Friday, May 6, 2005

Making the State

Prospective Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. eschews Washington for a Tennessee tour.

Posted By on Fri, May 6, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Harold Ford Jr. made several Tennessee stops last week to reinforce his seeming determination to make the U.S. Senate run in 2006 that some observers have become skeptical about -- perhaps recalling the elongated period of soul-searching that preceded an ultimate decision not to make such a race in 2000.

Appearing last Tuesday morning on Teddy Bart's Roundtable, a much listened-to Nashville radio show for political junkies, Ford addressed such doubts by noting that he was "traveling the state every weekend" and promised an announcement "soon," though he acknowledged that "some are doubting it."

The Senate race would be decided "not by 40 or 50 insiders but by people across the state," Ford said. "I'm running. I'm not hinting." He said he'd raised $800,000 in the last fiscal quarter, "the most of any member of Congress by far," and was on pace to raise $6 million for the Senate race. He observed that he would only need a half-million, "at most," to run for reelection to the House.

After addressing a Save Social Security rally at the Capitol later that day, Ford fielded some questions from reporters. These are some of his answers:

On state senator John Ford's current problems: I'm not going to trash my uncle. If he's done something wrong, he should be treated like everybody else. He makes decisions in his life. I make decisions in mine. I've never been arrested. I've never done a drug. I don't go to strip clubs. I'm proud of the way I've lived my life. He's my uncle, and I love him. Anybody who comes from a family with 15 aunts and uncles and 91 first cousins -- I put my family's accomplishments up against anyone's. When I ran for Congress the first time, in '96, my dad was my predecessor. I didn't expect people to go to the polls and vote for me because of all his good works, and I don't expect people to go to the polls and vote against me because of the questions, the real questions, they have about my uncle.
The ethics problems at various governmental levels: We have a challenge in Washington, personified by Tom DeLay. The Ethics Committee has tried to change its rules to make it -- easier is the wrong word -- but to provide a reasonable process for ethics complaints to be heard. I've supported every piece of ethics legislation that's come before the Congress to make it more likely that, if an investigation needs to occur, it does occur. We don't have the kind of issues that state legislatures have; I'm not allowed to work outside of my job.

Most state legislatures -- I don't know all the research -- have that challenge. We don't have that challenge in Congress. The only job I have is in Congress; it's the only income I can derive. I support any effort to make people disclose what they make and how they make it. If you work for the public, you have a responsibility to answer to the public. And everything in my life in politics -- I should say, my tenure in Congress, in politics -- is about that: If people have questions about any person, they should ask, and that person should answer.

On USA Today's finding that he ranks high in privately funded travel: Since I've been in Congress, I've taken 63 trips, most of them around the state of Tennessee, speaking to different organizations. There's no question about where the money is. It's all fully disclosed. I've gone to 63 different places in eight years -- five or six years, I think, since they've been doing the counting. One of them was to the University of Tennessee graduation in 2003, to which I paid my own way. But all of it's disclosed, and I think public officials should have to disclose everything. They know where the money is. They [USA Today] mentioned the number of trips that private groups paid for. But I don't go on overseas trips on private [funds]. I've been overseas three times, and you paid for it each time. The taxpayers.

I went to Iraq, to visit our troops. I went to Afghanistan to visit our troops. I went to Israel, to the Palestinian territories to see what little I could do as I come back here and vote on matters in Congress that would help us reach an agreement there fast. Because I think as quickly as the Palestinians can find some agreement, the faster these kids from Tennessee can come home. And, for that matter, the other 49 states. But all of that is -- you can go look it up -- I have to disclose it every year. There's not much about my life that hasn't been disclosed, about my finances.

On his reasons for supporting the Bush administration's bankruptcy bill: Twofold: One, I think the real issue with regard to credit in this nation has to do with credit agencies, reporting agencies that determine your credit worthiness. If you're a college student, and you're late paying your phone bill because you have no job or because you've been flooded with credit-card requests from banks and credit-card companies alike, I believe that after you've satisfied that debt, it should be erased from your credit history. Banks and other creditors base how much they will extend to you in credit and money on those numbers. The bankruptcy bill in a lot of ways just wanted to pin the blame on financial institutions. They are part of it.

And I thought that the idea of urging personal responsibility is a smart thing. The incidences of bankruptcy in Memphis and in this state are high. I've introduced legislation to make it a law where lenders have a responsibility to share with borrowers all of their rights and all of the legal responsibility that comes with taking out a loan or borrowing money from an institution. And that banks have a responsibility to know the payback power of those they lend to. That, I think, is the better route, because, even if we didn't have a bankruptcy bill, we would still have the problem of undereducated or uneducated borrowers in this country.

If it were up to me, we'd teach financial literacy, starting in elementary school, because I think kids understand that a dollar today, if you borrow it, really means a dollar-ten, a dollar-fifteen, a dollar-twenty-five. And I don't think most people appreciate that. We teach kids how to catch footballs, how to throw baseballs, how to jump over a hurdle in track at school. I think it would be equally important to teach them the value of money.

n One of Ford's Tennessee stops was noted in advance by the congressman in this passage from a letter to potential supporters: "[T]his Thursday and Friday, my travels take me to Covington, Tennessee for Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's coon supper. This annual Tennessee tradition is an integral part of Tennessee's storied political culture. I look forward to it every year having the chance to see old friends, see folks I see all the time and then eat a little something."

Some Democrats were complaining that Ford should have been in Washington on Thursday, voting on the Bush budget for fiscal 2005-6, which passed by a margin of 214-211. The congressman was one of 10 absentees.

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