A Scrubbed Toe in the Race
Between bites of an egg-white garden omelet at a bistro in his Union Square neighborhood, Harold Ford Jr. defended himself on pedicures and flip-flops.
Ford had worked out at Equinox and was dressed in a University of Michigan baseball cap and T-shirt, J. Crew sweatshirt, Adidas striped pants and Nike tennis shoes.
The New York transplant with the Tennessee driver’s license who was raised in Washington, D.C., is the darling of what he calls the “Manhattan social philanthropic crowd.”
As the former Tennessee congressman and Merrill Lynch rainmaker told The Times’s Michael Barbaro in an interview about his flirtation with a Senate run, he gets pedicures and has breakfast at the Regency on Park Avenue (where Rielle Hunter famously picked up John Edwards by calling him “so hot”). He often gets chauffeured by MSNBC to his gigs on “Morning Joe” and has flown to the boroughs in a helicopter.
The chopper trip was part of a fundraising drive by the New York City Police Foundation.
He said he and his brothers were not spoiled growing up. “My grandmother beat the [expletive] out of us with an electric cord,” he said.
“Senator Schumer and Senator Gillibrand and some others want to create this notion that I moved to New York with the intention of running for office and I live this unbelievably luxurious life,” he said, his green eyes earnest. “I’m blessed, and I work extremely hard, and I’m able to pay my bills. I love New York. I love the smell of the city. I love the subways. As I learn more and more, I love every part of the state. It’s so unfair how it’s been characterized. I eat at places like the Coffee Shop more than I eat uptown.”
We had stopped in the Coffee Shop before deciding that, despite its greasy-spoon name, it was a hub of hip, too noisy for an interview.
Ford said he and his pretty blond wife, Emily, a marketing expert, were married in 2008 after his racially charged run for the Senate in Tennessee. They have made her apartment their official home.
“My wife decided after the ’08 election,” he said. “There was so much bad racial stuff out of Tennessee on Obama. I’m in an interracial marriage. I don’t want to subject my wife to this, and I want to start a family. I think my marriage is more accepted here than it would be in Tennessee. I started paying closer attention to New York politics, and I was pleasantly — not pleasantly — but I was surprised by how serious the New York political class were in their opposition to Senator Gillibrand.”
Being a Wall Street bonus baby is not a plus. “I’m not running from the fact that I worked at a bank and brought in clients,” he said. “Am I proud of everything that went on? Of course not.”
But Ford was helped by Gillibrand Svengali Schumer and the White House — the “political bosses,” as he calls them — shoving him away from the race. He also sees Scott Brown as a happy harbinger that 2010 is going to be, in the words of an Obama adviser, “a rancid year for incumbents.”
“I’m not comparing myself to Bobby Kennedy by any stretch, but he was opposed by the liberal establishment, too,” Ford said. “Eleanor Roosevelt was the biggest opponent to him running.”
He argues that politicians should not have “static positions” but should “allow new information and cultural norms to affect them.” They should not, he said, be punished for “thoughtfulness.”
On his embrace of gay marriage, he observed: “There were pastors in my Tennessee district who said you can minister to someone and change their sexual orientation. I just never accepted that. I’m a heterosexual. I don’t know what anyone can say to me to make me sexually be with a man.”
There are top Democrats who find Ford too slick. “He could sell a snowball in a blizzard,” said one.
But he has a buttery way that suits brash New York. He charms everyone, from waiters who drop cutlery to customers who drop into his conversation.
“People walk right over and grab your hand, and they never say, ‘Pardon me,’ which I love,” he said. “My dad was a congressman, and he taught me at a very early age, ‘They voted for me, they view me as theirs, and I am.’ Our family’s phone in Memphis was always listed. It rang all day and all night.”
The guy at the next table was staring at Ford’s plate. “The garden omelet,” Ford said, with a grin.