Campaign 2006: Politics Are a Family Matter in Tennessee

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A couple of mainstream polls have begun to show that Democrat Harold Ford Jr. is topping Republican Bob Corker in Tennessee's pivotal U.S. Senate race, but Ford may have a little problem on his hands in home-base Memphis: his younger brother Jake — who's running for big brother's old 9th Congressional district seat. Jake is running as an independent against the Democratic nominee with the blessing of the family patriarch and onetime local party boss, Harold Ford Sr.

State Senator Steve Cohen won last month's winner-take-all Democratic primary to fill Ford's seat, with 31% overall, in a field that included a dozen black candidates. A respected, sometimes pugnacious legislator, Cohen is probably the Tennessee General Assembly's best-known liberal. The Midtown Memphis district he has represented for a quarter century contains a generous number of blacks. Indeed, Cohen carried several predominantly black precincts and two local black mayors, Willie Herenton of Memphis and A. C. Wharton of Shelby County, enthusiastically endorsed him two weeks ago in an elaborate downtown ceremony.

But Cohen was, and continues to be, too white and too Jewish for a number of black ministers and other African-American activists who made an abortive effort during the primary to arrange for a consensus black candidate. Activists are fearful that as the Rev. La Simba Gray put it, "for the first time in 32 years, African Americans will be without representation in the U.S. Congress from West Tennessee."

Rep. Ford himself has said he'll stay neutral regarding Cohen and his brother Jake. But the rest of the family is splitting over the race. Joe Ford Jr., an entertainment lawyer who finished third in the congressional primary — and is first cousin to both Jake Ford and Harold Ford Jr. — has endorsed Cohen. But Harold Sr., a former congressman, has gone all-out for son Jake, especially since longtime rival Herenton put down young Ford as unqualified (he dropped out of high school) and accused the Fords of seeking "a monopoly on all elected positions in this state and this county." Jake, if elected as an independent, has promised to caucus with House Democrats.

Harold Sr., now a blue-ribbon consultant dividing time between Florida and Memphis, is energetically working his former support base in inner-city Memphis for his sons. Meanwhile, the Black Ministers Association and the other erstwhile African-American consensus seekers, including a handful of Democratic activists, have also endorsed Jake. Then there's Mark White, a young white businessman and the Republican candidate, who would ordinarily stand to get no more than 30% in a heavily black district. But the split among Democrats may give him a better-than-usual shot — unless Republican moderates get worried about a reawakened Ford dynasty and go for Cohen.

Rhetoric has been heated. Thaddeus Matthews, a politically independent African American whose widely read local blog is part scandal sheet, part political tip sheet, early in the campaign dismissed "Joke Ford" as an uncredentialed political novice and high school dropout who lacked his congressman brother's finesse and did odd jobs for his father. That has also been the perspective of an influential corps of liberal white bloggers who pooled their efforts on Cohen's behalf during the primary.

The bloggers see themselves as representatives of Democratic Party progressives who long ago soured on Harold Ford Jr.'s ever-more-conservative rhetoric and voting record. Ford's strategy has been to woo middle-of-the-road and conservative voters in Middle and East Tennessee while holding on to party-line Democrats and the solid bloc of black voters in home-town Memphis. But a resumption of the once-raging Ford-Herenton civil war could cost him, and so could simmering discontent among Democrats over his neutrality in the race to replace him in Congress. The venerable Nashville Tennessean, historically the voice of the state's Democratic establishment, felt obliged recently to editorialize against the racial-consensus rhetoric backing Jake Ford as "too blatant to ignore." College Democrats at the University of Memphis publicly groused last week at what they saw as collusion between the Harold Ford Jr. and Jake Ford campaigns.

The political history of Rep. Ford's extended family is interesting, to say the least, and could be a factor. Aunt Ophelia's state Senate seat was recently voided because of a voting scandal last year. Uncle John was forced out of the selfsame Senate seat after being indicted on several counts of bribery and extortion.

On the other hand, the younger Ford brother, an Unknown Quantity if there ever was one, has surprised everyone with two consecutive strong showings — in a radio interview and in a health-care debate last week where he put in an well-prepped performance. Jake Ford and the Republican White appeared but Cohen, being feted at a local fund-raiser by celeb Cybill Shepherd, skipped the event. As blogger Matthews headlined in his latest post: "Jake Ford May Not Be A Joke After All."