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Published: Saturday, 11/16/2002

Tennessee's Ford lost, but he's not down or out


It's no surprise that Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. didn't win the Democrats' vote to lead the party as House minority leader.

After all, in politics, there is a game called "wait until it's your turn," and clearly, at 32, the congressman from Memphis had little chance against a woman 30 years his senior.

The waiting game got in the way in 1998 for Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell's quest to run for governor. It was Bob Taft's turn. Mr. Blackwell ran for secretary of state and won. But we'll see if the Ohio GOP backs the secretary of state, who just won that post again, if he runs for governor in 2006. If not, one can say the GOP doesn't play its own game fairly.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ford is undeniably a rising Democratic star. The third-term congressman has had considerable exposure to the wiles of politics as a second-generation congressman. But it isn't clear whether it was his youth or his centrist politics that got him so few votes in Thursday's election against Nancy Pelosi, who won 177-29.

If Mr. Ford won he would have been the first African-American to lead such a political caucus in Washington. Mrs. Pelosi nabbed a first herself as the first woman ever to lead a political party in Congress. She was elected to the House in 1986 and she chaired the California Democratic Party in 1983.

She succeeds Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who stepped down as party leader after eight years. Considering how miserably the Democrats fared Nov. 5, that was the right move.

Our own Marcy Kaptur got into the race late, knowing she wouldn't win, and then pulled out before the vote. Still, she's to be admired for trying to get the party to consider a more inclusive reform agenda.

Mr. Ford's loss doesn't mean he's damaged goods. It may further energize him. The chutzpah he showed in running against Mrs. Pelosi and in criticizing Mr. Gephardt suggests he'll be around, and he won't be ignored.

At 26, Mr. Ford was the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 1996. His father, Harold Ford, served as Tennessee's first black congressman for 22 years, until 1996, when Harold, Jr. won his father's seat in Congress.

In this case, the clich "like father, like son" does not apply. White Memphis constituents saw the senior Mr. Ford's politics as more confrontational than unifying. That's not surprising, as many whites view blacks' objections to racial barriers and unfairness as provocations. But the veneration in Tennessee's Ninth District for the junior Mr. Ford is due to his centrist stance.

Even so, the senior Mr. Ford isn't the only one to question his son's party loyalty. The young congressman's peers in the Congressional Black Caucus raise their eyebrows, too. But why question the difference? To say the least, Congressman Ford's upbringing was privileged compared to his father's, who didn't have running water while growing up.

Yet Mr. Ford wants to render the Democratic leadership of his father's era to the history books and replace it with new leadership with a moderate message that will help shape a different agenda. He told the Nashville Tennessean that he wants to "repair our image and convey that message nationally."

A member of the New Democrat Coalition, the congressman was quoted in 1998 in the New York Times Magazine as telling white staffers of the Democratic Leadership Council that "I wouldn't have a white message and a black message. I'd have a message."

That's good. He can't represent black Memphis constituents only. One point is clear: Were it not for his father's generation's politics, he might not be where he is today. It would be a shame if he ever forgets that. It's doubtful he will. Too many are around to remind him.

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