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This Black Democrat Has a Chance in Tennessee

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Harold Ford hopes to win Sen. Bill Frist's seat -- and become the former Confederacy's first black senator since Reconstruction.
By Peter Wallsten
Times Staff Writer

June 21, 2006

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, , 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 "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.

But, if he has any hope of winning, the most important task for Ford is to convince enough conservative whites that they can relate to him "” and even agree with him. He will need that in addition to a massive turnout in urban black neighborhoods in and around Memphis.

Already, Ford's campaign has aired several statewide television advertisements designed to appeal to traditionally conservative voters "” attacking Bush for the deal to let a Dubai firm manage U.S. ports, assailing gas prices and supporting troops serving in Iraq. The gas ad showed Ford by an SUV, lest anyone mistake him as a radical environmentalist, as banjo music jangles in the background.

Ford also paints himself as almost nonpartisan. He brags of his run against Pelosi after the party's abysmal performance in the 2002 elections. And he praises the president.

"A lot of people in my party get angry when I say this," Ford says often. "But I think President Bush is a good guy, and I think he means well."

Although he voted last week against a Republican resolution supporting the president's policies in Iraq, Ford still boasts of his early support for the war and his four visits to Iraq.

What's more, Ford voted in favor of the Republican-backed House legislation that made illegal immigration a felony. That vote puts him to the right of Bush, who backs a Senate bill that Ford calls "too close to amnesty" for "lawbreakers."

Ford has distanced himself from national Democrats on faith, saying they sometimes sound "almost opposed to religion." He heads a faith-based caucus of lawmakers who support using government money for church-based social service programs.

In 2004, Ford hosted Bush's top advisor on faith-based issues, allowing him to be seen with some of the more conservative black pastors emerging as a potent force in both parties.

"There aren't too many African American Democrats inviting Bush White House officials to their district," said Jim Towey, former head of the faith-based office.

Some analysts believe Ford benefited after 2000, when his district, long a majority black district, was redrawn to include a number of wealthy, conservative suburbs, allowing him the luxury of operating more in the center.

"He was one of the few black representatives who had managed to construct a biracial coalition, which would allow him to make a serious bid for governor or senator, in contrast to most black representatives whose heavily minority districts lead them to take positions so liberal they become nonelectable statewide in most states," said Morris Fiorina, a Stanford University political scientist.

Now as a statewide candidate, Ford is invoking a surprising symbol as he tries to bridge an even bigger cultural divide "” between Memphis and rural areas dominated by conservative white voters.

His favorite riff involves a Sunday afternoon stop at the Little Rebel Drive-In in Jackson, Tenn., where, as Ford describes it, the parking lot was full of trucks with gun racks and Bush stickers, and the Confederate flag flew out front. Ford talks of being greeted with hugs "” and how he attached a bumper sticker to the refrigerator.

"My politics is not full of anger," he said, explaining that he sees no contradiction in a Confederate flag-waving voter backing a black candidate. "It's not something that flies in my yard," he said. "But there are people who it means something different to than it means to me."

There are signs that Ford's strategy might be working.

A Zogby International survey this month concluded the race was a dead heat. But danger signs emerged: Nearly one-third of voters viewed him unfavorably, and the Republicans hold double-digit leads outside of Ford's home region.

For all of his potential liabilities, Ford has an added advantage: He's a gifted orator.

After leaving Smithville, he drove to nearby Cookeville, home of Tennessee Tech University, where he addressed hundreds of rising high school seniors at the annual Boys' State convention in a noisy cafeteria.

Ford stepped up onto a chair to speak. Soon, the din quieted.

It was the toughest crowd of the day "” with questions challenging his views on Iraq, immigration and his "fancy" tastes.

"Yes, I wear suits and I like Starbucks coffee," Ford shot back. He challenged the questioner, a 16-year-old Republican activist, to force his side to talk about substance.

Watching Ford navigate the questions that night, Sean Ochsenbein, an 18-year-old Republican and son of an Army veteran, said he would vote for Ford. So did his father, also a Republican.

"When I look at him, I don't see color," the younger Ochsenbein said. "I see a person that looks outgoing and wants to solve problems. To me it looks like he has a tan."
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