So Jake Ford did show for the 9th District congressional debate sponsored by the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) and the South Main Association (SMA) -- despite his several threats not to.
Underscore that word, "threats," for it is all but inseparable from this candidate's very presence. (Editor's note: See "Fly on the Wall," for a brief account of the incident that provoked this column.)
The fact is, a political candidate has, for no good reason whatsoever, chosen to try to employ me as a foil for his own purposes, to have made me a story and to have hauled me onto center stage against my will. In the process, he has also bullied one of the most good-hearted, civic-spirited presences around -- Joan Robinson of the DNA.
Since this became enough of a story to have attracted a battery of TV reporters to my home and to the site of a long-planned 9th District congressional debate involving both me (as a moderator) and the aforesaid Jake Ford as a candidate, and since it becomes increasingly clear that the context is candidate Ford's political strategy, then readers are entitled to know the background of the story. The "back story," as it were.
That began with a phone call I placed to Jake Ford on the same day (September 6th) that mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton endorsed Ford-rival congressional candidate Steve Cohen, the Democrats' nominee, in a public ceremony. I had seen independent candidate Ford make a brief response -- his first public exposure of the campaign season -- on the evening news that night (WMC-TV, to be exact).
Herenton had blasted Jake Ford directly ("No one can convince me that Jake Ford has a modicum of qualifications for this position. All he brings to the table is the Ford name. ... He has simply no qualifications to serve.") and assailed the Ford family for seeking, as he put it, "a monopoly on all elected positions in this state and this county."
Under the circumstances, Jake Ford was restrained and, I thought, impressive. As I said in my column online the next day, Ford had appeared to be "a slim, well-groomed, and reasonably well-spoken -- if less prepossessing -- version of his older brother, U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr."
I continued: "Jake Ford's posture on the occasion, unprovocative and respectful toward the two mayors (whom he declared himself a "supporter" of) did much to mitigate a profile -- high-school dropout and hothead -- that had been widely propagated in quarters as diverse as local establishment circles and the highly non-establishment blog of African-American maverick Thaddeus Matthews (whose name for the candidate is 'Joke Ford')."
Either because he is incapable of making such distinctions or because it fits a calculated purpose, Jake has proved careless in distinguishing between things I have said with my own voice and things said by other people whom I have quoted. This is germane. But to proceed:
I had called Jake, using a cell number given me by his uncle, Shelby County commissioner Joe Ford, a widely liked and respected public servant who had, much to his nephew's advantage, offered the first-time candidate support and advice.
I told Jake much the same as what would appear in my column the next day, that he had handled himself well, demonstrating gifts of his own worth publicizing. I told him I envisioned writing a cover story about him to that end and suggested we get together for a full interview process.
He responded equably, appreciatively, and with the exquisite manners that he and all members of the Ford family possess in their arsenal and offered to let me speak to my old friend, former Congressman Harold Ford Sr., whom I could hear in the background, drumming up support for son Jake on the telephone.
As it happened, the former congressman never got off the other line. So Jake and I chatted for a while and then said goodbye, with the understanding that we would have another conversation to set up an interview.
On the way into work the next morning, I gave Jake a call on my cell phone. To my astonishment, he began trying to berate me for a line in the online version of the column I have quoted from above. Because of an html-coding error, a phrase about other Ford-family races ("including Ophelia Ford's in state Senate District 29") appeared as "including Ophelia Ford'sin state Senate District 29"). Jake kept insisting that was an intentional slur and seemed unwilling to accept my explanation that it was an obvious typo and that I would make sure it got corrected as soon as I got to the office.
Even more astonishingly, he took exception to the description of himself as "slim," fairly shouting out, "Jackson, I'm the same weight that I've always been since you've known me!"
He also blustered: "You're not going to do a cartoon cover on me, are you?" That had to be a reference to a cover illustration that had accompanied a much earlier article on his brother, Representative Ford, and I pointed out to Jake that it is rare for writers to usurp the functions of the editor and art director and that in the case at hand, I hadn't even seen the cover until all other readers had, for better or for worse.
The long and the short of it was that Jake kept shouting and interrupting and overriding what I had to say. When I had a moment, I explained to him, as politely as possible, that I was going to hang up, that we'd have to try another day for a conversation, when conditions and temperaments were more permitting of it, and then disconnected.
In the next days, I kept to my normally quite busy schedule, which included attendance at a rally for Representative Ford's U.S. Senate campaign at his Park Place headquarters. There I briefly encountered Jake Ford and shook his hand. When various bloggers, operating on faulty hearsay information, subsequently began to write about a wholly fictitious collusion between Harold Ford Jr. and Jake Ford on that occasion, I made a point of debunking it. (However Jake Ford felt about that, I have reason to believe that Representative Ford, who has not intervened in the congressional race, was grateful for the correction.)
I went on to write positively about Jake Ford's appearance on a local radio show. When I was unable to attend a Medical Society forum featuring the candidates, asked colleague Chris Davis to go instead. I then posted Davis' largely favorable review of Ford's performance in the "Political Beat" section of the Flyer Web site.
Fade to a mid-September downtown meeting of principals involved in the then-forthcoming debate of 9th District candidates sponsored by the Downtown Neighborhood Association and the South Main Association. Joan Robinson of the DNA had observed me in the role of moderator for several forums and debates in the previous year, and, on the strength of that, had asked me to serve again in that role. I happily complied.
One of the principals at the meeting was Isaac Ford, Jake's brother. At one point, while he was searching for a pen, he realized, "Oh, Jake's got it!" Whereupon I hazarded an admittedly ill-advised quip, "Uh oh, you mean Jake Ford's out there with a pointed instrument?"
Everybody laughed, including Isaac, who then, however, began to brood, even when I apologized for the remark and made a point at aiming similar quips at other principals.
The long and the short of that: After the meeting broke up, Isaac and Jake (who had also attended) returned to Joan's office, and the two of them began berating her and demanding a second moderator. The long and the short of that: She quoted chapter and verse to them of my largely positive columns about Jake and expressed absolute confidence in my objectivity and fairness. When I was informed about the situation, I honestly owned up to being insulted that my integrity was being questioned.
But in the long run, in the interests of comity and letting the forum proceed, both Joan and I relented and were fortunate enough to prevail on News Channel 3 anchor Richard Ransom to serve as co-moderator. Their tempers having apparently cooled, both Isaac and Jake, when we saw each other at an intervening congressional debate on WREG-TV, actually apologized for having made the second-moderator demand. But there we were.
As the world (the local world, anyhow) knows, Jake Ford last week became the subject of reports about multiple arrests during his late teens and early twenties while living in D.C., in the household of his then-congressman father (whose consulting business is also Jake Ford's sole employer these days).
As the world doesn't know, I had access to that information but decided against pursuing it, not wanting to be what the trade calls a headhunter and preferring to write about politics and not scandal. Once The Commercial Appeal published its story, however, and Jake held a press conference to give his version, it became a political story, and I did write about it.
I never said so until now, but I had a distinct memory of an occasion, many years ago, when then-Congressman Harold Ford Sr. came up with broken or badly bruised ribs. I realized from the published date of Jake Ford's arrest for assault against his father that it dated from that same exact time frame.
All of which added to my feeling of awkwardness when Jake Ford, apparently reacting to my matter-of-fact ex post facto story, began -- citing me as the reason -- trying to back out of the DNA/SMA debate this week. He eventually showed up, however, and comported himself during the debate with reasonable polish and aplomb except for inexplicable intervals of making reckless charges against opponent Cohen. (Nobody, Jake, ever said, "Poor people don't deserve to go to college" on the floor of the Senate -- not Steve Cohen or any other politician.)
Unless I'm mistaken, my colleague Davis will have provided something of a chronology of the near-assault against me that followed the debate. I'll pay no more attention to it and go back to covering, as objectively as I can, the events of the election and the political world.
I deeply regret that I am compelled, for purposes of providing a complete background record, to use the valuable space allotted to me this week to this subject -- it has crowded out an abundance of other news, including that of Representative Ford's soaring Senate race and the surprising showing now being made by 7th District Democratic congressional candidate Bill Morrison, freshly endorsed by the Nashville Tennessean and rising in the polls.
I promise that both will receive their due next week. And Jake Ford no more than his.