While the announcement by Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. on Friday that he would seek the Democratic Leadership mantle in the House makes this week’s election a bit more interesting in a smoke-filled-room kind of way, Rep. Nancy Pelosi seemingly has the election wrapped up. And that is probably good news for Republicans.
Ford’s last minute bid was a bit of a surprise, however, and is seen by many of his colleagues as an attempt to push himself up the leadership ladder, one that has him at the lower rungs. Earlier this year, Ford, perhaps wisely, chose to pass up an opportunity to run for the Senate. And while he has been tabbed as a future Democratic leader since his days serving on Bill Clinton‘s first transition team ten years ago, Ford has taken his political climb slowly.
That’s in part due to his occasional clashes behind closed doors with soon to be former Minority Leader Dick Gephardt over issues such as tax cuts, which he claims to support. In the later days of the Clinton administration, he angered colleagues by becoming a vocal critic of the now former president.
For election purposes, and to have a shot at higher office, Ford has had constantly to re-fashion himself as a moderate, if not conservative Democrat in increasingly conservative Tennessee. This political reality also explains why he a member of the moderate Blue Dog and New Democratic Coalition caucuses.
“His candidacy was probably just a shot across Pelosi’s bow to remind her that he was there,” says a Democratic House member. “He hasn’t done any serious ground work on this as far as I can tell. I don’t know many members who have spoken to him about it of late. We all know he’d like to be in a more visible position. I just don’t that this was the best way to do it, given the circumstances.”
Those circumstances include the Democrats’ election debacle and the ongoing wailing and gnashing of teeth inside the party over said debacle. Moreover, members of the Black Caucus remain upset about the way some of their members were treated in the past election, namely their perception that the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee actively sought alternate candidates to challenge some of the caucus members. That process cost the caucus Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard, even though both newly elected replacements are also black.
“We need to get some of these problems smoothed out fast,” says the House member. “Creating a race that might further deepen the hurt feelings probably wasn’t the way to go.”
On Sunday morning, Ford was insisting he had a shot, fielding calls from Democrat House leaders, such as Gephardt, who told him now was not the time to challenge and create further discord inside the caucus. But while many viewed the decision by Rep. Martin Frost to withdraw from the leadership contest as a sign of Pelosi’s dominant lead, people on Ford’s side viewed it as acknowledgment that their man might be in a better position to gain support.
If Ford continues his campaign into the early part of the week, it’s expected that Pelosi’s minions will attempt to defuse the race. “She’s going to have to offer him something pretty substantive to get him to support her wholeheartedly,” says another House member, who is supporting Ford. “We know it’s an uphill race, but if we can make the liberal wing of the party sweat, then all the better.”
That sweating may not be what Republicans want. While Republicans in the House are willing to give Pelosi props for her political bloodlines and her fundraising ability, privately they say they believe she is far too inexperienced and reactionary in her left-leaning politics to make a serious leader for the Democrats.
“Frankly, Frost made us more nervous,” says a retiring Republican House member. “He was bland, but thoughtful and seriously moderate. He would have been a good foil to DeLay. The Democrats don’t know what they’ve bought into.”
Republican National Committee staffers have been holding back what one aide called “reams of opposition research on Pelosi.” But any opposition the liberal Californian might get from Republicans may be nothing compared to the doubts she faces from her Democratic colleagues. “She had the votes, but she’s not going to have an easy time. She’s made some enemies and the moderates aren’t happy about her being their leader. They aren’t going to give her a free pass,” says the Ford-supporting House member.