Monday, July 10, 2006

Ford: "Give Me A Chance"

The following feature story comes from the Knoxville News Sentinel:

The shift of subjects is seamless for Harold Eugene Ford Jr. in moving from the podium at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention to the chair of a neighborhood barbershop.

At the VFW gathering in a hotel overlooking the state Capitol, many in the audience appear twice the 36-year-old congressman's age.

He begins the speech on Iraq and continues with an animated ramble through topics ranging from family and religion to politics and gas prices. The 200 or so veterans, initially somewhat reserved, are soon laughing at some lines and applauding others.

Subsequent interviews indicate that he may have won a vote or two from fellows such as Ken Brooks of Kingsport, who characterizes himself as an independent "Demo-Republi-Crat" transformed from undecided to leaning Ford.

George Rasberry of Trenton, identifying himself as a Republican, says the speech was interesting, "but I'm not converted."

At Miles Barber Shop, most of the dozen or so customers and hair-cutters on hand are younger than Ford.

The conversation is mostly about football and the merits of various players - except for a couple of customers voicing support for Ford in his current campaign to become Tennessee's next U.S. senator. If he pulls that off, Ford will also be the first black U.S. senator elected in the South since Reconstruction.

On the barbershop wall is a framed certificate declaring that the vacationing proprietor, Nathaniel Miles, is "honorary chairman" of the Business Advisory Committee in Tennessee for the National Republican Congressional Committee. On a table with the magazines is one of those 6-inch-tall elephant statues, painted with the stars and stripes of the American flag, that are sold at GOP fund-raisers.

In the window are "Ford for Senate" campaign signs. And a barber, who provides Ford with a hair trim of debatable need, says "Mr. Miles" backs Democrat Ford despite general Republican tendencies.

Ford, indeed, appears to have strong support in the Jefferson Street neighborhood. At a nearby gas station, there are "Fed up when you fill up?" signs - a phrase Ford uses in a television commercial on energy policy and high gas prices.

People spot him on the street and yell a greeting. He stops to speak with each, to the consternation of aides trying to keep him on schedule. They include contrasting folks.

There is, for example, a Nashville city councilwoman with grandchildren in tow who insists on an impromptu photo of the youngsters with Ford. And there is a large, colorfully dressed woman who says she once had a job and a bright future, but "then I became a drunk."

"You pray for me and I'll pray for you," she says. Ford nods.

'Somewhere in between' Contrasts seem almost a theme around Ford, often coupled with efforts on his part to find some middle ground and, as he puts it, "bring people together."

A Memphis native, Ford was fresh out of law school in 1996 when elected at age 26 to succeed his father in the U.S. House of Representatives. He still has not passed the bar exam to officially become a lawyer.

In the 10 years since his initial election, he has become a member of the "Blue Dog Caucus" of conservative Democrats and a regular on national television talk shows, and he has gained other prominence - running unsuccessfully, for instance, against Nancy Pelosi for the position of House minority leader.

Ford says he has decided to give up the safe seat because "we pass just about anything the Republicans want to pass in the House," while procedural rules and tradition in the Senate "forces compromise" and make it the body where "the biggest questions we have to answer in this country are going to be decided."

He wants to be in on the making of those decisions, Ford says, "not so much as a matter of moving up, but of making a difference." And he indicates that the notion of making a difference is ingrained.

"I cannot remember a time when I did not want to be in public service," he says.

With no serious opposition on the Democratic side, Ford is assured of winning his party's nomination Aug. 3. On the other hand, three major Republican candidates are competing for the GOP nod, each presenting himself as the man most likely to beat Ford.

Ford has likened them to "the Three Stooges," saying they are "more entertaining than serious" in debate on the issues. He also says Ed Bryant, Bob Corker and Van Hilleary are "extremists" on some matters, such as their attitudes toward global warming. He says he plans to mail all three a copy of Al Gore's book on the subject, "An Inconvenient Truth."

As for himself, Ford says he is often at odds with more liberal members of his own party, backing, for example, public display of the Ten Commandments. He says Democrats need to change.

"I believe the party has to be, well, not more moderate or centrist, but more rational and results-oriented in how we approach things," he says.

In the speech to veterans, Ford began on the subject of war in Iraq.

"I've been to Iraq five times, and each time I've been encouraged," he said, adding praise for the troops while questioning opposing sides in a policy debate over whether to get out of the strife-torn country or stay on indefinitely.

"The answer's got to be somewhere in between," he said.

The first laughs from the veterans came when he told them about his family, starting with the marriage of a contrasting couple - his Irish paternal grandmother to his grandfather, "a native American who was black."

"They got to know each other really well. They had 15 kids," Ford says, adding that he now has 91 first cousins.

Family matters One of his grandparents' 15 kids is his uncle, former state Sen. John Ford, D-Memphis, now awaiting trial - in October, with the general election looming - on bribery charges.

His own father was charged - and acquitted by a jury - on bank fraud charges. An aunt, Ophelia, was elected to the state Senate, then ousted from the seat amid contentions that her election was tainted by illegal voting.

The candidate himself has never been implicated in any impropriety. But Republican activists assert that the family taint assures he cannot be elected.

One conservative Nashville radio talk show host, as a perhaps extreme example, questioned on air whether Ford has "a genetic predisposition to lie, cheat and steal."

Asked about this, Ford said he was surprised and saddened, then quoted a verse from the Bible - Ephesians Chapter 6, verse 12, which speaks of fighting against "spiritual wickedness."

"I will pray for him," he said of the talk show host.

As for his family, Ford has repeatedly said he loves members such as Uncle John, even while disapproving of some behavior.

"I've never once had to vote on my family," he said, contending that family member behavior is irrelevant to his own qualifications.

Republican critics generally "can't find anything to attack me on issues so they make personal attacks," he says. "I think the voters are going to reject that."

At the same time, Ford says he is an admirer of many Republicans, ranging from former Sen. Howard Baker to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, and friends with many others.

Indeed, when Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, held a news conference recently to endorse Bryant's Senate campaign, he declared, "I like Harold Ford personally," though "I just don't think he needs to be in the Senate."

Ford says he often played basketball with Ensign when the Nevadan was in the House and the two became "good buddies." He gets along well with many people holding differing political opinions, Ford says.

A bachelor, Ford says he "almost got married once" and, given his devotion to work and campaigning, "could have made a young lady's life very hard." Eventually, he says, he will marry because "I want a family."

'Fat free' approach In his speech to the VFW, Ford recalled learning religion "the old-fashioned way" - being forced to go to church - and lectures from his maternal grandmother against youthful misbehavior, which she deemed "mannish" for boys and "fast" for girls.

Using gestures for emphasis, he lamented "inertia" in Washington because of partisan bickering, the borrowing of money from China that raises the national debt, and dependence on foreign oil that "subsidizes our enemies" in the war on terror.

"I'm not that bright, but I know you can't win a war if you're paying your enemy," he says. "If we can make chocolate fat free, we can make coal burn clean."

The biggest applause from the veterans came when he declared that there are really two ways to measure the decency of a society - "the way we treat the least among us" and "the way we treat those who sacrifice for the rest of us." He pledged to push for improved veterans benefits.

Afterward, a burly, gray-bearded man walked up to Ford, grabbed his hand and said, "I'm a Vietnam veteran. Do you really mean what you said?"

"I promise I do," Ford replied. "Give me a chance, and you won't regret it."

The man nodded, then walked away.