Monday, January 25, 2010

Ford Tests the Waters in Buffalo Swing

Harold E. Ford Jr.’s tour of Buffalo began in a Jefferson Avenue church, proceeded to an East Ferry Street restaurant and concluded at the downtown office of Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan.

Along the way, the former Tennessee congressman also enjoyed lunch with Mayor Byron W. Brown in an upscale Franklin Street restaurant.

But Ford, 39, maintained the entire time that he wasn’t a candidate for U. S. senator — at least not yet — and was merely in town to listen and learn about the problems facing Western New York.

“We’re not at the stage where I’m asking anybody for support because I’m not a candidate,” said Ford, who took a 30-day leave of absence from a lucrative Wall Street job to explore a possible run for the state’s junior seat in the Senate. “This is an opportunity for me to learn.”

If he does run for the seat, he would be bucking Democratic leaders who back Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, appointed last year by Gov. David A. Paterson to seat held by Hillary Rodham Clinton until she became secretary of state.

Ford served 10 years in the House before losing a 2006 bid for a Senate seat in Tennessee. He then moved to Manhattan, where he works for Merrill Lynch.

He began his leave four days ago, venturing into Rockland County on Thursday. He planned to spend this morning in Albany and travel to Long Island and Westchester County later in the week.

Sunday morning in Buffalo, Ford attended a service at Greater Refuge Temple of Christ on Jefferson Avenue, then mingled with diners at Gigi’s on East Ferry Street. Customers said the visit piqued their interest.

“I’m going to go online, look him up and see what he’s about,” said Brian Keith.

Ford’s status as a relative newcomer didn’t faze Keith and other potential voters.

“Not at all,” said Leslie Smith. “We’ve had politicians who have been here for years and haven’t done anything.”

In an interview with The Buffalo News, Ford said voters he has spoken with haven’t focused on his short time in New York. “I’ve really not faced that. Members of the press have raised it. I’m not trying to hide it,” he said. “I love New York. My wife loves New York. . . . I want to raise my kids here.”

Ford and Brown had lunch at the Buffalo Chophouse. He called Brown’s office Friday to request the meeting, and the mayor said he saw the get-together as another opportunity to talk about Buffalo. Brown, who has not endorsed anyone for the Senate seat, said he was impressed by Ford’s desire to learn more about Buffalo. “He’s a great listener,” the mayor said.

Ford spent about 20 minutes with Lenihan at the chairman’s office in Ellicott Square before taking a flight back to New York City.

Lenihan said he told Ford that he was backing Gillibrand, who also has support from Sen. Charles

E. Schumer and other top Democrats. He acknowledged that Ford could be a formidable candidate.

“He’s a pro; there’s no doubt about it. He’s very personable. He’s certainly self-confident. He’s articulate. . . . He doesn’t seem to be intimidated by the size of the challenge,” Lenihan said, “. . . but I think he’s got an uphill battle.”

Source: The Buffalo News