A Ford in the Hand …

Posted February 9, 2005 at 6:39pm

Although Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) has long been expected to run for the seat now held by retiring Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist (R) in 2006, the race to replace him in the Memphis-area 9th district remains remarkably unformed.

Rumors run amok as to why no candidates have stepped forward — including the possibility that Ford will ultimately back away from the Senate race and seek re-election to the House.

“There’s been zero positioning for this safe Democratic seat by the scores of elected officials who have Congressional ambitions,” said a Tennessee Democratic strategist. “This has sent the message to some Tennessee Democratic contributors and fundraisers that Congressman Ford will ultimately run for re-election and not run for the U.S. Senate.”

While it remains a real possibility that Ford will pass on a Senate bid, all signs seem to indicate he is running. He has stepped up his fundraising in the past six months, ending 2004 with $1.1 million in the bank; he has also been moving around the state for the past six years to raise his profile.

Why then the trepidation from interested candidates?

One explanation could be that Memphis remains one of the last redoubts of machine politics, an operation overseen by former Rep. Harold Ford Sr. (D), the Congressman’s father.

“That seat has been in the Ford family since it was created,” said Ed Cromer, editor of the Tennessee Journal, a political newsletter based in Nashville. “Everybody is waiting to see what the Fords are going to do.”

Ford Sr. served in Congress from 1974 until 1996 when he handed off the seat to his son, who was then 26 years old.

Ford Jr.’s uncle, John, is a controversial state Senator while another uncle, Joe, is on the Memphis City Council, having run unsuccessfully for mayor in 1999.

Given the proliferation of Fords and their power in the region, it’s not surprising that would-be candidates are waiting to see whether one of the brood expresses an interest in the House race.

In 1999, when Ford Jr. seriously contemplated a bid against Frist, his younger brother Jake was seen as a likely candidate.

Jake Ford, who works for his father’s health care lobbying company, which is based in Memphis, remains the first name on many political observers’ minds when talking about the next Member from the 9th district.

He did not return calls seeking comment on his interest in the race.

While the Fords remain the potent political family in Memphis, that supremacy has been challenged in recent years by Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton (D).

Herenton has defeated the Fords at the polls twice in the past six years, claiming a third term in 1999 by beating Joe Ford, and then heavily backing Memphis City Councilman Myron Lowery in his successful re-election race against Isaac Ford — the youngest brother of Harold Ford Jr.

Already the prospect of an open 9th district seat is being cast as the latest surrogate battle between Herenton and the Fords.

“There is something of a rivalry still there,” Cromer said.

In a Business Tennessee Magazine survey of the 50 most powerful black leaders in the state, Harold Ford Jr. ranked first with Herenton second.

The Herenton choice for the seat would likely be state Rep. Lois DeBerry, who is currently the Speaker Pro Tempore of the Tennessee House.

In 1999 when Ford Jr. was mulling a Senate bid, DeBerry was mentioned as Herenton’s choice to replace him.

Former Tennessee state Sen. Roscoe Dixon, who is also seen as a potential candidate, called DeBerry the “crown jewel” for the seat.

“Certainly I would defer to her first and foremost,” added Dixon.

Given her current leadership position and the ever-changing political loyalties in Memphis politics, it is not clear that she would enter a field that included a member of the Ford family. DeBerry was ranked as the state’s fourth most-powerful black leader in the Business Tennessee poll.

She did not return a call seeking comment about her interest in the race.

While Jake Ford and Lois DeBerry would likely have the right of first refusal in the contest, a number of other names are mentioned.

Shelby County Commission Chairman Michael Hooks is currently in his third term after previously serving on the Memphis City Council.

Hooks is the nephew of Benjamin Hooks, who served as president of the NAACP for more than a decade and was the first black to serve on the Federal Communications Commission.

One potential problem for the younger Hooks is his 2001 admission that he was a drug addict. That announcement came one week after he was arrested on a misdemeanor charge for possession of a crack pipe. Hooks entered a rehab facility and was re-elected in 2002.

Dixon, who resigned his seat earlier this year to take a post as assistant chief administrative officer to Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton, said an open-seat race would “intrigue” him.

Dixon was elected to a Memphis Senate seat in 1994 and previously served 12 years in the state House.

“The problem is that after rolling down the road for 22 years to Nashville I am not thrilled about having to catch a plane every Monday [to Washington, D.C.] and returning every Thursday,” Dixon said.

Memphis attorney Ricky Wilkins is also seen as a potential candidate — as he was in 1999 — and could enjoy the backing of Herenton.

State Rep. Kathryn Bowers is currently running in the special election to replace Dixon in the Senate and ruled out a Congressional run.

“I am running for the state Senate now,” she said.

Regardless of the eventual Democratic field, there is little danger that Republicans will be able to mount a serious challenge in 2006.

The district is almost 70 percent black, according to the 2001 Census, and then-Vice President Al Gore carried it by 27 percent in 2000.