasionally makes an effort to distance himself from labels like that of “black centrist” (which the New York Times Magazine conferred on him in a notable profile a couple of years back), Ford obviously relishes the crossover image which such descriptions confer and frequently makes the point that his congressional friendships transcend party lines.

And Ford’s ambitious bid for party leadership last year -- which crested at a disappointing 29 votes -- was widely interpreted as being aimed at Democratic moderates dissatisfied with the national party’s left-of-center image.

All the same, it is beyond implausible that Harold Ford Jr. would ever consider any change of partisan address. Even if he were willing to do so, what his GOP suitors overlook is that not even he could hold on to the black Democratic voter base of Memphis -- source of the Ford family’s political power -- if he should shift his party allegiance.

Aside from that root fact, there is no reason to doubt Ford’s fidelity to the Democratic Party. In a lengthy letter-to-the-editor in the current New Republic, Ford’s chief of staff, Memphian Mark Schuermann, takes the magazine to task for its critical view of the congressman at the time of his recent leadership bid.

Citing fundraising activity and campaign appearances on behalf of both Tennessee and national Democratic campaigns this past year, Schuermann portrays his boss as a vital cog in issues like campaign finance reform as well as in his party’s rebuilding efforts, generally. “Ford's hurry to change things came after House Democrats were unsuccessful for the fourth straight election. However, he is committed to working with the current leadership and believes his unsuccessful bid will help push the party to work even harder to reclaim the majority in two years,” concludes Schuermann.

In any case, the congressman himself declared categorically last week, “I’m a Democrat.” But, he said after a pause, “I sure don’t mind getting some of those Republican votes!”

  • If Ford’s pace last week was somewhat restrained, it was otherwise for some of his fellow Tennesseans, notably several new congressmen -- the 7th District’s Marsha Blackburn, the 4th District’s Lincoln Davis, and the 5th District’s Jim Cooper -- who underwent the bustle of orientation and swearing-in rituals. (Blackburn is a Republican; Davis and Cooper, who represented the 4th District himself before losing a 1994 Senate race to Thompson, are Democrats.)

    And it was not exactly slack time, either, for Frist, a likely contender for the presidency in 2008 whose rapid rise to prominence in the GOP was crowned by his election as Senate Majority Leader last year to succeed the tarnished Trent Lott of Mississippi.

    The press of Senate business kept Frist from attending when Alexander hosted a reception for Thompson and former Senator Howard Baker in the Russell Senate Office Building caucus room where in 1973 Baker, then head of the Republicans on the Senate Watergate committee, and Thompson, his legal counsel, rose to national prominence.

    Ironically, Lott showed up -- a fact which led some to speculate on what might have been the interchange with Frist, who not only succeeded him but had been one of the Mississippian’s first intraparty critics when Lott uttered his fateful and impolitic praise last month of retiring South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign.

    “I’ve seen better days,” Lott acknowledged to one well-wisher. In his own remarks to the assemblage, Alexander made a point of acknowledging Lott, whom he termed an “old friend” that he’d frequently worked with, while serving as Tennessee governor, on regional issues.

    Considering the circumstances of the GOP’s switch from Lott to Frist, a presumed moderate on racial matters, President Bush’s subsequent renomination of a Mississippi jurist, U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering, to serve on a federal appeals court left a number of political observers buffaloed.

    The nomination of Pickering, a Lott protégé, was blocked in the Senate last year by Democrats who regarded several of his prior judicial actions as racially tinged, and Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who was Majority Leader in the last session, left no doubt that Pickering would face renewed opposition this year.

    That more or less left Frist, as Bush’s front man in the Senate, holding the bag, and it was baggage that he clearly seemed less than delighted with, though in a myriad of appearances on TV talk shows, the new Majority Leader made an effort to toe the line on Pickering’s behalf -- at least to the tune of giving the nominee a “fair hearing.”

    In a telephone chat with Tennessee reporters on Friday, Frist made an effort to sound upbeat about the duty of handling the Pickering case. “I look forward to making this an opportunity -- I don’t want to call it an unprecedented opportunity -- to address issues surrounding race relations,” he said, adding, “I’m pretty much where I have been.ÉI believe he (Pickering) is imminently qualified for the job.”

    But, having said that, he promptly gave himself some distance: “I will keep saying this, that my goal is to make sure there is a system in place to ensure a fair an equitable process. There have been many people in the U.S. Senate who have expressed feelings that Judge Pickering’s hearing was unfair.”

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