Harold Ford Jr. Reaches For the Stars

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Representative Harold Ford Jr.

I wonder if House Democrats will someday regret that they chose Nancy Pelosi instead of brash, young Harold Ford Jr., to lead them for the remainder of George W. Bush's first term. Unlike Pelosi, a savvy but utterly predictable liberal whom Republicans will delight in caricaturing as a "San Francisco Democrat," Ford would have been, in his own words, "hard to put in a box." Republicans would have had difficulty pigeonholing a black, 32-year-old, three-term Congressman who voted against Bush's tax cuts but in favor of such conservative perennials as the prayer-in-school and anti-flag burning constitutional amendments and repeal of the death tax. He thinks it's time for Democrats to stop "telling people what they already know" about the shortcomings of Bush's policies and propose some ideas of their own. "Democrats have to come up with some answers. Voters are tired of hearing us just say no, no, no, no all the time," Ford declares. "Even when we're right, they don't want to hear it."

The quotation also describes the hostility Ford's bid to lead House Democrats provoked from backward-looking members of the older generation of black activists and politicians, including some of his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus. The sheer meanness — and downright stupidity — of the vituperation is an indication of the intellectual bankruptcy of what currently passes for black leadership. Ford is too shrewd to talk openly about the insults himself, but they obviously stung him. Not content to criticize Ford on the legitimate grounds of his callowness and lack of legislative accomplishments, some dredged up his "high yellow" skin color to discredit him with darker-skinned blacks. Others, like a certain well-known civil rights leader who ought to know better, described Ford as "another Clarence Thomas" — the same as swatting him down as an Uncle Tom.

Such accusations are not merely preposterous. More important, they miss the point. What truly distinguishes Ford and his fellow Generation X black politicians from their forebears in Congress and elsewhere is not simply their willingness to take moderate or even conservative stands on issues such as school vouchers or capital gains taxes. Rather, it's the realism of their aspirations for winning higher offices that older black politicians could only dream of. Ford's challenge to Pelosi was premature, but his time — or the time of someone his age — is coming soon. The unprecedented number of African Americans who were nominated for statewide offices by both parties in this year's elections demonstrates that the era when the highest position most African American candidates could hope for was to represent a majority-black congressional district or become mayor of mostly black city is nearly behind us. It makes no sense for established black leaders to resent the young for positioning themselves to surpass their elders. It's called progress. Ford is not trying to become a leader of black America. He is trying to be the next U.S. Senator from Tennessee in 2006 and maybe even run for President someday. That means being able to win the support of both black and non-black voters, something no hard-line liberal of any race — much less a self-defined "black politician" — would be likely to do in Tennessee. Witness Al Gore's moderation during the years he represented the state in the House and the Senate.

As the son of Harold Ford Sr., who represented the ninth congressional district in Memphis for 22 years, Ford Jr. is only one of the aggressive young politicians to emerge from a budding black political dynasty. His colleagues in the House include Chicago's Jesse Jackson Jr. (with whom Ford attended St. Albans, the prestigious Washington prep school that also produced Gore); Missouri's William Lacy Clay, whose father, William Clay, dominated the same district in St. Louis for a generation; and Florida's Kendrick Meeks, who just won a Miami district vacated by his mother, Carrie Meeks. "There were three things we had no choice about doing when we were growing up," Ford Jr. recalls. "Our homework, going to church and working in political campaigns." His father chuckles as he recalls his son's first foray into campaigning: a radio spot demanding better schools, better housing and "lower cookie prices." But, as Ford Sr. hastens to point out, while name recognition undoubtedly helped his son win the seat initially, he has held on to it by delivering formidable constituent services. As was the case with his dad, voters come to him with every problem from threatened foreclosures to helping their children transfer to better schools.

But his agenda has broadened. "If Harold Sr. had tried to talk about national issues instead of helping folks get their street light fixed or their social security, people would have said he's got a big head and we need somebody else," says A.C. Wharton, recently elected the first black mayor of Shelby County, where Memphis is located. "His father had to knock down doors, but Harold Jr.'s already in the room. He can afford to take on national issues like the war on terrorism and foreign policy" and, like a growing number of black politicians of his generation, to reach for the stars.