Ford's Future 

Nervous fellow Democrats are keeping close watch on the former congressman's political prospects.

What goes around not only comes around, it might even go around again.

A case in point: The Washington rumor mill early this week had it that former 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr. had become a real prospect for the post of commerce secretary. President-elect Barack Obama had originally designated New Mexico governor Bill Richardson for the job, but Richardson, facing negative publicity about a possible pay-for-play scandal, had to back out.

That created a potential reprise of the situation four years ago, when then congressman Ford was a national co-chair of Massachusetts senator John Kerry's presidential campaign and it was widely assumed in political circles that he was due to become commerce secretary if Kerry, who went on to become the Democratic nominee, got elected.

Kerry lost, however, and Ford himself lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2006 to Republican Bob Corker of Chattanooga. Between then and now, Ford assumed the chairmanship of the right-centrist Democratic Leadership Council, became a rainmaker with the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm, taught a course or two at Vanderbilt, and got married.

Meanwhile, speculation has continued about the former congressman's future political prospects, and he has been prominently mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for governor of Tennessee in 2010.

One hitch has been uncertainty about Ford's commitment to a full-time presence in Tennessee. He has maintained a Memphis residence but is basically an occasional visitor here, splitting the better part of his time between Nashville, Washington, and New York. And there has always been serious doubt among those who know Ford best about his appetite for A) overseeing the kind of nuts-and-bolts administration that being a governor requires; and B) confining himself to the Tennessee landscape.

Ford, a natural for political talk shows on television, had become an established national celebrity even before his Senate race landed him feature time on networks and cover space in news magazines. And, after his loss in 2006, he became a featured TV commentator — first on the rightward-tending Fox News Channel, then on MSNBC, which tilts the other way politically.

The national spotlight clearly suits him, and, though a stint as governor might give the former congressman the necessary executive background to make a credible future run at the presidency, it would take him out of the Beltway circuit where he is something of a fixture.

That fact, along with memories of his initial highly dilatory, daisy-plucking dalliance with the idea of running for the Senate against then incumbent Bill Frist in 2000, is very much on the minds of media people and Democratic colleagues in Tennessee.

Ford refused to take his name out of consideration well into that campaign year, long after it was obvious he had not laid the groundwork for a Senate race against Frist. Meanwhile, other potential Democratic candidates found it hard to pry loose money and campaign cadres, both long immobilized by the mere prospect of a Ford entry.

Hence, a fair amount of grumbling among some that, almost a decade later, Ford, who has declined to rule out a gubernatorial race and has suggested that a decision on the matter is way down the calendar, may once more be enjoying the speculation about his intentions at the expense of allowing other Democrats to make concrete plans.

Much of this talk has been private and off the record, but much of it, too, has surfaced in the blogosphere and the traditional media. Veteran political columnist Jeff Woods of the Nashville Scene stated it outright with an online column last week entitled "Ford Holds Democrats Hostage: Day One."

Said Woods, in part: "Ford loves the spotlight, and it'll probably take him quite some time to make up his mind. It's the Democrats' seemingly permanent dilemma. For any statewide race for the foreseeable future, they will be forced to wait while Ford wrings his hands. ... Democrats can only hope he'll show mercy and announce before it's too late that he's not running."

In the same way that Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle (one of those waiting out Ford's gubernatorial decision, incidentally) made a show of mock rejoicing when Steve Cohen, his longtime intra-party antagonist in the state Senate, got elected to Congress, so would many ambitious state Democrats be moved to celebrate should Ford happen to come by some prestigious national position.

• Among the Democrats who should have been included in last week's listing of potential gubernatorial candidates are Roy Herron of Dresden, the Democrats' current caucus chairman in the state Senate, and Union City banker/businessman Mike McWherter, son of former governor Ned Ray McWherter. McWherter made a pass at running for the Senate last year against GOP incumbent Lamar Alexander but ultimately thought better of it.

Meanwhile, the Republican candidates already committed — District Attorney General Bill Gibbons of Memphis; Mayor Bill Haslam of Knoxville; and U.S. representative Zach Wamp of Chattanooga — were all on the move, Gibbons heading for points east and Haslam and Wamp coming in the other direction, both making meet-and-greet stops in Memphis.

The GOP candidates' sense of urgency was fueled not only by the fact of each other but by the high likelihood that several other name Republicans were potential entries.

One of those is 7th District congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, who represents portions of Shelby County. Blackburn, widely regarded as a major contender, had a public stumble last week vaguely reminiscent of one she suffered (and recovered from) during her winning reelection race last year against GOP primary challenger Tom Leatherwood.

Leatherwood, the Shelby County register, had a moment of hope when it was revealed that Blackburn had either misreported or underreported significant campaign expenditures in several of her campaigns, beginning with the first victorious one in 2002. But Blackburn's conscientious if belated public effort to correct the omissions limited the potential fallout.

The newest embarrassment was a public notice that Blackburn, who last fall was among the stoutest opponents of any federal bailouts related to the housing industry crisis, had her own home listed for foreclosure. As things turned out, the congresswoman apparently will avert any further jeopardy on that score as well.

As reported in the Williamson Herald, Blackburn's home in Brentwood, called "Up Yonder," was the subject of a foreclosure notice posted Thursday and was listed for sale on January 29th on the steps of the Williamson County Judicial Building.

Blackburn's office responded late last week by producing a letter from Bill Adams, a spokesperson for the congresswoman's home bank, saying, "It has come to my attention that several electronic payments authorized by (Chuck Blackburn) were not processed by GreenBank as requested, though sufficient funds were in the bank to cover those payments. GreenBank has taken the necessary steps with Countrywide Mortgage to ensure that the issue is resolved and the property on Murray Lane is not in foreclosure."

Blackburn's spokesperson, Claude Chafin, did his best to make virtue of necessity, suggesting that the whole affair was based on the failure of an automatic-pay system on the bank's computer.

• The local celebration crossed partisan lines Monday when a pair of Republicans with Shelby County backgrounds were nominated by the state GOP legislative caucus for well-paid constitutional positions in state government.

Getting the nod from the Republicans of the state House and Senate were David Lillard for Tennessee treasurer and Tre Hargett for secretary of state. Nomination for the third constitutional office, that of state comptroller, went to Justin Wilson of Nashville, who served as chief policy adviser to former governor Don Sundquist.

Given the fact that Republicans now outnumber Democrats by six votes in the joint legislative caucus that will vote to award the positions on Wednesday, Lillard, Hargett, and Wilson would appear to be shoo-ins for the jobs.

The immediate reaction to the GOP nominations Monday was enthusiastic on both sides of the political aisle. Democrat Deidre Malone, who as chair of the Shelby County Commission was presiding over Monday's regular meeting of the body, exulted out loud when GOP commissioner Mike Carpenter announced the news of the nominations.

Calling Lillard "a terrific commissioner," Malone said, "To that point, as Democrats, we need to make some phone calls to help him get that post." Vice chair Joyce Avery, a Republican, followed that by saying, "I'll miss him terribly," to which Malone responded, "I will, too."

Hargett also has Shelby County roots. The former House minority leader and current chairman of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority served several terms as a state representative from Bartlett.

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