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Harold Ford’s Phony Exit

Harold Ford Jr’s short, strange trip as a possible Democratic candidate for U.S. senator from New York ended this week, leaving the same unanswered questions as his announcement two months ago that he was exploring a run at the seat held by Kirsten Gillibrand: Why did he and his backers think Gillibrand was so vulnerable that he could beat her in a Democratic primary on a record well to her right? Did he really think we would buy his image makeover and ignore questions about his Wall Street ties, Merrill Lynch bonuses and avoidance of New York state income taxes? And why did The New York Times give him so much love?

Ford, the scion of a Tennessee political family who served 10 years in the congressional seat he inherited from his father, moved to New York after losing his 2006 Senate bid in his home state against Republican rival Bob Corker. He went to work on Wall Street, taking a position as vice chairman at Merrill Lynch, at a salary sources peg at $2 million. He also has been rumored to have been the recipient of one of the hefty and controversial Merrill Lynch bonuses handed out in December 2008, when the bank was incurring huge losses and receiving taxpayer bailout money, and before the bonuses could be scrutinized by Bank of America, which was in the process of taking over Merrill Lynch. Ford has not directly answered questions about the bonuses, saying only that all of his compensation was contractually guaranteed. Ford also has not fully explained why he has not paid income tax in New York state, though it appears that he is using his dual residence status to his advantage: He still maintains a home in Tennessee, where he does not have to pay income tax.

Ford announced in early January that he was exploring a run for the Senate, claiming New Yorkers were desperate for change. From the start, he tried to create an image that left out several inconvenient facts: In Tennessee, he took firm stances opposing abortion and same-sex marriage; as a potential Senate candidate in New York, he not only reversed those positions, but pretended he had never held them. (To be fair, Gillibrand has had to backtrack from pro-gun positions she took as a congresswoman in a rural upstate district, but we would argue that her modest transformation has been more artful and believable.) And while Ford touted many of his various experiences—former congressman, chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, commentator on NBC and MSNBC, visiting professor at NYU—he seemed to think he could keep his Merrill Lynch affiliation and murky income-tax status in the background. In fact, Ford’s own Web site bio lists all of the aforementioned affiliations—except that it does not once mention his employment with Merrill Lynch.

When Ford decided last weekend that he would not run for Senate after all, he was given prime op-ed space in Tuesday’s New York Times to explain his decision. (We are curious about his cozy relationship with the Times; he was given another op-ed slot in January, and he has received generally favorable coverage from the newspaper.) In his op-ed, he took shots at the Democratic establishment for trying to bully him out of the race, hinted that Gillibrand will be vulnerable this November because she and the Democrats are too slow to change, and compared her situation to that of the supposedly “safe” seat that was lost to Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts (we do not see too many parallels here, most notably because Martha Coakley’s weak run was the antithesis of Gillibrand’s formidable fund-raising and campaigning style). And finally, Ford insisted he was bowing out not because he couldn’t win, but because he didn’t want to cause a “brutal” primary that would weaken the Democratic winner for the November election.

These are phony excuses, and the Times should be embarrassed to have printed them. The reasons Ford dropped out should be obvious: He was well behind in the polls, his support was already eroding, and perhaps most important, he realized he was losing the PR battle over which Harold Ford the voters would see: the gracious, eloquent Southerner who would bring experience and a new perspective to the state’s problems, or the unctuous opportunist who could change his beliefs in a New York minute and who did not want to talk about how much money he makes and how little state income tax he pays.

There is one other story here: The New York Times and others who are cool to Gillibrand continue to characterize her as “vulnerable” and “underwhelming”—and yet, once again, it is she who is still standing. If there is strong anti- incumbent sentiment come November, she will have her work cut out for her; on the other hand, the skeptics might just discover how much they had underestimated her.

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