In 1996, the people of the Ninth District had every reason to be optimistic. A scandal-ridden but responsive congressman was leaving office. The choices in the primary to replace him both seemed like decent enough choices--- A State Senator named Steve Cohen and the congressman’s own son, Harold Ford Jr.
He looked like his father and spoke like him to a certain degree--- One could look at him and imagine him keeping his nose clean. There was nothing there to imply that he would be the lightning rod for controversy that his father had been.
Voters were given the choice between Ford and Cohen, and they chose Ford.
The seat Cohen and Ford were vying for was a real prize--- One of the safest seats in the nation for a Democratic politician. The winner of the Democratic primary in that seat is always safe to go ahead and pick out office furniture for DC--- They’re going.
That creates the kind of environment where a Democrat can really be a Democrat. A Democrat can be as liberal as Paul Wellstone, Nancy Pelosi, or Ted Kennedy and write his or her own ticket. Harold Ford Sr. had proven that.
We expected that out of his son as well. His first few terms were fairly unspectacular. He did little in the way of sponsoring legislation, and never exactly set the world on fire with his committee assignments. He wasn’t terribly effective, but he could be counted on with his floor votes. And that was enough.
But there was a change. In 2002, his ambition grew beyond the safe confines of the Ninth District. He was asked to stand down and run in 2006.
He had a choice to make. He could spend his time fighting for progressive causes, building and expanding the Democratic base in this city. Or he could shift to the right and pander to the very people that wished to destroy him.
Unfortunately, he chose the latter. He didn’t learn the lessons of the 2002 midterm election. That year, many Democrats made the same choice Harold Jr. made, and with devastating results. To paraphrase Harry S. Truman, the voters were given the choice of real Republicans and fake Republicans--- And they chose the genuine item.
And so he set about reinventing himself. The safe moderate that voted with Democrats more often than not simply ceased to exist. He had been replaced by a congressman that voted the Republican agenda more often than some Republicans.
In stark contrast with his father, an imperfect man who had his finger on the pulse of the community, Harold Ford Jr. was a relative stranger to his district. And perhaps no vote personified that disconnect than his vote on the Bankruptcy Reform Act, a Draconian piece of legislation tantamount to an epic love poem to the banking industry. Harold Ford Jr. represented the bankruptcy capital of America, yet it never occurred to him that he might be selling his constituents short.
That was far from the apex--- It was merely the opening act. The Congressman who missed a crucial budget vote to attend Jimmy Naifeh’s “Coon Supper” managed to fly cross country to vote with the Republicans on the somewhat living taxidermy experiment known as Terri Schiavo.
And it only got worse from there. Flag burning, tax breaks for the oil industry, and more recently, greenlighting domestic surveillance and allowing the president to have the final say on what is considered torture and what is not. It became difficult to stand to the right of Harold Ford Jr. and remain on the planet earth.
Progressive voters, myself included, stood prepared to “clothespin vote” for Harold Ford Jr. simply to have a Democratic majority in the Senate. But then he stepped it up a notch.
Okay, more like two notches.
He decided that the only way to make himself sound good was to insult the rest of us. According to him, we were “jumping on him” not because of his votes, but because he “goes to church a lot and loves Jesus”. Whether it was the idea of Democrats being weak on defense, the idea that filibustering Supreme Court nominees was a bad thing to do, or any other piece of right wing dogma--- Harold Ford Jr. was there to help the Republican Party sell it. Tennessee Republicans put Amendment 1 on the ballot as a means of destroying his candidacy. Supporting Amendment 1 wasn’t enough for him--- When a state as removed from his district as New Jersey dared to legalize same sex marriage, he went out of his way to issue a press release condemning it.
It wasn’t just Democratic ideals that came under attack from Ford. He criticized Howard Dean (Ironically, considering that his 50 State Strategy helped Ford by expanding the progressive base, something Ford couldn’t be bothered to do for himself) and recently demanded an apology from John Kerry for his badly fumbled joke that was intended to be aimed at George W. Bush.
Even as Bush’s approval ratings dipped into Nixonian levels, Ford lacked the political will to step away from him on most issues.
Another Democrat that found himself under fire from Harold Ford Jr. was his old primary opponent and the Democratic nominee to replace him in the Ninth District, Steve Cohen. Ford’s absurdly underqualified younger brother Jake had filed to run as an independent. Harold Jr. remained neutral for the first leg of the race, leaving the attacks to Jake, Isaac, and his father.
In the last few weeks of the campaign, Harold Jr. joined in on the attacks as well, lying outright about Cohen’s stances on gay marriage and drug legalization to try and help his brother take down the Democratic nominee.
And the Saturday before the election, he found a way to disrupt a Cohen rally without making another “Memphis Meltdown” mistake. The Cohen campaign made the effort to do right by the Democratic nominees--- They went to Ford’s office and asked for signs to display at their rally next to the signs of the other Democratic candidates throughout the state. Instead of graciously accepting their help (Which could have gone a long way toward salving the wounds Ford and progressives inflict on one another), the Ford campaign asked them to leave, then hastily scheduled a press conference at the same time as the Cohen rally to draw the media away.
There are two nationwide media narratives regarding election night. One is that Democrats won because they’re more conservative now. The other is that white Tennessee rednecks simply refused to vote for a black man.
The first is preposterous. If Democrats were winning because they were conservative, Harold Ford Jr. would have been able to ride that wave into a Senate seat.
The second has more validity, but only a little. There are white voters out there that will not vote for a black candidate if they’re offered a white alternative, just as there are black voters that will not vote for a white if they’re given a black alternative (Jake Ford didn’t get 21% based on his fitness to hold office).
But those voters are a minority. Not a single one of the progressives that refused to back Harold Ford Jr. did so because of his skin color. One and all, progressives looked for an excuse to back Harold Ford Jr. and simply came up empty. He embraced conservative ideology and conservative rhetoric every chance he was given, and constantly used the power of his office to undermine and belittle the people that worked their fingers to the bone to send him to Washington year after year. Plus, 48% of the voters in this state wanted to send him to the Senate--- A state with a white population of almost 81%.
"Blame whitey" is an excuse-- Not a reason.
Not once in ten long years did Harold Ford Jr. lift a finger to advance the Democratic agenda, nor did he ever make any serious effort to help any other Democratic candidates. Voters respect people that take stands--- He never took them. Had he done so, he could have expanded the Democratic base, which not only would have given him his seat in the Senate, but would have made it as safe for him as the Ninth District was for his father. Because in doing so, he wouldn’t have just been helping himself--- He passed up the chance to help the party down ticket, which would have allowed Democrats to swipe the one worthwhile play out of the Republican playbook--- Grab power by a slight margin and redistrict to expand it.
For this, and for many, many other reasons, no Democrat should shed any tears for the utter destruction of the Ford Machine (And make no mistake, it is destroyed. They can’t build a coalition around Ophelia). When the leaders of tomorrow (Hopefully including Joe Ford Jr., Tyson Pratcher, Lee Harris, among others) fight their way up the ladder, they will be allowed to ascend without a Ford-shaped footprint on their foreheads.