Friday, April 21, 2006

Neutral Gear

Representative Ford, suddenly the Democratic nominee by default, makes a point of sounding nonpartisan.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 21, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Last Thursday, at the end of his first full day as the undisputed Democratic Party nominee for the U.S. Senate, 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr. concluded a statewide bus tour in hometown Memphis with a brief, rousing -- and highly nonpartisan -- speech in front of his East Memphis headquarters.

Though Ford at one point made a respectful, even gallant reference to Clarksville state senator Rosalind Kurita, who had withdrawn from the Democratic primary race the previous day, he made no effort to adapt any of Kurita's sometimes militant Democratic rhetoric to his own style, which remained virtually free of any partisan inflections.

One of the characteristics of the congressman's stump style is his habit of arbitrarily working the names of audience members into his remarks. Thus it happened that Larry Papasan, the former MLGW head and current board chairman of Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, became the recipient of one publicly offered confidence.

At one point in his rhetorical roll, Ford said, "I'm not a Democrat, Larry Papasan, running up to Washington yelling 'Democrat, Democrat, Democrat, Democrat.' Somebody's going to go, and I know I make some Democrats upset at times because I'm just a believer [that] if it works, you have to support it. And if it doesn't work, you don't support it."

In fact, were it not for the multiple uses of the word "Democrat" in that one passage, Ford would have used the word "Republican" at least as often, if not more so, in his 10 minutes or so of speaking, after being introduced to the crowd by former Georgia senator Max Cleland.

And the congressman was careful to be as value-neutral as possible in his terminology. No GOP-bashing, a la Howard Dean. (Or, for that matter, Harry Truman.)

Periodically citing members of his audience, Ford acknowledged office-holders of both parties. Among the Republicans he called by name were "my friend" District Attorney Bill Gibbons and Sheriff Mark Luttrell. ("I didn't mind," professed the unmentioned Reginald French, one of several Democratic candidates for sheriff who were on hand.)

Luttrell, in fact, is a political neighbor to Ford; his headquarters (which Luttrell formally opened early this week to a large gathering) adjoins that of the congressman's, a space which has historically been occupied by GOP campaigns. On the other side of Ford's HQ is the headquarters site of Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, a Democrat.

Ford's ecumenical style at times made him sound like a candidate in a local nonpartisan race: "I don't know of any Republican way of paying $69 per barrel of oil. I don't know of any Democratic way to lose your job. I don't know of a Republican way to pay too much for prescription drugs. I don't know of a Democratic way to run up the deficit. And I certainly don't know of a Republican way to get a knock on your door, Sidney Chism, saying, 'Mr. Kirk, Commissioner Kirk, that's your baby that's dead.'"

(The congressman's evenhandedness extended even to that carefully balanced mention of the two Democratic candidates for a County Commission seat, Chism and incumbent Cleo Kirk. For the record, the term-limited Kirk is ineligible to serve but is campaigning nevertheless.)

The most direct reference Ford made to the three major candidates seeking the Republican nomination for the Senate came via a warning to the crowd that "terrible" things would be said by them about him and members of his family.

"There's nothing you can say and do that will bring any distance between me and my family," Ford declared. "They're my family, and they're all I've got. But I want to say one thing: I'm running, not them."

He went on: "If you want to debate why it is that your party has voted for five years and run up a deficit, come ask me. If you want to debate why it is that you were in Congress ... for two of the years that the president was there and you voted to cut veterans' spending, come talk to me. If you want to debate why health care is where it is, come talk to me. Let's have that debate."

Even Ford's most direct appeal to traditional Democratic allegiances, at the end of his speech, was politically ambidextrous. "I'm proud to be your nominee for the Democratic Party. I'm going to make Republicans proud, and I will make independents proud. I will make this state proud."

At his conclusion, Ford told the crowd that regardless of their partisan leanings, they should ignore the "bad things" they would hear about him and his family, and "if Republicans can defend Don Rumsfeld and George Bush, I know you can defend me."

To judge by a continuing bitterness toward Ford on the e-mail networks and in the blogs of hard-core Democratic progressives in the wake of Kurita's withdrawal, the congressman may have a harder time getting some of his own party-mates to defend him.

But he seems to have calculated that the prize he seeks among the voters of a politically variegated state is more likely to be won by blander and broader-based appeals like the ones in his speech Thursday night.

It will be up to Ed Bryant, Van Hilleary, and Bob Corker, the three GOP Senate hopefuls, to make Ford seem more "Democrat, Democrat, Democrat, Democrat" than he chooses to on his own.

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"I had worked just as hard as a possibly could for a very long time. And sources of possible support I had reason to expect would be open to me weren't." Thus it was that state senator Kurita, cutting her losses, decided last week, a day before the formal withdrawal deadline, that she would exit the Senate campaign she had been doggedly pursuing for well over a year.

One of those sources, Kurita acknowledged, was Emily's List, the women's movement political action committee whose name is an acronym for "Early money is like yeast." In Kurita's case, it never rose. Nor did support from several other Democratic Party sources -- both statewide and national -- that she, a practitioner of traditional Democratic politics, had reason to expect help from.

Her positions, including opposition to basic changes in Social Security and to the highly restrictive bankruptcy bill that Ford voted for last year, were measurably closer to the policies espoused by the Democratic leadership in Congress than those of the Memphis congressman, but it had become clear that the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, headed by New York senator Charles Schumer, was backing Ford. Indeed, on a barnstorming tour last year, Schumer cited the Tennessee Democratic primary as one of several he had an interest in and warned Kurita publicly about "attacking" Ford.

Under the circumstances, one of Kurita's most significant fund-raising boosts had been achieved last year from an innovative ad she placed on several political Web sites, showing the face of Bill Frist, the outgoing Republican incumbent, morphing into that of Kurita. "Replace this Republican Doctor ... with this Democratic Nurse," the ad said. Her fund-raising in the last quarter of 2005 was significant, though far less than that of Ford, who recently announced that he had raised $1.5 million in the first quarter of 2006 -- putting his total to the stratospheric level of $5.7 million, marginally ahead of previous fund-raising leader Corker.

Kurita's withdrawal came as a shock to local supporters, several of whom had spent time with her as recently as the previous weekend, when she came to Memphis to participate in a skeet-shooting event.

Kurita said there was "absolutely no deal" with Ford or with any representative of his campaign, nor had there been any contact between the two campaigns. Asked if she intended to endorse the congressman, she said, "I really haven't even begun to think about that."

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Up to this point, GOP Senate candidate Bryant, who represented part of Shelby County as 7th District congressman from 1995 to 2003, has made the most number of visits to Shelby County. But his Republican opponents may be on their way to catching up.

Former 4th District congressman Hilleary, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002 and now serves as GOP national committeeman from Tennessee, made his ritual fly-by "announcement" last Wednesday at the Wilson Air terminal, where Corker had made a similar appearance last month. Although contending for the record that "there's plenty conservative vote to go around," Hilleary made it clear that he'd just as soon fellow conservative Bryant decamped from the race to make for a clearer shot at Corker, widely regarded as more moderate.

In a press release this week, Hilleary bore down on the point, claiming to be leading Bryant in most polls and to have out-raised him financially in the first quarter of 2006, with new receipts of $412,355. For his part, Bryant continued daily e-mail attacks on purported shortcomings of former Chattanooga mayor Corker's administration and released a new Zogby poll showing him with a larger potential lead over Ford than Hilleary.

Corker, who visited Memphis for several days this week, trumpeted his own fund-raising, which showed first-quarter receipts of $772,000 -- more, he said, than the combined amounts of $767,000 collected by Hilleary and Bryant ($335,000).

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Another year, another path?

Members of New Path, a predominantly African-American group which describes itself as "a nonpartisan political action organization dedicated to encouraging young leaders in Shelby County," held a press conference at the Tom Lee Memorial on Riverside Drive last week to introduce three of the group's endorsees in this year's elections. They were: Mike Rude, a Republican primary candidate for the Shelby County Commission's District 1, Position 1 seat; Melvin Burgess Jr., Democratic primary candidate for the commission's District 2, Position 2 seat; and Kevin Gallagher, Democratic primary candidate for Criminal Court Clerk.

New Path, which is largely credited for having helped member Tomeka Hart to an upset win for the Memphis school board in 2004, held a fund-raising event later in the week -- one which, said Mike Ritz, another GOP candidate for the District 1, Position 1 seat, had to do without some of the group's traditional donors, who were supporting his campaign, not Rude's nor that of Charles Fineberg, who also seeks the seat.

"They never even invited me for an interview," said Ritz, who charged that New Path had made its selections arbitrarily, in an effort to present a slate balanced by party and race.

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The Single-Resource Theory

Four members of the "Fellows" program of the Leadership Academy (formerly Goals for Memphis) have decided to help Shelby County voters cut to the chase when confronted with the record number of candidates running in a gargantuan number of races (pushing 200, depending on where the voter lives) on the county's various election ballots this year. Lesley Beasley, Nicole Hernandez, Jenny Koltnow, and Kerr Tigrett, hoping to provide a "single source" point of reference, have compiled a "Guide to Memphis and Shelby Counted Elected Offices" (ShelbyCountyElectionGuide.com) with "specific information about city, county, state, and federal elected offices [including] a job description, length of term, salary, minimum qualifications, name of current seat holder, election information, and a related Web site."

Any further questions will have to be answered by the candidates themselves, if they'll talk turkey. But this is a start.

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