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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."
While Maynard does not still have the e-mail, Hunter Johnston, a former
president of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, affirms his
recollection. Johnston says he called Ford's office in D.C. a few days
before the late September vote.
"Congressman Ford would never put discriminatory language into the constitution," said a female staffer, according to Johnston.
Neither Maynard nor Johnston ever obtained an explanation, and both say they disengaged from Ford as he adopted increasingly conservative positions ahead of an ultimately unsuccessful 2006 Senate run, including a second vote for the marriage amendment in 2006. According to Human Rights Campaign scorecards from his decade in Congress, Ford received a 75, 90, and 100 in his first three terms, and his scores fell to 44 and 25 in his final two terms. He moved to New York in late 2006 and took a job with Merrill Lynch.
"I can understand changing your mind a week before a vote, but not to announce it to people who think you're voting for them, I can't understand that," says Johnston. "I felt betrayed by him. A lot of other people did too."
In response to requests for comment from The Advocate, Ford spokesman David Goldin e-mailed the following statement. "Harold was pleased to accept the invitation to speak tomorrow evening and looks forward to discussing whatever topics are raised."
If signals from LGBT activist network the Power provide any indication, Ford is likely to face energetic protests and multiple questions about his newly professed support for marriage equality. In an interview with the Today showlast month, he compared his position to those of President Bill Clinton and New York's senior senator, Chuck Schumer, who have evolved on the issue.
The comparison rankles activist Jeffrey Campagna in light of Ford's two votes for the marriage amendment. He contrasts those with the record of Senator Gillibrand, who has emerged as a high-profile advocate for LGBT rights since being appointed to office last year.
"We are very clear about the difference between someone evolving in their positions and someone pandering to us," says Campagna. "What he's done in the past makes him unfit and unqualified to represent LGBT people."
Members of the Power acknowledge a state of heightened vigilance since eight New York state senate Democrats voted against the marriage equality bill in December. As of Tuesday evening, the invitation to "Crash Harold Ford, Jr.'s Address to Stonewall Democrats NYC" had 226 confirmed guests on Facebook.
"There is a really big resonance on people who screwed us over," says Jon Winkleman, who crashed a meeting between Ford and Brooklyn Democratic party leaders last month. He cites residual anger toward lawmakers like Joseph Addabbo of Queens, who enjoyed significant gay financial backing and volunteer support in his 2008 state senate campaign but cast the first vote against marriage equality in the roll call.
The Stonewall Democrats do not endorse the position of the Power. In
fact, club board members include people who pushed to give Ford the
hearing. The invitation stemmed from former Stonewall president Chris
Lynn, who said he met Ford "fortuitously" on an Amtrak train a few days
after he announced his interest in the seat. Lynn, a longtime gay
activist, most recently worked as senior counsel to state senator
Ruben Diaz Sr., a Bronx Democrat who voted against the marriage
"He seemed extremely comfortable in engaging," says Lynn, who declined to discuss the specifics of their conversation but conceded that he mistook the telegenic Ford for Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter. "We talked about a number of things and when I questioned him about the gay issues, I liked what I heard and I said, 'To whom have you reached out?'"
Lynn, who calls himself a Ford supporter, says he views the Wednesday meeting as an opportunity for the potential candidate to begin to build support among gay Democrats. He adds that he knows other gay New Yorkers who are supporting Ford.
"It's not like we're offering a public forum for Fred Phelps," says Lynn, in reference to the founder of the notoriously antigay Westboro Baptist Church.
Regardless of the outcome for Ford, the commotion over his could-be candidacy appears to represent a win-win for LGBT New Yorkers.
"We were not a large enough constituency here for him to be bothered with," says Maynard of Memphis. "He cannot win in New York without the support of the gay community. He could ignore us here in Tennessee."