The jokesters had a field day: “Joe Ford Gets Endorsed by his Nephew” and suchlike. As if having Harold Ford Jr., the former Memphis congressman and current national celebrity come down to add his oomph to his uncle’s neck-and-neck race against Republican Mark Luttrell for Shelby County Mayor was nothing much.
Granted, Harold Ford Jr. lost his last political race — for a Tennessee seat in the U.S. Senate in 2006 — and granted, too, he ran up against a wall of derision and never even got started on his next try — for a New York seat in the U.S. Senate in 2010.
Granted, further, that there are a substantial number of Democrats both up yonder and down here who were put off by Ford’s decade-long flirtation with conservative positions, as well as with his sudden, unconvincing turnabout on some issues — like same-sex marriage — in a proverbial New York minute.
And granted, finally, that the princely salaries and bonuses the former congressman has received from Merrill Lynch/Bank of America as a rainmaker have aggravated many people still angry at the big banks and brokerages for their ripoff schemes and bailout rescues.
None of that changes the fact that Harold Ford Jr. is that rare thing, a combination political/media star, and, at 40, he not only is too young to be written off, he still has charisma in reserve, and his putting it at the disposal of Democratic nominee Joe Ford, the interim mayor, could turn out to be a significant factor — an animating spark, say — in a race that was already reckoned as too close to call.
It was the intangibles that counted on Wednesday, when nephew and uncle met the press together in the Forrest Room of The Peabody.
Not Harold Ford Jr.’s dutiful recitation of Joe Ford’s talking points — that the interim mayor wants to build progress and a grand new edifice to house the Med he has saved, while Luttrell wants to squander public money on a brand new jail, the better to lock more people up. And that Joe Ford stands for “progressive” causes while Luttrell is hand in glove with the Tea Party crowd and played front man in Shelby County for the likes of Sarah Palin.
Giving Joe Ford credit for some very real achievements as interim county mayor — his work on the Med’s behalf certainly being one of them — his campaign’s indictment of Luttrell is an exaggeration, to say the least.
The Sheriff did, in fact, propose building a new jail some years ago but dropped the idea. And Luttrell’s public vouching for this or that Republican cause — the McCain-Palin presidential ticket of 2008 among them — was more pro forma and club colors than anything else, not qualitatively different from the kind of party loyalty that put Joe Ford’s late primary opponent, county commissioner Deidre Malone, on the platform behind him Wednesday, amid a small host of other Democrats.
Of course, Luttrell can’t have it both ways. When he addressed a group of college Republicans at the University of Memphis last spring, he made much of his youthful response to the clarion call of conservative Republican icon Barry Goldwater. The fact that these days Luttrell expresses himself most often as a would-be unifier across party lines and privately expresses regret — no doubt sincerely — that county elections are subject to partisan elections at all does not change the fact that he is a Republican — his party’s ticket-leader, in fact — and that fact alone could disadvantage him in a county that is now predominantly Democratic (one of the few places in Tennessee where such a condition exists).
Harold Ford Jr.’s presence in Memphis this week is meant to galvanize the Democratic base around Uncle Joe, and may well do so — the former congressman’s ideological apostasies notwithstanding. Give him his due: He potentially brings some excitement into a campaign that, however commendable in some ways, has not exactly been a house afire.
—He has “not foreclosed” on the prospect of further political efforts in New York State. He “loves” being a New Yorker, and there is no prospect of his returning to Tennessee to resume a political career here.
—He does not apologize for his career in the financial sector nor for the big money he has made there. He declined to specify how much of a bonus he may have received from Merrill Lynch in late 2008 but acknowledges that nice salaries and bonuses come with the job. “I’m proud of the way I make my living," he said, and he emphasized that his Wall Street labor is real work that he takes seriously.
—He threaded a needle on the matter of other local endorsements — notably in the race for the9th Congressional seat that he himself once occupied. He would not follow the lead of his father, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., in specifically endorsing incumbent Democrat Steve Cohen over former Mayor Willie Herenton but opined that Cohen’s reelection would be “for the best.”
—He accounted for his leap from Fox News to MSNBC as an on-air political analyst because he enjoyed the additional opportunity to be a semi-regular guest on flagship NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. The ideological difference between the two cable networks —Fox tending right, MSNBC tilting left — seemed not to be a matter of much consequence with him.