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Harold Ford’s Big Ambition

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Saturday, January 23, 2010

I like Harold Ford. The former congressman and senatorial candidate from Tennessee is bright, articulate and attractive. But that doesn’t mean he should be the senator from New York.

There is a woman holding that job now, and she deserves to keep it. Ford has no business challenging her in the primary. If he does so and loses, as seems entirely possible, he will be dead in politics.

Hello, Harold: Just say no. Running for Senate could end your career.

A year ago, I’d never even heard of Kirsten Gillibrand. She was a young congresswoman from upstate New York, hardly mentioned in the fracas of Caroline Kennedy’s public flirtation with Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. I was for Kennedy. It was painful, actually, watching her stumble as she placed her toe into electoral politics. Someone like me needed to help her. It was one of the only times I have wished I was still in that business. She could have been great. She wasn’t. Instead, Gov. David Paterson picked an unknown woman from upstate.

Gillibrand has been working her tail off ever since to win that seat in her own right. She has liberalized some of her upstate positions and has done so seamlessly. She has raised something like $7 million and has reached out to groups and individuals across the state. My feminist friends in New York, the kind who were for Hillary for president and Caroline for Senate, now find themselves just as enthusiastic about Gillibrand -- and very mad at a guy they barely know by the name of Harold Ford.

Ford moved to New York three years ago to be an investment banker at Merrill Lynch. He is proudly pro-Wall Street. As a congressman and senatorial candidate in Tennessee, he ran as a pro-life, anti-gay marriage Democrat, as a New Democrat, as opposed to an old liberal Democrat like everyone who wins statewide in New York.

Politically speaking, it’s not entirely clear how or why Ford and some of his well-heeled supporters think a conservative Southerner can beat a more liberal New Yorker in a Democratic primary. Democratic primaries are not won in the middle, which is where Ford has energetically tried to move the party through the Democratic Leadership Council. They are won on the left.

If Gillibrand is vulnerable, it is because she has only recently come to embrace the more liberal stances that work statewide in New York but not upstate. But Ford has never (yet) gone liberal. After losing his Senate bid, he scored a major contract as a contributor to Fox News and only left when it appeared that defending Fox might hurt him politically. So he quit and went to MSNBC. Now he’s going to be pro-choice, too?

Ford is African-American. His father was a congressman, until he was indicted on corruption charges (for which he was ultimately acquitted). Ford took the seat at 26 and held it for a decade. Then he tried for Senate. Then he moved to New York.

I have nothing against carpetbaggers. Neither in recent years does New York. And there is certainly no question that the Senate could use a black voice, with Roland Burris retiring at the end of the year from his short-lived occupation of Barack Obama’s seat. But that is no reason for Ford to take on one of the Senate’s most promising young women.

When women make up half of the Senate, I’ll be happy to step aside for more diversity. But that hasn’t happened yet. Martha Coakley’s defeat in Massachusetts has only left Democratic women more determined to hold on to what they have. And they have New York.

Only the Republicans stand to win if women and minorities are pitted against each other in a combative and expensive primary. I’d still put my money on Gillibrand, but the last thing a Democratic incumbent needs this year, with everything else working against the Democrats, is an expensive and divisive primary. Why?

Ford is positioning himself as the outsider, the guy who will say no to Sens. Chuck Schumer (Why and on what?) and Harry Reid. As one New Yorker and Gillibrand supporter quipped: Just what we need, another Joe Lieberman.

If that is Ford’s best reason to run, then the simple truth is he has none, except pure ambition. Which is necessary in politics, but from a voter’s perspective, hardly enough.

COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM

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See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich

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