One summer morning in 2004, the phone was ringing as I approached my desk at USA TODAY. It was an aide to then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr., asking where I had gotten the "documentation" for stating in a story that Ford's keynote address to the 2000 Democratic Convention was not memorable
. A few minutes later, the congressman himself called. His opening line: "I hear you think my speech sucked."
I was stunned into momentary silence, but his tone was friendly enough and the call was not out of character. Nearly two years before that, after all, the young Tennessean had mounted an audacious -- make that presumptuous -- campaign against Nancy Pelosi for the job of House minority leader. He clearly doesn't mind confrontations or stirring the pot. In retrospect, the surprise is that Ford waited so long to announce he is gearing up
to challenge Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in his new home state of New York.
New Yorkers do not seem to hold grudges against carpetbaggers. Hillary Clinton spent her childhood in Illinois, her adulthood in Arkansas, and was still the first lady -- living in Washington -- when she waged her 2000 Senate campaign in New York. Robert F. Kennedy was from Massachusetts and Virginia. James Buckley was from Connecticut. All three became senators from New York.
Ford moved to New York after losing a 2006 Senate race in Tennessee, and has been a legal resident for just over a year. Given the state's history, no big deal, right? But he comes with a few extra complications. He's more conservative than most New York Democrats -- in fact, he's chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. He's a Wall Street executive at a time when Wall Street executives are reviled on Main Street. He'd be taking on a senator with formidable Democratic protectors, starting with President Obama and Sen. Charles Schumer. And now, thanks to a front page story in the New York Times
, we know that Ford receives regular pedicures. Talk about too much information.
Still, Ford, 39, is a skilled politician who maintained strong ratings with both business and labor while representing Memphis in the House. He's knowledgeable on issues and comfortable on TV. Gillibrand, 43, was a congresswoman from a conservative upstate district when Gov. David Paterson named her last year to succeed Clinton. She was a last-minute pick in a chaotic selection process, after Caroline Kennedy had withdrawn her name.
Gillibrand has demonstrated strength as a fundraiser and been a steadfast supporter of abortion rights. Yet, like Ford, she has never run a statewide race in New York. An intramural competition would test their mettles and, let's be honest, it would be a great race.
Democratic strategist Joe Trippi
, a principal in the Howard Dean and John Edwards presidential campaigns, wants to stamp out the attitude that "if you primary my candidate, you'll never eat lunch in this town again." Pointing to the Obama-Clinton primary battle in 2008, he says it yielded better fundraising lists, more registered Democrats, more excitement, and a better prepared presidential nominee.
"This whole thing of 'let's waltz through the primaries' is crazy," Trippi told me. "The candidates haven't been through the attacks that they're going to get from the Republicans. They're not prepared on the issues. They need to be nimble and be prepared to serve" and they will be if they've survived a "rough and tumble" primary.
The disadvantages of the rough and tumble are obvious. Competitive primaries cost time and money. They delay the point at which candidates can train fire on their general election rivals. They can produce ammunition for later use by those rivals. They can prompt major figures in the other party to consider a run, or reconsider a decision not to run.
But for now, there is no big-name New York Republican lying in wait. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is taking a pass, as is Rep. Peter King. And former governor George Pataki seems to be more interested in the 2012 presidential race
than in a 2010 Senate race.
As for vulnerabilities, both Gillibrand and Ford have a similar one -- they've changed some positions to fit their new, more liberal electoral environment. Immigration, guns and gay marriage are three they have in common. Ford is also shading his abortion stand – he is touting a career 80 percent rating from abortion rights groups, but he described himself as "pro-life" during his Senate run.
Abortion rights advocates are apoplectic about the prospect of his candidacy. "Harold Ford should not even consider running in this state," said M. Tracey Brooks, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of New York. If he does, she said, "he would just be wasting his time and money."
A Gillibrand-Ford primary race could carry echoes of an Obama-Clinton dynamic that disturbed some female Clinton supporters. That is, a young black guy challenges a woman and ends up with her job, or the job she thinks she has earned. Yet it doesn't always work out that way.
Ford said in 2002 that "my caucus needs change, and I don't think Nancy Pelosi represents change." He lost. He said this week that "New Yorkers deserve a free election." If he makes good on that and runs against her, Gillibrand should consider it a chance to step up and prove she has what it takes to win.