Odd Man Out 

He's comfortable enough on the bench right now, but is Harold Ford Jr. still a player?

click to enlarge Harold Ford Jr.
  • Harold Ford Jr.

Although it seems to have gone largely unsuspected, even among many in the Tennessee press corps who followed the 2006 senatorial campaign of then U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr., the onetime Memphis congressman has, almost from the beginning of his political career, harbored a conservative streak, especially — but by no means only — on matters relating to financial policy.

In recent years, Ford, a narrow loser in that 2006 race, has attempted to transplant his political ambitions from Tennessee to New York State, where he now resides with his wife, the former Emily Threlkeld, and earns a lucrative living as a Wall Street rainmaker — or, as he is described in a recent bio, "executive vice chairman of global banking and wealth management for Bank of America."

Fairly quickly this week, the former congressman came to the defense of Newark mayor Cory Booker, who on NBC's Meet the Press had made remarks critical of President Obama's campaign for focusing negatively on the Bain Capital portion of Mitt Romney's career. Terming such criticism "nauseating," Booker had equated it with GOP attacks on Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and said, "Stop attacking private equity!"

Booker would later come under pressure from fellow Democrats to recant his criticism and, as they say these days, dutifully "walked back" his remarks.

Appearing on MSNBC's Morning Joe program Monday, Ford was, in turn, critical of Booker — not for his original remarks but for attempting to withdraw them. "I would not have backed off the comments if I were Mayor Booker," Ford said. "Overall, I agree with the substance of his comments on Meet the Press. I agree with the core of it. I would not have backed them out. ... I agree with him. Private equity's not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, private equity is a good thing in many, many instances."

Ford was the last chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization which attempted to anchor the Democratic Party in a centrist-right direction but became defunct in 2011.

Even during his 2006 Senate run, Ford was at pains to distance himself from Democratic orthodoxy, vowing, during the opening of his Memphis campaign headquarters that year, "I'm not a Democrat ... 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 if it works, you have to support it."

As a congressman, Ford supported President Bush's policies in Iraq more vigorously than most of his party mates. Inter alia, he voted for the Bankruptcy Act of 2005, which imposed new restrictions on debtors, sided with the Republicans on the Terri Schiavo case, voted for some restrictions on abortion, and advocated drilling for oil in the Arctic wilderness.

On the stump in Tennessee in 2006, Ford opposed same-sex marriage, and, when he attempted to jump-start a Senate candidacy in New York in 2010, that position came back to haunt him. He was basically booed off the stage when he attempted to address a group of gays in New York City. By last year, he had amended his position on the issue and became the spokesperson for a marriage-equality campaign in a TV ad — a possible indication, along with his 2010 memoir, More Davids than Goliaths: A Political Education, that he still intends an active electoral career.

The former congressman remains a singular being politically, not an obvious fit anywhere in the spectrum just now but, perhaps for that very reason, a frequent talking head on TV programs seeking a unique perspective.

Whether that perspective translates into political support — and where — is an open question.

• Given the dimensions of the ongoing controversy over city/county school merger, it was doubtless inevitable that it should spark a flame or two in individual races for the seven positions on the Unified School Board.

It did on Sunday, as David Pickler, candidate for District 5 (Germantown, Collierville), seemed to question the bona fides of opponent Kim Wirth.

At a joint appearance last week before the Collierville Republican Club, the candidates had seemed to agree on most issues.

Asked point blank if they favored establishment of municipal school districts in Germantown and Collierville, both Pickler, the longtime former chairman of the old Shelby County Schools board, and Wirth, a communications executive with International Paper, answered "yes," categorically.

On two hot-button issues, both candidates said they favored the right of the municipal districts to enroll students in adjacent unincorporated territory, and both advocated the turnover of school buildings to the prospective new districts without charge to the districts.

But on Sunday, in an interview after a fund-raiser/meet-and-greet at the Tanner Pavilion on the Germantown Horse Show grounds, Pickler attempted to establish some distance between himself and Wirth.

Said Pickler: "I think that my opponent is a fine lady, and I appreciate the fact that she's engaged the community. One concern I have is why she would choose to have her campaign be managed by the same group that was promoting the governmental consolidation. Brian Stephens was the co-chair for the Rebuild Government initiative, and when you're trying to represent an area, when you're offering to represent an area that was adamantly opposed to the governmental consolidation and you have chosen to align with a group that was adamantly in favor of governmental consolidation, then to me that sends a mixed message. And it makes me question whether or not her new-found support of municipal districts is a message of expediency as opposed to a heartfelt and abiding belief."

Asked about Pickler's comments, Stephens, currently CEO of Caissa Public Strategies, a public relations firm, responded that Pickler's comments "sound divisive," and said, "We're not managing her campaign. But we do public relations, and we do have customers. We did produce one piece of literature for her. So, technically, she is a client."

Stephens also pointed out that Rebuild Government had excluded school consolidation from its endorsement of a 2010 charter referendum on governmental consolidation and had called for an independent binding vote by suburban residents on any future proposal for school consolidation.

Pickler also suggested that Wirth's primary educational focus has so far been more on Memphis City Schools than on the preexisting Shelby County Schools system. Wirth has served as chairman of the board of the Memphis City Schools Foundation and as a liaison with the Gates Foundation on the MCS Teacher Effectiveness Initiative. She also has been affiliated with the SCORE organization (State Collaborative on Reforming Education) established by former U.S. Senator Bill Frist.

Wirth responded to Pickler's allegations with a statement, which reads in part: "My campaign is managed by Aleesa Blum, a retired executive from International Paper and one with experience running political campaigns. Brian Stephens is one of many vendors I have, and he helped me with a communication piece.

"So we are clear, I have had children in Shelby County Schools since 2004, and I am proud of the work I have done as a parent volunteer and PTA board member .... Through my role as the executive director of International Paper's Foundation, I have partnered with the Shelby County Schools Foundation and a number of schools, directly providing thousands of dollars in support of literacy, environmental education programs and as sponsor of the annual Race for Education event."

• Even as the two District 5 candidates weighed in on behalf of the proposed municipal districts, two studies last week — one by Shelby County commissioner Mike Ritz, another by University of California professor Michelle Wilde Anderson — drew attention to alleged problems connected with their establishment.

Ritz's study, presented to his commission colleagues at a meeting of the education committee, was concerning likely costs to the suburbs of establishing and maintaining the districts. He saw the Southern Educational Strategies reports on which the suburban municipalities had relied as having seriously lowballed those costs, which in some instances could be four-fold the amount of the SES estimates.

Anderson, in an article for the Columbia Law Review, saw the Norris-Todd Act of 2011 and follow-up legislation as "weakening the county schools at their time of greatest vulnerability" and, by sanctioning "breakaway" districts, conferring undue power on "Shelby County's wealthiest suburbs."

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