Psst, Harold ... They Don't Like Carpetbaggers In New York : It's All Politics The possibility of former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. challenging appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in September's Democratic primary in New York has provoked anger from many Democrats, including the White House.
NPR logo Psst, Harold ... They Don't Like Carpetbaggers In New York

Psst, Harold ... They Don't Like Carpetbaggers In New York

New Yorkers prefer only REAL New Yorkers for the Senate, like Hillary Clinton, Jim Buckley and Bobby Kennedy. hide caption

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We'll probably never know how much arm-twisting Sen. Chuck Schumer and the Obama Administration have done to keep opponents of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand from challenging her in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary in New York. We do know that Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Carolyn McCarthy, Jerrold Nadler and Steve Israel, along with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, were planning (or at the minimum seriously considering) to run. All ultimately decided against it, and pressure from Schumer and the White House is the reason.

With the president's numbers falling nationally and the party's 2010 election prospects uncertain at best, the last thing the Democrats wanted was its own incumbents having to fend off challengers in the primaries.

So it doesn't come as a surprise that neither Schumer nor the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are pleased over reports that former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. -- of Tennessee -- is "seriously considering" taking on Gillibrand in the primary.

(For the record: Gillibrand came to the Senate via appointment, made by an unelected governor, David Paterson.)

On Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs made the administration's position clear. Asked about the potential Ford candidacy, Gibbs said this:

The White House is quite happy with the leadership and the representation of Senator Gillibrand in New York. And as many are in the DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee], we're supporting her re-election.

In a follow-up question, asked how he would "handicap" the chances of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Schumer to "clear the field this time around," Gibbs said only, "Stay tuned."

This has only caused Ford's spine to stiffen. The New York Times quotes him as saying he would not be "bullied or intimidated" by "party bosses." Davidson Goldin, a Ford spokesman, said New York needed a senator with the "independence to stand up and do what is right for our state, regardless of what the party bosses in Albany and Washington want."

The thought of Ford, a native of Memphis whose decade-long congressional career ended in 2006 when he lost a close Senate race -- he moved to Manhattan a year later to take a high position with Merrill Lynch -- running in New York does seem a bit far-fetched at first. But there are a significant number of New Yorkers who have yet to warm up to Gillibrand, who held some fairly conservative views on guns and immigration as an upstate member of the House, but whose views have moderated since she became a statewide official a year ago. Among those as listed as potential Ford backers are NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who has clashed with Gillibrand in the past, and Steven Rattner, a prolific Democratic fundraiser.

And if Ford is going to run, he's going to need all the money he can get. Since her appointment last Jan. 23, Gillibrand has raised more than $7 million -- more than any Senate Dem up in 2010 other than Schumer and Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) -- and is on track to raise a ton more. Eric Schultz, the communications director at the DSCC, has called her a "fundraising star."

But Ford knows how to raise money as well, as his 2006 Senate bid ($15 million) showed. And with Roland Burris (D-IL) leaving office, there remains the possibility that the Senate will not have a black member in the 112th Congress -- perhaps a point he could make in his fundraising request to African Americans.

There's also his voting record to consider. For those who are critical of Gillibrand's voting behavior while a member of the House, Ford has similar hurdles to overcome. He is a member of the National Rifle Association who has opposed same-sex marriage and backed a ban on partial-birth abortions. He even called himself "pro-life" during his Tennessee Senate campaign, though the meaning of that is in some dispute; he insists he supports abortion rights.

As for the argument that a Ford challenge would hurt the Democrats' chances of holding onto the seat, let's be serious here: the Republicans have yet to come up with a candidate. Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani had been the GOP's dream candidate, but he announced last month he wouldn't run. The names of Rep. Peter King of Long Island and former Gov. George Pataki have been mentioned, but there's no indication either will run.

Ready for the names of potential GOP candidates? Attorney Bruce Blakeman, a former Nassau County official who got clobbered in his bid for state comptroller in 1998. Michael Balboni, a former state senator from Long Island. Elizabeth Feld, the mayor of Larchmont (pop. 6,567), who was badly beaten in a bid for State Senate in 2008.


Ford says he will make a decision by the end of next month.

And for what it's worth, the guess here is that, ultimately, he doesn't run.

NOTE: The buttons used at the top of this post are from other non-New Yorkers who ran -- amidst criticism for being carpetbaggers -- and won: Hillary Clinton (DC/Arkansas/Illinois) in 2000 and re-elected in '06; Jim Buckley (Connecticut) in 1970 but defeated for re-election in '76; and Bobby Kennedy (DC/Virginia/Massachusetts) in 1964.