BY Julie Bolcer

February 23 2010 9:05 PM ET

The question of whether or not former Tennessee congressman Harold E. Ford Jr. will challenge incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand for the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator from New York has preoccupied the latter state’s political circles for more than a month. During this time, the Democratic Party’s base, including LGBT advocates, reproductive rights groups, and unions, has opposed the Wall Street executive loudly, even by the vociferous standards of the Empire State.

“Ford has credibility problems with the left in general and with the typical Democratic voter in a New York primary,” says Kenneth Sherrill, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York City. “Certainly, the LGBT vote is a critical part of the Democratic constituency. It counts for a fairly large chunk of votes in the Democratic primary.”

No doubt attuned to that fact, Ford is preparing to address the local chapter of Stonewall Democrats, an influential LGBT political club, in Manhattan Wednesday evening, in what could be one of his last public appearances before formally announcing his political intentions. When he enters what some are playfully calling the “lion’s den,” he will be forced to reckon with his two past votes for the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment, and the lingering wounds of New Yorkers who suffered a painful marriage equality defeat in the state senate last year.

In both cases, gay activists who oppose Ford say the issue amounts to an irreparable breach of trust.

Jim Maynard, former president of the Memphis Stonewall Democrats, recalls that when Ford, then 26, first won the ninth congressional district seat vacated by his father, Harold Ford Sr., in 1996, constituents expected that he would uphold his prominent African-American family’s commitment to civil rights, including LGBT equality.

“We pretty much considered him a safe vote on gay and lesbian issues in the beginning,” says Maynard. “He was pretty liberal for Tennessee, at any rate.”

In the weeks leading up to the first marriage amendment vote in 2004, Maynard understood Ford’s position to be that of the Democratic leadership at the time: opposition to same-sex marriage, but also opposition to the discriminatory amendment, which would enshrine a gay marriage ban in the U.S. Constitution. Although he never spoke with Ford directly, he says that official responses from the congressman’s Washington, D.C., office supported this understanding.

“We were all e-mailing and calling,” says Maynard. “Within days of the vote, I received an e-mail saying that he opposed the amendment on the basis of his support for the Defense of Marriage Act. He said DOMA made the FMA unnecessary.”

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