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NYT: Harold Ford Jr. Weighs a Challenge to Gillibrand

January 6, 2010

Encouraged by a group of influential New York Democrats, Harold Ford Jr., the former congressman from Tennessee, is weighing a bid to unseat Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand in this fall’s Democratic primary, according to three people who have spoken with him.

Mr. Ford, 39, who moved to New York three years ago, has told friends that he will decide whether to run in the next 45 days. The discussions between Mr. Ford and top Democratic donors reflect the dissatisfaction of some prominent party members with Ms. Gillibrand, who has yet to win over key constituencies, especially in New York City.

About a dozen high-profile Democrats have expressed interest in backing a candidacy by Mr. Ford, including the financier Steven Rattner, who, along with his wife, Maureen White, has been among the country’s most prolific Democratic fund-raisers.

“Maureen and I worked hard for Harold in his last race because we think the world of him,” Mr. Rattner said, referring to Mr. Ford’s run for the Senate in Tennessee in 2006. “He has extraordinary drive and intelligence and will excel at anything that he chooses to do.”

Among those who have encouraged Mr. Ford to consider a run are Merryl H. Tisch, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, whose husband, James, is the chief executive of the Loews Corporation, and Richard Plepler, the co-president of HBO, according to people who have spoken with them.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has publicly tangled with Ms. Gillibrand, is open to the possibility of supporting a challenger of Mr. Ford’s stature, according to those familiar with his thinking.

Those who have expressed interest in a Ford campaign remain skittish about discussing it publicly, citing Ms. Gillibrand’s power over billions of dollars in financing around the state. The state’s senior senator, Charles E. Schumer, has been aggressively elbowing out potential primary challengers to Ms. Gillibrand.

Mr. Ford, chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, would begin the race at a significant financial disadvantage: Ms. Gillibrand had raised $5.5 million as of Oct. 1, and is expected to raise tens of millions more.

But he has a formidable track record as a fund-raiser. During his Senate run, he amassed about $15 million, with about a fifth of his contributions coming from New York. Mr. Ford, who is black, may also be able to tap into African-American donors nationwide; the Senate is poised to lose its sole black member, Roland W. Burris of Illinois, at the end of the year.

To test the viability of a candidacy, Mr. Ford is trying to line up a network of major donors across the state in the weeks ahead. “Harold can raise the money,” said an executive who has pledged to back him if he runs.

Mr. Ford, the son of former Representative Harold Ford Sr., moved to New York in late 2006 after losing a bitter battle for the Senate. During that race, the Republican Party ran an ad, criticized for its racial overtones, that featured a white actress who said she had met Mr. Ford at a Playboy party.

“Harold, call me,” she said coyly in the ad.

In New York, Mr. Ford took a job as vice chairman of Merrill Lynch, where he cultivated close ties to many of the Wall Street executives who are now encouraging him to run. A telegenic politician, he has also maintained a high profile through NBC and MSNBC, which feature him as a regular political commentator.

New Yorkers are unusually welcoming to political newcomers, having elected Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Senate just two years after she moved from Arkansas and Robert F. Kennedy, a Massachusetts native, in 1964.

Mr. Ford declined to be interviewed.

Some of the donors who have urged Mr. Ford to consider a run expressed alarm as Ms. Gillibrand, who as a congresswoman represented a conservative upstate district, has abandoned some of her previous positions on issues like gun control and immigration as she prepares to run statewide. Several executives interested in a Ford candidacy said that Ms. Gillibrand’s positions echoed Mr. Schumer’s and that the state needed a second independent voice in the Senate.

Mr. Ford, who lives in Manhattan, represented a conservative Southern state and, if he runs, may himself have to adjust some of his positions, like his opposition to gay marriage, to appeal to New York voters.

Matt Canter, a spokesman for Ms. Gillibrand, said that “in a short period of time, Senator Gillibrand has built a strong, broad coalition of support across the state,” including 20 members of New York’s Congressional delegation.

Ms. Gillibrand was appointed by Gov. David A. Paterson last year to fill the seat Mrs. Clinton vacated, in a selection process that was criticized as haphazard and bumbling.

The question of whether Mr. Ford will run is clearly a sensitive one in Democratic circles. After learning that she would be mentioned in this article, Ms. Tisch said, “I am not supporting anyone in this race.”

From The New York Times.


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  1. What a ride! permalink
    January 6, 2010 9:42 pm

    I just a commentary by Fred Siegal of City Journal that really excites me! With all the surprises already occurring in 2010 I can barely contain myself! See the article at:

    He ends with, “Surprises aside—and there are sure to be more—2010 is shaping up as a year to remember in American politics.”

    • What a ride! permalink
      January 6, 2010 9:43 pm

      I meant I just read a commentary. Sorry for the typo.

    • Lora permalink
      January 7, 2010 12:47 am

      Thank you for posting this. Seigel is great.

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