Harold Ford Jr. Challenges Democratic Brass In N.Y.

Ford and Gillibrand i i

Former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. speaks as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand look on. The three were at a vigil for Haitian earthquake victims near the Haitian Consulate in New York in January. Frank Franklin II/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Franklin II/AP
Ford and Gillibrand

Former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. speaks as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand look on. The three were at a vigil for Haitian earthquake victims near the Haitian Consulate in New York in January.

Frank Franklin II/AP

Former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr. may be a New Yorker for all of one year, but you'd never know it by the way he's been criticizing Kirsten Gillibrand.

Gillibrand was a second-term House member from upstate New York when she was named to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate. Ford moved to New York after losing a Senate race in Tennessee, and now he's talking about challenging Gillibrand for the Democratic nomination in the September primary.

Ford flew into the upstate city of Syracuse on a Sunday morning. It was his first time there, and before his ears had even popped, he was criticizing Gillibrand for not paying enough attention to the needs of the city.

"As much as I'm criticized for not being from here," Ford said, "I remind everybody that the people who are from here are not doing the things they should be doing."

Ford says he's only thinking about challenging his fellow Democrat for the Senate seat in New York. But a Southerner like Ford does not trudge through the snow of Syracuse in January if he isn't serious.

No political party likes to see one of their incumbents challenged in a primary. So Democratic leaders are doing everything they can to prevent that from happening to Gillibrand. She may be a rookie senator from New York, but she has had an all-star team blocking for her as she carries the ball. Democratic honchos, from the president on down, muscled away any Democrat in New York who so much as thought about challenging her for the seat.

Harold Ford didn't get the message.

A Campaign In All But Name?

In Syracuse, Ford shakes hands and gets ready to do a little sermonizing in the Bellegrove Missionary Baptist Church. From the pulpit, he gives a folksy sermon about his upbringing in Tennessee. He talks about how his grandmother would cover her furniture in plastic and give him a whupping with electrical cords. He does not dwell on the fact that he grew up the son of Rep. Harold Ford Sr. and spent 10 years in Washington representing that same Tennessee district.

No. Mostly Harold Ford Jr. talks about how he wants to listen.

It's another sign of a coming campaign.

When Hillary Clinton moved to the state to run for Senate, she was accused of being a carpetbagger. So she tromped around on her own listening tour of upstate New York. Ford safely repeats the same mantra about what he's listening to: "I hear over and over again people's concerns about jobs, taxes and the economy."

It might seem startling that a Southerner who has been a legal resident of New York for little more than a year could attempt to represent the state in the Senate; in New York, some might call it chutzpah — which they said of Clinton in 2000 and Bobby Kennedy in 1964.

But Ford has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to a new political climate. He now supports gay marriage, despite past opposition. He now describes himself as staunchly pro-choice, but when he ran in Tennessee, he called himself pro-life. Ford explains that he had used the term broadly to encompass his support for education and health care.

This probably wouldn't fly in liberal New York, except for one thing: the sitting senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, is almost as big a question mark as Ford is.

Gillibrand The Unknown Brand

"I'm not anti-Gillibrand," says Neal Falcone, a former union leader who came to see Ford. "It's just that she hasn't done anything to rev me up, either."

As Ford crisscrosses the state, the woman he may challenge is sticking mostly to Washington, D.C., sending out press releases and looking senatorial. She mostly ignores Ford and another announced Democratic challenger, writer Jonathan Tasini. When asked about a contested primary, Gillibrand tends to respond the same way.

"I welcome the challenge," she says. "I'm going to run on my record of fighting for women's rights and gay rights. For them, they're welcome to run."

But polls show Gillibrand has some reason to worry. Because she was appointed to fill the seat just a year ago, almost half of New Yorkers polled say they don't know enough about her to have an opinion.

And so even though there's no official race yet between Ford and Gillibrand, there is an early opportunity for them to define each other.

Ford called Gillibrand "a parakeet" who "takes instructions from the Democratic leadership." Gillibrand hit back on Twitter that perhaps Ford would be more comfortable sitting with the Republicans.

It's mild sniping, but it has Democrats worried that it will drag down whichever candidate runs in the fall.

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll, found that already the public has growing doubts about both Ford and Gillibrand. And, paradoxically, he says perhaps a primary might be the best thing for the senator.

"In many ways, she's suffering right now because she's not that well-known," Miringoff says. "She needs a campaign and needs to win something, and a primary may be that first step."

Luckily for Democrats, as little known as Ford and Gillibrand are in the state, the other party fares even worse. The only announced Republican is Bruce Blakeman, a not-so-famous former member of the Nassau County legislature.

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