By KAREN TUMULTY, PERRY BACON JR.
The Congressman who is running to replace retiring Bill Frist as Senator from Tennessee has voted to outlaw gay marriage and to repeal the estate tax, and wants to amend the Constitution to ban flag burning. He supports getting rid of the handgun ban in the nation's capital and says the Ten Commandments should be posted in courtrooms around his state. He favors school prayer, argues that more troops should have been sent to Iraq and wants to seal the border with Mexico. He likes to tell a story about the time he campaigned at a bar called the Little Rebel, which had a Confederate flag and a parking lot full of pickup trucks adorned with National Rifle Association bumper stickers. When he went inside, as he tells it, a woman at the bar greeted him with a hug and exclaimed,
"Baby, we've been waiting to see you!"
None of that would be so remarkable were it not for the fact that this particular Senate candidate is a Democrat, an African American and someone whose last name is synonymous in Tennessee with urban-machine politics. But that's not the reason that both parties are suddenly paying a lot more attention to this state and to 36-year-old Harold Ford Jr. Although Tennessee has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since Al Gore won re-election in 1990, the race is starting to look far closer than just about anyone would have expected a few months ago. And with Democrats leading in the five other states that are considered their best opportunities to pick up Senate seats this fall--Pennsylvania, Montana, Rhode Island, Ohio and Missouri--it is conceivable that a victory by Ford could give them the sixth one that they need to take back control of the chamber.
There are plenty of reasons not to put too heavy a bet on Tennessee just yet to give the Democrats their inside straight. The South has not sent a black Senator to Washington since Reconstruction. More recently it has been hostile territory to Democratic Senate candidates of any race. In 2004 alone the party lost five Southern Senate seats, leaving only four of the region's total of 22 seats in Democratic hands. And, of course, Gore could have been President but for his failure to carry his home state in 2000. For Republicans, "Tennessee is their fire wall," says Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
But the unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress has created an opportunity this year for the right kind of Democrat, Ford argues. "What the national climate has done in Tennessee is create an atmosphere in which people are willing to listen. The more people listen, the better my chances are."
Ford does indeed get people's attention. Selected one of PEOPLE magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" in 2001, he has a charisma some Tennesseans say they haven't seen since Bill Clinton. Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council president Jerry Lee, who got his start in politics working for the Democrat in the 1960 presidential election, goes even further back: "Harold Ford Jr. is the most exciting candidate I've seen since John F. Kennedy." Clinton himself, who was in Nashville last week to raise $1 million for Ford and the state party, told a cheering crowd of 1,500 that he sees in Ford "the walking, living embodiment, in my opinion, of where America ought to go in the 21st century."
Republicans say they see something else: a prep-schooled, Armani-wearing dandy who has a thin record and is more at home in five-star Manhattan hotels than in Tennessee barbecue joints. Ford is "someone who spent his entire life in Washington and comes into this race with a truly different background to draw upon," says former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, who won a brutal three-way Republican primary last week and will face Ford in November. The National Republican Senatorial Committee put up the website www.fancyford.com to chronicle Ford's tastes, right down to where he gets his pedicures; its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, responded with www.fancyfrist.com to show that the Republican who holds the job now is not exactly a stranger to the finer things in life, including traveling on private jets provided by corporations.
Harder to laugh off is the fact that Ford comes from a large political family that has had no small amount of controversy and scandal connected to it. So Ford doesn't try to, and tells audiences, "Anybody who has a recipe for family ought to send it to me." His Congressman father--whom Ford Jr. calls "my best friend and mentor and top adviser"--was charged with federal bank fraud and acquitted in 1993. The day after Ford Jr. announced his candidacy, his uncle, a former state senator, was indicted for bribery. His aunt's election last September to that state-senate seat with a 13-vote victory was voided because of voting irregularities in which she has not been implicated. She won the Democratic primary last week in her bid to regain a seat.
But the Ford name is also what got Harold Jr. elected to fill his father's Memphis congressional seat when he was only 26 and freshly out of law school--"my first full-time job," he says. Harold Jr. was only 4 years old when he starred in his first political ad, climbing on a table to record a radio spot for his father in which he promised to lower cookie prices. And his name gave him some leeway to stake out more centrist positions that might have jeopardized the career of any other lawmaker representing the state's most liberal district.
Ford says his more conservative philosophy is shaped by the fact that he grew up in a different world from his father, who was raised without running water and came of age during the civil rights movement. "George W. Bush is different from his father. Al Gore is different from his father," Ford says, citing two other dynastic brand names. "It's called life, I guess." Where his father's generation had "one tool, and that was a hammer, now there's a much bigger toolbox," Ford adds. "It's just my politics. I look at what works."
Ford is hoping his record will make it more difficult for Republicans to, in the words of his campaign strategist Michael Powell, "culturally misalign" him--that is, cast him as more in line with Democrats nationally on social issues. But Ford has thrown some punches of his own, calling his G.O.P. rivals "the three stooges" and telling them to "grow up." As the Republicans were battling it out in what is thought to be the most expensive primary in Tennessee history, he got an early start sharpening his message for the general election. Last June, 16 months before voting day, he showed up in his first campaign ad, talking about the importance of supporting the troops in Iraq. Ford--who campaigns in a biodiesel-fueled Ford F-250 pickup--has run ads asking, "Fed up when you fill up?" He was one of the first candidates in the country to run TV spots criticizing the Bush Administration's approval of a deal--since dropped--to allow a Dubai company to run operations at some U.S. ports.
The race is about to take a new turn now that the Republicans have picked their candidate. Corker, 53, was probably the G.O.P.'s strongest choice to run against Ford. The contrast in their life stories is striking: before entering politics, Corker built a real estate and construction fortune from a company he started with the $8,000 he had saved working as a construction superintendent. But his record as Chattanooga mayor also creates some potential vulnerabilities for him. Strategists for Ford say they'll attack Corker for raising taxes and failing to balance the Chattanooga budget.
The most moderate of the three contenders in the primary, Corker won in large part by raising $6.6 million and adding more than $2 million of his own money, which could be a sign of things to come. His opponents spent much of the race questioning his conservative credentials, pointing out, for instance, that his abortion-rights stance (he's now against) has shifted over the years.
Corker's more centrist image gives him a better shot at wooing conservative Democrats and independents away from Ford. But it also raises the question of whether the conservative base will be excited enough about Corker's candidacy to turn up at the polls in sufficient numbers come November. For all the money that was thrown into the primary, turnout was about average. Corker insists he is not worried about Republican enthusiasm, given his surprisingly large victory over two former House members, Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary. "This primary is the best thing that could have happened to the Republican Party," he told TIME. "That has been energizing, and that takes us into the general election with tremendous momentum."
For his part, Ford's strategy will be to treat Tennessee the way it usually behaves on Election Day--like three separate states. It is a variation on the game plan that got the state's popular Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen elected in 2002. Ford hopes his candidacy will boost African-American turnout to the levels it generally reaches only in presidential election years; that could add as many as 120,000 more votes statewide, about half of them from the western part of the state around Memphis. He is also working harder than most Democratic candidates do in Tennessee's conservative eastern edge, hoping to narrow Corker's margin there. That would leave the central part of Tennessee, and especially the fast-growing suburbs around Nashville, as the battleground where the election could be decided.
Harold Ford Jr. was raised in the tradition of old-style Southern politics, but if he wins, he could be creating a new one. He says, "It's harder for Senate Democrats or candidates to distinguish themselves from the national Democratic model." So instead, he's simply going to try to break it.
Photo credit: JOHN CHIASSON FOR TIME
Days of Congressional Inaction on Ethics
Above is the number of days that have passed since Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to bribing Congressman.
It is also the number of days in which Congress has failed to pass an ethics reform bill that would limit private travel, ski and golf junkets, and would call for a full disclosure of expenses by lobbyists on members of Congress.
It is time for Congress to step up and pass an ethics reform bill that would do all of the above. In addition, it is time to end the pork barrel spending system as we know it and establish an independent ethics commission that would review ethics complaints against members of Congress.
I am proud Congressman Harold Ford Jr. is fighting for that reform!