Thursday, March 3, 2005

Ford Stalled

The congressman marks time on a Senate race as his uncle's difficulties raise doubts.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Will he or won't he? Up until the last week or so, the question of a 2006 U.S. Senate race by 9th District U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr. had seemed a done deal, and a formal announcement had been expected by the end of February. But the ever-fermenting controversy involving the congressman's uncle, state senator John Ford, has put the whole matter on hold, and pressures -- some subtle, some not so subtle -- have begun to mount against Ford's making the race.

For one thing, sentiment has begun to change within the close-knit group of Ford family members and advisers. "They've gone from 60-40 in favor a month ago to 60-40 against," said a source familiar with behind-the-scenes developments. In particular, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., now living in Florida and working as a business/government consultant, is said to have developed serious doubts about the wisdom of his son's running -- at least in the current environment. Strategy talks among family members have focused on possible spillover from problems now swirling around John Ford.

The state senator's difficulties originally stemmed from embarrassing disclosures about his multiple households in child-support hearings. These got national media attention and were joked about by Tonight Show host Jay Leno. Subsequently, questions were raised about the legitimacy of John Ford's legal address. But the state senator's situation became most grave when IRS filings in the child-support matter became public and revealed that a major component of his unexpectedly high income came from a financial relationship with a TennCare provider. The facts that Ford is a member of the General Assembly's TennCare oversight committee and chairman of another committee which handles TennCare legislation quickly raised conflict-of-interest issues.

The Senate Ethics Committee, chaired by majority leader Ron Ramsey, a Republican, has stepped up its investigation of the various Ford matters -- though public and media attention have figured larger than partisan motives. If anything, Ford's senate colleagues, Democratic and Republican, have signaled that they will not be rushed to judgment and intend to give their colleague every due consideration. Legislative leaders in both parties confide that talk of criminal prosecution may be off the mark, considering that the statutes governing the TennCare matter are more likely to provide penalties for the company which hired Ford than for the senator himself.

None of that serves to reassure the camp of Representative Ford, which foresees the John Ford controversy as likely to garner serious media attention for some time to come. Accordingly, members of the congressman's political circle -- possibly without Representative Ford's direct knowledge -- have sounded out John Ford about the prospect of his cutting bait, even to the point of his resigning from the Senate or, if necessary, pursuing plea-bargaining arrangements with legal authorities. By nature, the independent-minded senator is inclined to resist such counsel -- especially if he feels fortified by his Senate colleagues.

Hence, the nightmare prospect for Representative Ford that his potential Senate race would be endlessly connected in the public mind to open-ended media attention concerning his uncle's notoriety.

The same thought has occurred to other Tennessee Democrats -- notably Governor Phil Bredesen, who was quoted over the weekend as saying the publicity given John Ford's problems "can't possibly be helping" the congressman's Senate ambitions. Said Bredesen, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press: "I feel very sorry for him, because it is something that is beyond his control and not something he has had a part in. ... I think the publicity against John Ford is hurting Harold and frankly that bothers me."

What may bother the governor, in particular, is the fact that, as a Democratic candidate for reelection, he will share the state ballot with his party's Senate nominee. The only other declared Democratic candidate for the Senate is state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville. Nashville mayor Bill Purcell had at one time considered a race and, some say, may again.

Even those corners of the media that have thus far taken a Ford Senate candidacy for granted are suddenly expressing doubts. The Lebanon Democrat's Clint Brewer, something of a Ford confidante, noted this week that "rank and file" Democrats had begun to wonder about a Ford candidacy and added, "Of course, Ford has never actually solidified his intentions to run." And the Washington insiders' publication The Hill recently wondered if "the growing controversy" over John Ford may have affected "the resonance of the Ford name statewide."

The congressman himself was elaborating to the media on previous affirmations distinguishing (and distancing) himself from his uncle and insisting that he still intended to run. But Representative Ford told The Jackson Sun over the weekend that the race was "still a year away" and that, prior indications notwithstanding, he was in no hurry to announce.

n Successorss-in-waiting: Meanwhile, if Representative Ford does in fact make the Senate race, who's in line to succeed him as the 9th District's congressman?

Two potential candidates have recently expressed interest: Shelby County commissioner Joe Ford, the incumbent congressman's uncle, and public relations man Ron Redwing, a former aide to Mayor Willie Herenton.

Commissioner Ford said Monday, "I'd be very interested in doing that. I'm [51], the right age to be considering it, and my experience as both city councilman and commissioner has prepared me for it."

Redwing is being seriously touted by a number of friends in local Democratic and government circles. "I think I've shown a serious commitment to the community and want to use my skills and talent to extend my commitment to the people of the 9th District." These two are but the harbingers of what could be quite a long list.

n Chairs in transit: Democratic chair Kathryn Bowers opened up the headquarters of her campaign for the state Senate on Saturday; and new Republican chair Bill Giannini got himself elected and installed on Sunday at the biennial Shelby County Republican convention.

Both Bowers and Giannini served notice as to the shape of their priorities.

State representative Bowers, speaking to supporters at her Elvis Presley Boulevard headquarters, promised to do everything in her power to forestall the TennCare cuts announced recently by Governor Bredesen but so far held up by judicial review. Two other candidates -- Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks and James Harvey -- are competing in the forthcoming Democratic primary for the seat recently vacated by Roscoe Dixon, now an aide to county mayor A C Wharton. Four Republicans -- Mary Lynn Flood, Jason Hernandez, Mary Ann McNeil, and Barry Sterling -- also seek the seat.

Giannini, elected by acclamation at White Station High School, looked ahead to the 2006 countywide elections and even further -- lamenting the upward curve of latest property reassessment and thereby targeting county assessor Rita Clark, a Democrat reelected only last year and not up again until 2008.

n The GOP backstory: Though the new Republican chairman, unlike his last several predecessors, avoided a direct challenge, it was a near thing. Giannini, a relative unknown in local Republican ranks, had opposition from GOP conservatives -- whose candidate, Terry Roland, finally accepted a place on Giannini's ticket -- and the party establishment, which tried unsuccessfully to recruit Germantown lawyer Kevin Snider to run against him.

n Hooks back in: Though Bowers escaped one potential opponent when House colleague Joe Towns was declared ineligible for failure to pay past fines assessed by the state Election Registry, she saw another one, Shelby County Commission chairman Michael Hooks, reinstated.

After listening to testimony from lawyers for both Hooks and the state of Tennessee, Chancellor Arnold Goldin ruled in Hooks' favor and ordered Hooks reinstated as a candidate. Goldin thereby struck down a prior adverse ruling against Hooks by the state Election Registry and state Election Commissioner Brook Thompson, who had declared the Shelby County Commission chairman ineligible to run for the Senate seat because Hooks had not met financial-disclosure deadlines.

Reviewing a record that showed historic inconsistency between enforcement actions and deadline requirements of state and local election officials, Goldin said it would be "fundamentally unfair" and "difficult to justify" disallowing Hooks' candidacy for the District 33 seat.

Expressing gratitude at the decision, Hooks said of the state officials who originally ruled against him: "They don't have a hard-on for Michael Hooks. They're just interpreting the law and trying to do their job. I think the judge did the right thing to let the people decide who they want to be their state senator. It won't be determined by nit-picking or hag-nagging. It'll be on the issues."

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