WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com)–It was an unlikely political challenge and the outcome was easily predictable. Third term Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) member Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) was defeated 177-29 Nov. 14 in his challenge to liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) historic bid to become the first ever female party leader in Congress.
But in ways not yet apparent on the national Black leadership landscape, especially within the Democratic Party, the Ford insurgency is yet another assault by a member of a brash, young group of Black politicians who represent a new, more conservative ideology as much as they represent a new generation.
The senior-most member of the CBC, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), arguably the most “progressive” member of the CBC, was among those who questioned how the “opposition” party could select a leader who supported the resolution granting Pres. George W. Bush congressional authority to use military force against Iraq. More than half of the Democrats in both the House and Senate voted against the resolution even though leaders Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and then-Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) voted in favor. Mr. Ford was unfazed.
“I think Democrats were helped by this candidacy, wherever you sit in this party,” he told reporters shortly after the vote. “My motivation was never to advance a left or a right cause. The purpose of it was just to move this party forward. I think one of the ways you move this party forward is to not only to unify, but also to have a message. And the message has to be reflective of the needs of people all across this country–Democrats, Republicans and independents alike.”
At least one prominent Republican embraced the Ford approach. “I look at someone like Rep. Ford and I smile, because he’d make one hell of a Republican,” Michael Steele, Lt. Gov.-elect of Maryland told a Capitol Hill forum sponsored by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Nov. 14.
Mr. Steele, a Republican, called Black political leadership “bankrupt,” and faulted Blacks, particularly Black Democrats in Congress, for “dumbing-down” the Black political dialogue with their exclusively liberal ideology.
For his part, Mr. Ford pledged loyalty to the Democratic side. “I’m a Democrat. I’m a Democrat. Congratulations to (Mr. Steele) and to Governor-elect Ehrlich, but I’m a Democrat,” Mr. Ford told reporters in response to a question from The Final Call.
“The last election results prove that there should be some more faces and voices at the table. I have to think that Ms. Pelosi understands that, and that she’ll be willing to reach out.”
If she and other leading Democrats do not, he warned, they will find themselves in the minority after the next election.
And while veteran Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was appointed to serve as a deputy whip in the just concluded 107th Congress, the only Black member elected to a leadership post for the 108th Congress was Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who was chosen to be vice chair of the party’s caucus. Hispanic Caucus member Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was elected caucus chair.
That is the only positive aspect of the Ford candidacy, according to Dr. Ronald Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. And that is primarily because no other CBC members ran for any leadership positions.
The Ford bid “was audacious, as a matter-of-fact too audacious for me,” Prof. Walters told The Final Call, “but it set up the possibility that the others will actually challenge for the leadership.” Other CBC members did not run for top positions, he complained.
During his brief, five-day campaign that was launched when moderate Texas Rep. Martin Frost dropped out when it was clear he could not win, Rep. Ford scrambled for support. The endorsements he expected from the 39-member CBC and from the 63-member “Blue Dog Caucus” of House moderates failed to materialize. Some potential supporters complained that his challenge was simply launched too late, after many had already pledged their support to Ms. Pelosi who won a bruising fight last year to win the race for second in command, Party Whip.
“Maybe it was too soon for him,” Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (D-Ohio) said in an interview. “I don’t know whether he in fact had the support that he believed he had. I think there was some attempt to categorize it as (a) generational (contest), but I don’t believe it was generational. I supported Nancy Pelosi because I believe that she represents the best hope for the Democratic Party to take the majority, as well as to be heard on issues that are important to the United States.”
Other CBC members contacted by The Final Call agreed, explaining that their decisions were not driven by racial concerns. “I don’t think it had anything to do with the CBC,” Rep. Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick said. “I worked with Ms. Pelosi on Foreign Operations and Appropriations. She is by far the best we have right now to lead our caucus. She’s independent. She’s wealthy. She knows how to organize. That’s why I was supporting her. I think Harold is a smart young man. I think there’s a place for Harold Ford, and he’ll grow and build more because he has a whole lot to offer.”
Rep. Ford’s vocal support came from some of the newest members of the CBC, suggesting a possible future realignment within that body as well. Rep. William Clay Jr. (D-Mo.) and Rep.-elect Denise Majette (D-Ga.) spoke on his behalf to the Caucus meeting, along with Blue Dog Caucus member Charles Stenholm (D-Tex.).
Earlier this year Mr. Ford hosted a forum in which a number of young Democrats participated. Among them were: Ms. Majette, who defeated Rep. Cynthia McKinney in a hotly contested primary; Rep.-elect Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who similarly defeated Rep. Earl Hilliard; Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the youngest mayor in that city’s history and son of Rep. Cheeks-Kilpatrick, and Rep.-elect Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), who succeeded his mother, retiring Rep. Carrie Meek.
Mr. Ford, whose own father preceded him in his seat representing Memphis, Tenn., for more than a dozen years, is building a coalition of younger Blacks to assume the leadership when the older leadership retires, or to challenge them and win power from them outright. And while he may have ideological “soul mates” among the CBC, as well as White moderate allies among the Blue Dogs, his coalition cannot lead the Democratic Party or the Congress, insists Rep. Conyers.
“(When) you have the Blue Dogs and you have the Black Dogs all in the room together, you get Purple Dogs out of that combination,” Rep. Conyers said. “Philosophy, ideology, doctrine, trumps race. Being Black and wrong doesn’t make you okay. That’s where we are in the political system.”