When a candidate as ill-suited for public life as Jake Ford comes along, the people that are writing about him hold back a little bit. Telling the truth can start to look like a rambling polemic if you're not careful, and the line separating the two is a delicate one.
But sometimes, the elephant in the room becomes impossible to ignore.
We reached that point Monday night at The Warehouse downtown, scene of the Ninth District Congressional Debate.
Two of the three participants performed exactly as expected. Steve Cohen was poised and professional, only briefly giving way to anger when a relentless barrage of attacks reached a fevered pitch. Mark White, as always, came across as poised, well spoken, and genuinely nice, if perhaps not a wellspring of ideas. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you could watch either of their performances without saying “I’m moving” if they win.
Despite the statements Jake Ford made Sunday night, he did indeed show up for the debate. All in all, it likely would have been better for his campaign had he stayed home.
The first rule of politics: When you run for office, any chance you’re given to sway a voter should be looked upon as a gift. And there is no greater gift than a public debate. Campaigns live and die upon a good debate performance. It is your chance to prove that you’re up to the challenge of public office. The 2004 presidential race is the only campaign in living memory where a candidate has lost all debates and still managed to squeak out a victory.
Steve Cohen and Mark White understood that. They looked relaxed. They smiled. And they made their case in their own ways, telling the voters why they deserve their votes.
Jake Ford looked like he didn’t want to be there. His body language was angry, his expression sullen as Cohen or White spoke. This would be bad enough for the average candidate--- For someone whose arrest record was made public last week, it was even worse. As you watched him, you could imagine him being angry enough to assault someone. He might have been trying for intensity--- But he skipped right over it and landed on anger.
It was even worse when he spoke. Amid the non-answers he’s becoming notorious for were a plethora of spurious attacks the likes of which I’ve never seen in political debate before. Among the things still missing--- Reasons to vote for Jake Ford. He never really seemed to make a case for why he would be a better candidate.
Again, some candidates might have been able to make that work. Ford never really got the hang of the whole lying thing--- He’s just not very good at it. He’s never learned that the best lie has a ring of truth to it, eschewing the grain of truth for whoppers along the lines of “What is not an urban myth is that Senator Cohen, on the floor, in the state senate, made the comment that poor kids don’t deserve to go to college.”
I once went to a comedy club and sat through a half hour of Pauly Shore’s act (The most a human being could be expected to take. The human brain explodes around the 45 minute point) without ever hearing the level of laughter Jake Ford got with that line. The problem with that was that they laughed not because he made some funny joke, but because he said something so utterly stupid that the audience simply could not contain itself.
Let’s set aside the mind numbing amounts of work that Cohen put into passing the lottery that covers college tuition for Tennessee students. Let’s pretend that he said that of some less accomplished candidate that had no track record to speak of on the issue.
What politician would actually say that? Even if their actions amounted to such a position, no politician would be foolish enough to put those words together in private, much less on the senate floor.
Even then, it was not an unmanageable situation. A smarter candidate, upon hearing the reams of laughter, might have walked back the statement a little bit. Say his actions amounted to it and say why. Say “I misspoke” and try to turn it around into something else. Instead, Ford seemed to get angry with the crowd. “If you all are finished with your chuckles…” he said, still looking angry and sullen. I didn’t quite get what he said after that because… Frankly, the crowd was laughing again.
The lovely Pam and I have discussed Jake's anger management issues before. We wondered when he was going to take to get him to lose control and what it would take. We found out Monday night.
“You talk about the lottery, Mr. Ford. Your family members voted for the lottery, and I thank them for their support. Your father gave me a thousand dollars to campaign for it, and your brother and father tried to run the lottery, but weren’t given the opportunity to do that.”
The audience laughed again. Only that time, they applauded too. Jake Ford lost it and tried to interrupt, only to be cut off by Richard Ransom. It was a good thing it wasn’t Jackson Baker that had to try to enforce the rules on Ford. Trust me—You’ll see why later.
And that was how the debate went. The nonsense attacks were actually Jake’s high point--- He responded to a question about how to relieve prison overcrowding by saying “I, as a young black man, wouldn’t want to see more police officers hired because of the high percentage of blacks that are already incarcerated at this moment.” That, sadly, was the most substantive policy stance we heard out of him all night.
After the debate ended, Jake Ford was so friendly as he worked the crowd that I wondered if I had imagined it all. As I walked toward him, he was regaling two people with Mark White lapel stickers with the old adage that “When you point the finger, there’s three fingers pointing back at you.”
I reintroduced myself and said “Good to see you changed your mind about coming tonight” as I shook his hand.
“Well I had to,” he explained. “None of you guys would run my press release.”
It was the first I had heard about a press release, so I asked him about it. “3, 5, 7, and 13. They all received, including the Commercial Appeal a document from me including Joan [Robinson, of the South Main Association]. I guess they’re all in concert with one another. You guys have the hook in.”
It was a continuation of a familiar pattern: Blame the press. When he was asked during his press conference last week why he hadn’t disclosed his history, he said “… it’s public information. I would assume you all would be doing your jobs on behalf of the people of Memphis.” And then there’s his irrational loathing of Jackson Baker. It’s apparent by now that his media strategy consists of antagonizing the press, then complaining that they don’t like him. It’s a bit like killing your parents and asking for the mercy of the court because you’re an orphan. The Menendez brothers’ defense.
I reported here Monday morning on Jake’s problems with Jackson Baker. After the debate, Baker wanted to make peace with Jake Ford.
Baker was eating as he spoke to Jake Ford, and whether it came from inside his mouth, or was a piece of food on his lip, something flew out quite accidentally and landed on Ford’s suit. Ford flew into a rage.
“The man spit on me,” he said, getting bent out of shape over something that the rest of the human race manages to ignore every day. “He spit on me. Does anyone have a napkin? He spit on me. Didn’t your mama teach you how to eat?” I was standing a couple of feet away with Chris Davis, also of the Memphis Flyer. I looked at Ford’s jacket and couldn’t even see anything.
“Shut up,” Baker said.
The rest of us were too shocked to say much of anything. Finally, Davis broke the silence. “Well, that’s one for the blogs.”
“I bet it is,” Ford said. “I bet it is one for the blogs. Are you going to call me a fucktard?”
“If the shoe fits,” someone said.
“Tell me what it means. What shoe is it fitting?” Jake asked, his arms spread out like he was spoiling for a fight. “Tell me what the word means, and I’ll tell you if the shoe fits or not.” On some remote planet, tucked away in the nether regions of an undiscovered universe, that might have been considered clever. But not Memphis, Tennessee on the planet Earth. As for the meaning of the word, I believe The Flypaper Theory did a great job defining it.
“Looking like a candidate,” Davis said as Ford’s entourage led him away.
Jake Ford was trying to pick a fight with a man that, though he could pass for a man fifteen years younger, is in his sixties.
Loathe though I am to help him with his strategy of picking a fight with the media, then claiming to have been victimized by it, I have to say this:
You could grab a random crackhead off of the street and turn him into congressional material before Jake Ford. Even the random crackhead is going to know that Memphis has a crime problem, and that extra police are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
The Jake Ford candidacy is an affront to the political process. One of the great flaws of the demystification of government that we saw in the nineties was that it created the mistaken impression that anyone could do these jobs. We even had a movie where a man that happened to look like the president was tapped to fill his shoes.
Jake Ford snaps us back to reality. Not everyone is fit to do this job. He’s had four chances to prove his case to the voters. At the first, he literally had no answers for several of the questions. He looked more polished at the next one--- He was given the questions in advance. At the third one, he looked a little stronger, but still came up woefully short on substance.
And Monday night, he performed so badly that it was a step backward from the first debate.
If you look at Steve Cohen and Mark White, and you simply cannot bring yourself to vote for either of them, then I implore you--- Write in a candidate. It can be Jerry Lawler. It can be the random crackhead I talked about earlier. It can be a stray dog that made romantic overtures to your leg. For all I care, it can be a piece of inanimate furniture.
All of the above choices would make a better congressman than Jake Ford.
This post is a modified version of a piece awaiting publication at the River City Mud Bugle.