You would think that out of the nearly 20 million people who live in the Empire State, the two major parties would be able to find at least two distinguished citizens fit to represent New York in the United States Senate. But the state has a sorry recent tradition of outsourcing Senate seats as carpetbagger politicians parachute in to serve in the nation’s highest deliberative body on its behalf. In 1964, though he had not lived in New York for decades, Bobby Kennedy exploited his brother’s martyrdom and his own charisma to win a Senate seat that he would briefly warm (until his own tragic assassination) while plotting to recapture the White House for his family. Thirty-six years later, Hillary Clinton, a native of suburban Chicago and former first lady of Arkansas, arrived here to establish residency and “listen” to New Yorkers, who obediently elected her to the Senate just as her husband was vacating the executive mansion in Washington.
The latest immigrant to New York to consider himself qualified to represent it in the Senate is Harold Ford Jr., the former Tennessee congressman who was defeated by the citizens of his native state when he ran for a Senate seat in 2006. Since then, the young and handsome Ford moved to Manhattan, where he took a job as vice chairman of Merrill Lynch and appeared as an occasional talking head on MSNBC. The New York Times reports today that some New York Democrats want Ford to challenge Kirsten Gillibrand, the upstate senator who was appointed by Gov. David Paterson to fill the seat Clinton vacated when she left for the State Department a year ago.
Like Gillibrand, Ford will have to “adjust” his positions on a number of issues if he wants to be the standard-bearer for New York’s ultraliberal Democratic Party. In the House, Gillibrand was an opponent of illegal immigration and a supporter of the right to bear arms. Since coming to the Senate and accepting the role of female Sancho Panza to senior Senator Chuck Schumer, Gillibrand has flipped on immigration and gun control. Similarly, Ford will have to ditch his opposition to gay marriage to please liberal Dems. But though Ford is a relative newcomer to the Big Apple, he appears to have always been in an “Empire State of Mind” when it came to fundraising. According to the Times, a third of the $15 million he raised for his 2006 Senate run came from New York.
Ford’s challenge is an indication of Gillibrand’s weakness. Her lackluster performance in the Senate could give the Republicans a chance to knock off an incumbent, but with Rudy Giuliani opting out of the race, Long Island Rep. Peter King appears to be the only Republican with enough stature for a chance at winning the seat. Though any Democrat, even Gillibrand, ought to be favored to win in New York, the rumblings of support for Ford, who might become the only African-American in the Senate next year (with Roland Burris’s lease of the Illinois seat left by Barack Obama about to expire), show that the possibility of a GOP tide drowning weak liberal incumbents in 2010 is being taken seriously.
Schumer, who has been traveling the state twisting arms to ensure that his protégé goes unchallenged, has a lot to lose if a Ford victory ditches the notion that he is the kingmaker of New York politics. But however it turns out, let’s hope we are spared the spectacle of this son of Tennessee claiming to be a lifelong New York Yankees fan as Hillary did in 2000. But no matter which team he says he roots for, Ford has little to worry about when it comes to sincerity on such matters. Clinton’s victory illustrated that although New Yorkers pride themselves on being able to spot a phony from out of town from a mile away, it doesn’t mean they won’t vote for one.