Former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) is polling in New York, not Washington, D.C., to garner reaction to a potential Senate bid. But if he were to take the temperature of many of his former House colleagues in New York’s Democratic delegation, the resounding response would be, “Don’t do it!”
The majority of New York’s 27 House Democrats formally endorsed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) well before Ford began exploring a primary challenge to her this winter. Several more have voiced support for her publicly.
Conversations with a number New York House Democrats this week indicated that while many Members feel a personal affection for their former colleague, there is little appetite for a Ford campaign among the delegation, regardless of whether they’ve endorsed Gillibrand.
Specifically, two Members of the Congressional Black Caucus who served with Ford — Reps. Gregory Meeks and Edolphus Towns — both said they have spoken to the former Congressman about his interest in running and neither was encouraging.
“Harold is a friend,” Meeks said. “He represented the state of Tennessee in a spectacular way. That being said, I think the best person to represent New York is Kirsten Gillibrand.”
Meeks noted that Tennessee is a very different place politically than the Empire State.
“Anytime you have a candidacy, the question is, what’s your political base? And I don’t think Harold has been able to identify or show he has a political base in New York,” Meeks said, adding that he had communicated that viewpoint to Ford.
Towns echoed Meeks’ statement on his personal friendship with Ford and said he would be a serious candidate should he get in the race. However, Towns said the fact that the CBC members are lining up behind Gillibrand is something Ford “has to think about.”
Aside from Meeks and Towns, Rep. Yvette Clarke, another New York CBC member, has formally endorsed Gillibrand.
Longtime Harlem Rep. Charlie Rangel has not formally endorsed the Senator, but he recently told reporters that she is doing a “terrific” job and voiced concern about a Democratic fight.
The skepticism of a Ford candidacy stems more from his past political positions than his short time in the state. He moved to New York about three years ago, after losing a 2006 race for Senate in Tennessee.
“New York is famous for taking people in,” said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, one of the delegation’s more liberal members and among the vocal critics of Gillibrand after her appointment in 2009.
McCarthy considered challenging Gillibrand last spring because of her conservative stance on gun rights and other issues, and she has not formally endorsed the Senator, but she said this week that Gillibrand has “done a good job” in the Senate. She also said Ford’s prior stances on issues “might not fit” in New York.
“I think it’s hard to run in Tennessee and New York,” upstate Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter said. Slaughter has not endorsed Gillibrand, but she said that was just due to “lethargy on my part.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a liberal member who represents West Manhattan and a slice of Brooklyn, was less circumspect about his concerns about Ford’s ideology, which he said is “not consonant” with the majority of New York voters. Nadler has endorsed Gillibrand after expressing initial skepticism about her positions. Of Ford’s prospective primary challenge, he said, “I don’t think it’s wise and I don’t think he can win.”
Other Democrats expressed apprehension at the potential for a heated, divisive primary.
“I’m very personally fond of Harold, but we’ve got to come together behind a candidate,” said Rep. Tim Bishop (D), a former colleague of Ford’s and one of the eight Democratic delegation members who has not endorsed Gillibrand. “I’d prefer not to see a primary.”
Meeks agreed that a primary would not be healthy for the party.
Ford spokeswoman Tammy Sun said it is not surprising that New York Members are sticking to their support of Gillibrand, given the fact that Ford has not announced he is running.
“Of course the unelected Senator has endorsements, she is the only candidate in the race,” Sun said.
Gillibrand also served with all but the newest New York Members during her one term in the House.
Sun added that the former Congressman, who has been making the rounds statewide over the past month to test the waters for a run, “has not done any outreach to solicit support or endorsements because he is not a candidate.”
Sun would not comment on reports that Ford conducted a telephone survey this week to test his viability.
Sophomore Rep. John Hall (D) said he is troubled by the public squabbling between Gillibrand and Ford.
“I think it’s unfortunate … when one Democrat attacks the other one. [It] should be a contrast of ideas,” said Hall, who has endorsed Gillibrand and represents territory that neighbors her former House district.
Not everyone in the New York delegation, however, is down on a Ford campaign.
Rep. José Serrano, a Gillibrand critic, told the New York Daily News last month that Ford should go for it. “If he really has the stomach for it, he should do it,” Serrano said.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney responded to questions about Ford’s testing-the-waters campaign with the retort, “It’s a free country.”
Maloney, who came close to challenging Gillibrand over the summer, said she is remaining strictly neutral in the Senate race, but she added that Ford is a “former colleague and a good friend.”