Tennessee's Harold Ford Jr.'s Path to Power

The sun is just rising over Chattanooga when Harold Ford Jr. begins to pray. A young African-American congressman from Memphis, Ford is running as the Democratic candidate for Senate in Tennessee. Here, in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, an audience of 300 has come out of the early-morning darkness into the historic Read House hotel to hear Ford praise the Lord and lecture man. Dressed in dark suits and hats fit for a Sunday service, they bow their heads and thank a God who "even now has dipped us in fresh, anointing oil." They shout Hallelujah as a soprano sings "Amazing Grace." And they cheer and clap when Ford welcomes them, and the spirit of Jesus, into the room. "I love Jesus, I can't help it," the congressman tells the crowd. "We serve such a big God,"

he shouts, and a chorus of Amens agrees.

It is a storied place to pray. "Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee," Martin Luther King Jr. cried in his "I Have a Dream" speech, and four decades later, the diverse crowd that has gathered here suggests that in many ways, freedom has. Looking out at his audience, Ford offers political pronouncements in the cadence of Scripture. "The politics of destruction," he shouts, "the politics of those who define and malign people, that's all coming to an end." He asks the audience to "heal and make whole this great country of ours" with "a renewed sense of faith." Pointing to the sky, he tells them that "as long as your faith derives from up there, and not down there, we're going to be OK."

Ford's intertwining of the secular and the sacred would make many urban liberals squirm. So would much else that comes out of his mouth today. From the podium, he says he gets "in trouble with my party because I believe a government is only as good as its ability to defend itself and protect itself." (That stance wouldn't actually trouble most Democrats, but the implication that Democrats are weak on defense might.) Later, as he makes his way out of the room, he spots a Fox News Channel correspondent who's flown in from out of town. "Mr. Cameron!" he yells, throwing his arms around Carl Cameron, the network's political correspondent. "So good to see you again." Before the day is done, Ford will reiterate his opposition to same-sex marriage and late-term abortions.

Ford, 36, believes these conservative stands, coupled with an unrelenting attack on his Republican foe's positions on Iraq, homeland security and immigration, is the only way a Democrat can win in today's conservative Tennessee. "If I was doing the textbook thing that Democrats do," he tells NEWSWEEK, "I'd say, 'Republicans want to short Social Security, they want to rob poor children of their college education, they want to deny families the education system.' Don't get me wrong, there's some truth to that. But that's not me. Just let me be myself."

Democrats, even liberal ones, will let Ford be whoever he wants to be, for one simple reason: he may deliver them the Senate. Two weeks before the midterm elections, the Democrats' fate lies not in the hands of the party's much-dissected antiwar left but with a handful of careful, calculating centrists like Ford. Just a few months ago, Republicans were heralding Ned Lamont's defeat of Sen. Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut's senatorial primary as the end of the Democratic Party, its surrender to the angry extreme. But spend a few minutes with Sen. Charles Schumer, the strategic mastermind behind the Demo-crats' effort to win back the Senate, and Lamont's name barely comes up. (For the rec-ord: Lamont is trailing Lieberman, who is running as an independent, by as much as 17 points in the latest polls.) Instead, Schumer is talking up the "common sense" candidates running in states like Tennessee, Missouri and Virginia--candidates who don't sound much like Democrats even when they're assaulting Republican opponents over the war.

For two years the Democratic political establishment has been unabashedly applying one litmus test to candidates: their ability to win. In the Senate, Schumer took flak from activist groups when he backed candidates like Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, who is anti abortion rights. In the House, Demo-cratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel corralled a group of Iraq and Afghanistan vets to run as "macho Democrats" against Republican incumbents. At Howard Dean's Democratic National Committee--well, who's even heard anything from Howard Dean? He's largely taken a back seat to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in making the Democrats' prime-time case. "The days of Democrats' having to check 28 boxes before they run are over," Schumer says. "We want to win."

Just two years after george W. Bush defeated John Kerry, and four years after Bush defied expectations to prevail in the 2002 midterms, Democratic control of Congress may be within reach. For weeks, leaders of both parties have said Democrats would likely take the House of Representatives, but now the six seats the Democrats need to wrest control of the Senate may well be winnable. Republican strategists are privately bracing themselves for the loss of Senate seats in Rhode Island, Montana, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The GOP is hopeful that a cloud of corruption charges surrounding New Jersey's incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez could give Republicans a rare shot at picking up a Democratic seat, but Menendez's Republican challenger, Thomas Kean Jr., is struggling to separate himself from Bush and Iraq. The remaining Senate battles lie in border states like Tennessee, where Ford and the GOP nominee, businessman and former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, are polling neck and neck. Republicans know the race is a must-win to retain control of the Senate.

Ford's strength in the race springs in part from being that rare Democrat who is unencumbered by complexity and contradiction--with his party and with himself. As he journeyed to rural and conservative parts of his home state in the past year, he referred to "my friend President Bush"--and then proceeded to assail Bush's policy in Iraq. In a recent debate with Corker, Ford said his opponent's shifting stances on the war made him sound "a little like John Kerry"--forgetting momentarily, it seemed, that Ford himself had been one of Kerry's earliest supporters and served as national co-chair of his campaign. But it's one thing to campaign as a rebel willing to flout your party's orthodoxy when it helps attract voters. It's another thing to try to govern that way. If the Democrats take back the Senate in November, they will be hard pressed to maintain the sort of martial discipline they've managed during the campaign; they are, after all, the Democrats, a party with a rich history of disarray.

Ford himself has been running for the history books all his life. As a 4-year-old, he stood on a table to reach a microphone and record a radio ad for his congressman father; in law school his friends called him "Senator." He succeeded his dad in the House at the age of 26. A scion of one of black America's great political dynasties, Ford enjoyed universal name recognition and inherited a list of a thousand contacts when he ran his first campaign. But family is a two-edged sword: the Republicans are making much of the Ford clan's legal woes. (Ford's uncle is awaiting trial on extortion charges and his aunt was ejected from the state Senate after allegations of vote fraud.) Running attack ad after attack ad on "The Ford Family Political Machine," Corker and the Republicans have hinted that Sen. Harold Ford Jr. would engage in similar shenanigans.

But Ford, like so many political sons, is shaped as much by differences with his family as by his similarities. Coming of age in establishment Washington and the Repub-lican South, he learned moderation as a matter of survival, and it carried him away from the fractured racial politics of his family's past. The story of his journey to the political center sheds light on why control of the Senate and the shape of the final years of Bush's presidency may rest on a thousand or so votes tucked in the lush planes and hills between the mud of the Mississippi and the rise of the Great Smoky Ridge.

Ford's political opponents have long called him "Junior," but in Memphis, he's always just been "Baby Harold." His grandfather rose to financial prominence as a funeral director but wanted his children and grandchildren to make their names in the world of politics--and do it fast. Ford's father, Harold Sr., was elected to Congress at the age of 29. Running against a white Republican incumbent, he won by only 400 votes. "It wasn't a Voting Rights district," Ford Sr. recalls. "I had to fight for every vote." With his father in Congress and an uncle, John, in the state Senate, Ford Jr. grew up in the family to see in west Tennessee. Democratic candidates for president, governor, senator and on down the list showed up for Sunday-night supper at their house. Baby Harold sat at the children's table, but he knew the path that had been chosen for him. "Harold's grandfather was an extremely powerful man," says Melvin Charles Smith, the Ford family pastor, "and his father is a very powerful man. So when you talk about a childhood or teenage rebellion, they wouldn't have tolerated anything like that."

Ford's father had 11 brothers and sisters, and young Harold had dozens of first cousins. Attention was hard to find in this environment; trouble was not. Ford's mother, Dorothy, was the enforcer, the one who made sure Harold did his homework, went to church, called his elders Sir and Ma'am. A family friend once encouraged Ford to drop the formalities. "You can call me what you want, son," the older gentleman said. "Yeah, baby, call him what you want to call him," Dorothy agreed, in a pleasant, encouraging tone. "If I dared say his name," Ford recalls, "as soon as the word was out of my mouth she would have come down on me."

After one term in congress, Harold Sr. moved his wife and kids to Washington, and young Harold caught a glimpse of life beyond the clan. Corker has attacked Ford as a creature more of Washington than of Tennessee, and while Ford is quick to note that as a child he was shipped home to Memphis "the day after school got out," he has not lived in Memphis full time since he was a small child. Growing up in Washington, Ford learned early lessons in bipartisanship as he vied for social position with the children of Republicans and Democrats alike. As just another congressman's kid in the capital, his place in the social pecking order would be earned rather than inherited. "It was the best thing they did for us," Ford recalls. "Had we grown up fully in Memphis, everything I did, everywhere I went, I would have been 'Harold Ford's son' ... I love my dad, but I needed to do things for myself, too."

In Washington, Ford attended the exclusive St. Albans school. Nestled beside the National Cathedral atop the city's highest hill, the Episcopal academy looks down on Washington--and on the secular world. Governed by the Anglican instinct to avoid extremes in search of a middle way, St. Albans educated the sons of the elite regardless of party--from Al Gore to two of George W. Bush's brothers. Harold entered in the mid-'80s, and his interests were eclectic, nonideological. "George Will was someone who really impressed him," Ford's father recalls. "His son went to St. Albans."

But as one of only a handful of black students, Ford wasn't just like everybody else at St. Albans. "For me, and for the other kids who were not white, it was a very heterogeneous place," Ford says. "I had to get along with everybody. That helped me later on when I was in situations where you had to say, 'Hey, let's all get together and try to figure this out'."

Life was more turbulent outside the congenial confines of St. Albans. Ford entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1988. It was a time of racial polarization, even at elite colleges. When things grew particularly sensitive after the beating of Rodney King in May 1991, Ford, who'd grown up around more white people than many black students on campus did, felt uniquely qualified to help sort things out. "Sheldon Hackney was the president of Penn at the time," Ford recalls. "He asked me to try to help bring everybody together. I had no problem saying, 'Hey, there's more common ground than difference here'." (Ford, says Hackney, "was unusually sophisticated and self-possessed about campus politics.")

While Ford was playing peacemaker at Penn, his family was coming under attack back home. In 1987, Harold Sr. was indicted, charged with taking nearly $1.5 million in political payoffs disguised as bank loans. He was eventually cleared, but to many in Tennessee, the case suggested there might be a corrupt underside to the Ford family. Most vivid was Harold's uncle John, the state senator, known for his larger-than-life persona in Memphis and for driving at high speeds along Highway 41 between Memphis and Nashville, the state capital.

The fraud charges drained Harold Sr.; by the early '90s, he was looking to pass things along to the next generation. His son, who'd worked on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and was attracted to Clinton's centrist politics, wanted to defer law school and take a job in the White House. His father persuaded him to get his degree and plan on running for the Memphis congressional seat shortly thereafter.

Over dinner in his second year in law school, Junior learned his time had come. "I'm not running again," Harold Sr. told his son. "If you want to run, you need to get very serious about it."

Back in Memphis, news of Harold Jr.'s ascension was greeted as evidence of Ford-family arrogance. With a year left in law school, Ford Jr. didn't even have his own place in Memphis and had to commute to his parents' home on weekends to campaign. As the weeks wore on, however, Ford began to distinguish himself from the rest of the family. James Jalenak, an influential Memphis lawyer who helped manage Ford's congressional campaign, recalls preparing 30 rules for debate prep for young Ford. Well acquainted with Harold Sr., Jalenak's list had "Don't lose your temper" as every third rule. "But it wasn't necessary," he says. "Harold was calmer, smarter, more disciplined than anyone else I'd ever met in his family ... A lot of white people who loathed his family here really came to love him." Ford won the seat in November 1996.

Young, attractive and single, Ford was a sensation the moment he arrived on Capitol Hill. Newspapers in Washington and Memphis marveled over his sharp suits and breathlessly wondered about his dating life, even tracking his brief involvement with a Georgetown University student who wrote a sex column for her college newspaper. A relentless flirt, Ford is the perennial crush of young Hill staffers. Unmarried (though he says he hopes for marriage and children soon), he is known both for his active dating life and for respecting the large number of women he brings into his inner circle as colleagues. He became a fixture on cable talk shows and became a regular on the Fox News Channel and on Don Imus's radio program. After giving the keynote address at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, he'd become one of the most recognizable faces in the party.

In Washington, Ford was eager to prove his conservative bona fides. In his new job, he sought out the conservative Southern Blue Dog Democratic caucus and became one of only three African-American members. In his 10 years in Congress, he voted for the federal marriage amendment banning gay marriage, for the Patriot Act and for the war in Iraq. He named Ronald Reagan as one of his historical heroes. Ann Coulter called him "one of my favorite Democrats." Andrew Parmentier, a Republican consultant with the brokerage firm Friedman, Billings, Ramsey, and a former aide to Rep. Dick Armey, befriended Ford after repeatedly running into him in the Green Room at CNBC. "I wasn't quite prepared for how conservative he was on some of the social issues," Parmentier says. "I knew he was a business conservative, but it all [comes down to] the cultural issues. His faith is the No. 1 most important thing for him."

Though no one could ever mistake Ford for Ted Kennedy, he isn't always the off-the-reservation Democrat he makes himself out to be. According to Congressional Quarterly, Ford supported his party upwards of 85 percent of the time in most years since Bush took office. And while Ford is popular among his Democratic colleagues, he is not regarded as ranking among the most skilled bridge-builders in the House.

After all, it has always been clear to anyone who has spent five minutes with him that Ford's ambitions extended beyond just representing Memphis in the House. In November 2002, he launched a last-minute challenge to Nancy Pelosi to become the House Democratic leader.

It was a moment of great anxiety for the Democrats: the party had just felt the full brunt of Bush's post-9/11 power in bruising defeats in the 2002 midterm elections, failing once again to regain the majority it had lost in 1994. Ford argued that Pelosi, one of the party's most visible liberals, was the wrong public face if Democrats wanted to change their ways. "The party elders are 0 to 4," he told reporters, referring to the Democrats' comeback efforts from 1996 to 2002. "In the business world, that's not a good record." To many, Ford's move seemed liked a quixotic and presumptuous power grab. Pelosi had already secured commitments from a majority of her caucus. But establishing himself as a more conservative alternative to the party's leadership helped lay the groundwork for his current statewide run.

Shut out of the party leadership, Ford turned his gaze back toward home. He'd explored running for the Senate twice before. Ford thought he'd finally found his moment when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced he would leave the Senate in 2006. Ford announced his candidacy for Frist's seat in May, in what seemed to many like a long shot: the home of Andrew Jackson, Estes Kefauver and the TVA was becoming solidly Republican--and no black candidate had been elected to the Senate from a Southern state since Reconstruction. Even Ford's father was worried. "My dad looked at it rationally and said, 'Do you really think this is the right thing to be doing?' " Ford recalls. "Everyone had doubts back then." But there were encouraging signs, too. In 2002, Democrat Phil Bredesen, a New Jersey-born businessman who had served as mayor of Nashville, won the state's governorship after framing himself as a cultural conservative and economic reformer.

Ford's Senate campaign did not begin well. The day after he announced, his uncle John was arrested in an FBI sting after allegedly asking for a bribe in exchange for favorable treatment for a company doing business with the state. John Ford denied any wrongdoing but was forced to resign his state Senate seat, and the scandal, known as Tennessee Waltz, gave reporters the opportunity to dredge up 30 years' worth of family lore. Further complicating matters, Ford's aunt Ophelia won a special election for John's vacated seat by only 13 votes; a special committee of the state Senate later charged her with vote fraud.

Ford sought to defuse the issue by incorporating his family into his campaign shtik. "I come from a big family--you may have read about them a few times," he'll tell audiences in white, conservative parts of the state. Earlier this month, at a campaign event in rural Grundy County, he took a question from an elderly white gentleman named John Ford. "I love your name," Ford joked, "but it's a hard name to have, I know."

Without serious opposition in the Democratic primary, Ford was freed to scour the rural reaches of his state. The encounters were sometimes awkward, but Ford seemed to thrive on them. He often tells the tale of his trip to the Little Rebel, a roadside bar with a large Confederate battle flag. Ford entered with trepidation only to be greeted with, "Baby, we've been waiting to see you."

The tale is believable only because Ford so often seeks out similarly strained exchanges. Earlier this year he traveled to Mule Day, an agricultural parade in rural Columbia, Tenn. Columbia's mostly white population seemed somewhat mystified by the energetic black congressman from Memphis. A group of motorcyclists seemed particularly put off by the candidate, but Ford approached them anyway. He smiled as he fondled a satan sucks button on one of the bikers' leather jackets. "I agree with you," Ford said. "Satan does suck."

Corker and the Republicans have slammed Ford as the "most liberal" member of Tennessee's congressional delegation. Highlighting Ford's votes against reauthorization of the Patriot Act, Corker argues that Ford wanted to weaken the nation's defenses at a time when America can ill afford it. Ford's response has been to hit back harder on Iraq, charging that Corker wanted to "stay the course" in war strategy, and then, when Corker denied this, hammered him for flip-flopping. (Ford favors dividing Iraq into three autonomous states.) Democrats in Washington say Ford has written a new template for swiftness in campaign counterattack. "If he wins, they are going to write textbooks on his campaign," says Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The race is touch-and-go for both campaigns. After shaking up his own staff earlier this fall, Corker is now both attacking Ford's voting record and trying to draw attention to the extended Ford family. One variable no one in either campaign can accurately predict is race. Analysts say that to be competitive, Ford has to earn at least 40 percent of the white vote in Tennessee in a state where segregation is a persistent, if distant, memory (16.3 percent of voters in Tennessee are black). "He's got very solid support from white Democrats but he needs white independents and even some white Republicans to win," says Merle Black, a professor of political science at Emory University. While Ford is ahead by small margins in some polls, recent history (including races in Virginia in 1989 and North Carolina in 1990) suggests that white Southerners will sometimes say they're willing to vote for a black man in a poll but act differently in the privacy of the voting booth. "There could be some of that," says Black. "It's hard to know how much."

For all the baggage, Ford may now need his family more than ever. His advisers have long expected the race to come down to a one- or two-point margin. To win, Ford will have to have unprecedented turnout in heavily black parts of the state--chiefly Memphis and its surrounding areas. As even their enemies admit, no one is better at getting out the vote in Memphis than the Fords. In the final days of the campaign, Harold Sr. is in many ways his son's closest adviser. The two talk "five times a day," according to the younger Ford. "I've never met anybody with a better strategic mind about the last 90 days of a campaign than my dad," Ford says.

Praying in Chattanooga two weeks ago, Ford's thoughts drifted to the days after the campaign. He told his audience that as a senator "you're not asked to judge and condemn, you're asked to listen and start bringing together." He vowed that if politicians can "unite around a common theme and a common goal, they can accomplish great things." Democrats this fall have united around the common goal of winning, a goal that expires, no matter what, on Nov. 7. If he carries the day, Ford and his colleagues in both parties must rally together--an elusive task, but a greater thing.