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The Weatherman

Ford Jr.’s shifts on the impeachment issue help define the political center.

by Jackson Baker

ne way of gauging the back-and-forth tergiversations of the Clinton case is to follow the to’s and fro’s of Harold Ford Jr., the 9th District Democrat congressman who in recent weeks has become something of a weathervane on the matter.

“I think we ought to be trying to put this matter behind us,” Rep. Ford said in a live appearance Monday night on WHBQ-TV, Channel 13. It was one of several bases touched by the congressman in the aftermath of the unprecedented nationwide televising of President Clinton’s August 17th testimony before special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s grand jury in Washington, D.C.

And when Ford continued with a provisional judgment that he didn’t think the grounds for impeachment had been demonstrated, you could almost hear the cry of “Two more years!” going up from the beleaguered White House some 750 miles off.

Up until fairly recently, Ford had been an inveterate defender of the president. But after the president’s admission of involvement with Monica Lewinsky in an address to the nation on the same night as his grand jury testimony, the first-term Memphis congressman had conspicuously been putting distance between himself and the president.

There had been a much-noticed incident on the floor of the House of Representatives last week when Ford implied the president had been lying and urged him to “come clean” about the particulars of his relationship with Lewinsky. The Republican member then presiding formally rebuked Ford for making his remarks about the president too “personal.” Even earlier, in a well-publicized interview on the cable channel MSNBC, Ford had made a point of characterizing the president’s behavior as “indefensible.”

And for most of the intervening time leading up to the televising of Clinton’s grand jury testimony (authorized by a party-line vote in the House Judiciary Committee), Ford had hewed fairly close to the position that impeachment procedures should be conducted in a “nonpartisan” manner. This rather tepid response to events – added to the outright cold water thrown by Ford in his previous remarks – could not have warmed the president’s cockles much. (In a bizarre time in which inadvertent puns are commonplace, that one, too, is unintended.)

Ford’s emphasis on nonpartisanship and “fairness” in pursuing the impeachment process had reflected – and, in some ways, prefigured – the shift of many congressional Democrats to the political center on the impeachment issue. To be sure, Ford had voted not to publish the Starr Report in the first place and had opposed the public release of Clinton’s videotaped grand jury testimony and the other previously confidential materials released Monday. But the congressman’s essentially middle-of-the-road position contrasted significantly with that of such Tennessee Republicans as 7th District congressman Ed Bryant.

Bryant, along with the 1st District’s Bill Jenkins, is one of two Tennesseans on the House Judiciary Committee, which is charged with initiating most actions on the impeachment front. In various prepared public statements, the Henderson Republican had striven for an objective tone, but, as chronicled in this space last week, had come to sound ever more committed to a presidential impeachment.

In addition to strong anti-Clinton remarks at a recent meeting of the conservative Dutch Treat Luncheon in Memphis, Bryant told WPTY-TV, Channel 24 last week that Clinton seemed to have broken the law and needed to face the consequences. Unless “further evidence” could be provided by the president to offset the Starr Report, there would seem to be grounds for impeachment, the former U.S. attorney said.

With Bryant and other Republicans moved away from the center on the impeachment issue, and Ford and other Democrats moving into it, the president’s position essentially had teetered off balance. After the televising of the grand jury testimony Monday and what seemed to many, perhaps most, observers to have been an unexpectedly strong performance by the president, Clinton’s situation may have been improved.

In his Channel 13 appearance, Ford was also asked to comment on the standing ovation received by Clinton when the president arrived to speak before the U.N. General Assembly Monday – ironically, at the same time that millions of Americans were glued to their TV screens watching the president’s image on the grand jury videotape. “Very impressive,” said Ford, who went on to opine that the president had achieved a number of positive foreign policy results.

And even though Ford on Monday night echoed Bryant’s recent call for expediting the impeachment process – there is “no reason” not to proceed, he said – it was clear that he saw a different result coming than had his GOP colleague earlier. Bryant, like many of his GOP colleagues, might still be demanding Clinton’s head on a platter, but Ford seemed, for the time being anyhow, to have stopped doing the dance of Seven Veils away from his titular party chief.

And there may be others willing to follow Ford’s lead – especially since the Memphis congressman has increasingly positioned himself as a political moderate, having scored a surprising 44 percent record of voting for causes favored by the congressional Conservative Coalition, as measured by a recent issue of Congressional Quarterly.

A liberal on social policy like his father and predecessor but surprisingly conservative on an assortment of social matters (he has favored such causes as the public display of the Ten Commandments in public places and a proposed anti-flag-burning amendment), Ford has conspicuously signaled his shift to the political center. He is a member of the Democratic Leadership Council, the group of moderates (including, as a founding member, one Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas) who created their organization in the mid-’80s to provide a brake against what they saw as the Democratic Party’s veer leftward. Ford also belongs to the New Democrat Coalition of moderate-minded congressional Democrats.

The congressman has made it clear, too, that his perspectives, – while still rigorously oriented, like his father’s, toward constituent casework – are national in scope. He has floated a trial balloon for a U.S. Senate race against Republican incumbent Bill Frist in 2000, and U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan prophesied to a Memphis audience in April that young Ford would be the first African-American president.

One thing has become obvious during the current 1998 election season: Ford Jr. has no intention of perpetuating the ward-and-precinct organization (called a “machine” by its foes) that played a dominant role in most local elections under Ford Sr. There was no “Ford ballot” during the August general election nor any Get-Out-the-Vote effort on behalf of favored candidates.

That last fact could, and doubtless will, change by the year 2000, when Rep. Ford – provided he survives, as anticipated, a challenge this year from Republican Claude Burdikoff – will be expected to deliver enough votes in Memphis and Shelby County to carry Tennessee for the native son who remains almost certain to carry the Democratic presidential standard in 2000, Vice President Al Gore.

n It didn’t have quite the ring of finality as did Richard Nixon’s ”last press conference” after his losing 1962 California governor’s race, but Governor Don Sundquist made a point of referring to an outdoor affair at the Agricenter last week as his “last fund-raiser I’ll ever have in Memphis.” Sundquist, who is considered way ahead of his currently under-funded Democratic challenger, John Jay Hooker of Nashville, added perhaps $100,000 to his coffers from the Agricenter affair – which drew perhaps 1,000 attendees (many of them county employees, who were perhaps papered into the event free), and from a previous fund-raising reception in his honor at the home of Dr. Andrew Dancy.

n It’s still 1998, but the New Year will bring a Memphis city election. At least incumbent council members – E.C. Jones, who held a fund-raiser at the Sweetbriar home of Billy Babb last week, and Brent Taylor, who has one scheduled for next week – are gearing up.

Sterling, County Liable in Race Suit

Harold Sterling

A federal court jury this month awarded $243,448 to a man who said he was a victim of racial discrimination while working in the office of former Shelby County Assessor Harold Sterling.

Gerald T. Kimbrough, who claimed he was forced to resign after he filed a formal complaint, sued for back pay and punitive damages. The lawsuit named Sterling, his assistant Randy Haley, Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout in his official capacity, and Shelby County government. It was tried before U.S. Dist. Judge Bernice Donald. On September 8th, a jury ruled in favor of Kimbrough.

Jurors awarded Kimbrough $93,448 in back pay, $50,000 in compensatory damages on a claim of retaliation, and $50,000 each against Sterling and Haley individually. The jury was preparing to deliberate over additional punitive damages when a settlement was reached.

The case was settled for $193,000. “I think they took a little less money in order for us not to appeal,” says attorney Brian Kuhn, who handled the case for the county.

On July 21, 1995, Kimbrough was one of five employees who filed civil-rights charges against Sterling, Haley, and county government over their treatment. The others were Christopher Elion, Marcus Jones, Phyllis Tanner, and Vanessa Wheatley. Tanner and Jones were fired, and Wheatley and Elion were denied promotions. The claims of all but Kimbrough were settled before going to trial. All five were holdovers from the tenure of Sterling’s predecessor, Michael Hooks.

The plaintiffs were represented by civil-rights attorney Richard Fields.

Sterling was defeated by Rita Clark in a bid for reelection in 1996. Haley was his top assistant and a Republican Party activist. – John Branston

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