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The Nation

This Black Democrat Has a Chance in Tennessee

Harold Ford hopes to win Sen. Bill Frist's seat -- and become the former Confederacy's first black senator since Reconstruction.

June 21, 2006|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

SMITHVILLE, Tenn. — The locals showed up by the dozens, a few in denim overalls, others wearing plaid shirts and hats emblazoned with "Army" and "John Deere." They sat on wooden benches beneath a picnic shelter adorned with red, white and blue bunting, sipping iced tea and downing spicy pulled pork sandwiches.

But on this muggy evening in rural middle Tennessee, the predictable conventions of a small-town political rally in the South ended there.

Addressing the sea of 200 white faces was a black man. And the crowd sat in rapt attention, interrupting with frequent applause.

Yes, Harold Ford conceded: He is a black Democratic congressman from liberal Memphis, the gritty, turbulent city where his family name is associated with machine politics. But Ford argued that the old labels do not apply -- not to this centrist, pro-war, anti-gay-marriage, deficit hawk of a social conservative who once criticized former President Clinton for lying about infidelity and mounted a challenge to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) by calling her "too liberal."

And even as he warns of race-baiting to come, Ford drops subtle hints that his ethnicity could prove an unlikely advantage at a time when voters want change.

"When they tell you that he's too young, and he's not from around here, and he's from Memphis, and he looks a little differently," Ford said in Smithville, "you should remind them that every single one of those big problems up there that's been caused in Washington, all that spending that takes place, there weren't many guys who looked like me that created any of those problems."

The scene that night has become typical as Ford attempts a feat never before achieved: becoming the first black U.S. senator from the former Confederacy since Reconstruction. The seat he hopes to take is being vacated by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, whose departure is not supposed to create a successful race for Democrats.

Ford and his strategists have studied the harsh precedents: the failed Senate candidacies in 1990 of Harvey Gantt in North Carolina and in 2002 of Ron Kirk in Texas, two states still colored by racial fault lines.

Ford and his team feel they are forging a different path.

He is only 36, but his style and ideology were formed long after the civil rights movement that shaped the liberal views of his father, former Rep. Harold E. Ford Sr., whose congressional seat he took over 10 years ago. As he spoke in Smithville about high gas prices, out-of-control government deficits, his wish that the U.S. had sent more troops to Iraq from the start, sealing the border with Mexico, even his support for school prayer, Ford's strategy was clear: to preempt the old labels by adopting new ones more befitting a Bubba.

Ford's campaign could make history on multiple levels.

It could help Democrats counteract the decades-old Republican Southern strategy that used race to mobilize white voters.

And, even as Ford hopes to win by seemingly running against much of what his party stands for, his election could help Democrats retake the Senate. None of the three Republicans in the Aug. 3 primary -- two former congressmen and a businessman -- is the heir apparent.

Ford's candidacy is also a counterbalance as Republicans seek inroads among black voters with African American candidates for high offices in Ohio, Maryland and Pennsylvania. A racially charged campaign in Tennessee could hurt that effort and undercut last year's acknowledgment by the GOP chairman that the Southern strategy was "wrong."

Ford and his strategists have been laying plans should race -- or the kinds of racial codes that marked other campaigns, including charges of being too liberal -- emerge in the fall.

The campaign has produced several mock attack ads with racially coded references that opponents might make to Ford's family and the "Memphis political machine," tested them on focus groups and produced response ads that cast Ford as calm and moderate.

Still, race is not Ford's only potential vulnerability. Republicans are already caricaturing a lifestyle replete with high-priced suits, pedicures, posh dinners, Starbucks macchiatos and five-star hotel stays. The Republican Party created a website, www.fancyford.com, to parody his upscale tastes.

The travails of Ford's family have not helped, either. His uncle, former Democratic state Sen. John Ford, has been charged with bribery, while his father was investigated for corruption but never charged.

"His biggest problem is that he's a Ford," said Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who publishes the blog InstaPundit.com. "It's a branding problem for him."

Ford is not waiting for the attacks and invokes his family's troubles at every opportunity.

"Anybody who has a recipe for family ought to send it to me. Otherwise, be quiet," he said as the Smithville audience, surprised, murmured in approval.

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