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VOL. 125 | NO. 149 | Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mayoral Bid Awakens Ford Political Machine

By Bill Dries

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Since the late 1970s, the Ford family, as a political organization, has had an interest in either the Memphis or Shelby County mayor’s office. In 1978, John Ford declared he was running for county mayor but then withdrew from the race. Five years later, he ran for city mayor.

The ambition has been dormant for years at a time. But this year’s bid by Joe Ford, John’s brother, as the interim county mayor and Democratic nominee for mayor is the closest the family has come.

This is the first in a two-part series on Ford and GOP nominee Mark Luttrell, one of whom on Thursday will be elected Shelby County mayor.

Ford has made his bid with no campaign efforts independent of what he does in office, except for the occasional fundraiser.

It’s a strategy that served Ford well in the low turnout Democratic primary. Ford’s voters got to the polls when other voters didn’t make the trip. And he got them there against a better-financed opponent.

On the surface, Ford’s strategy appeared to be similar to the unsuccessful strategy favored by former Memphis Mayor Pro Tempore Myron Lowery in the October special election for Memphis mayor. But there are several key differences, starting with the lingering political power of the Ford name.

“My family has been public servants for the last 32 years,” Ford has told campaign crowds. He’s also emphasized the family’s humble South Memphis origins.

“With three O’s – we were that poor,” he told a group in Bartlett last month.

Many Memphians don’t distinguish between members of the Ford family, but Joe Ford defines himself as the “likeable Ford.”

“A Ford is a Ford,” said Edmund Ford Sr., Ford’s brother, during testimony at his trial in 2008 on federal corruption charges – charges of which he was acquitted.

As if to prove the point, the former city council member answered his phone with a simple “Ford” in the recorded phone conversations that were part of the case.

Once recognized by the public as a member of the Ford family, other family members have said requests soon follow to help citizens who are having problems with the government bureaucracy or just in general. It makes little difference if the Ford on the spot has never held elected office. It comes with being a Ford.

Joe Ford began his political career as the original reluctant family member to get involved in politics – a role several other family members have played in recent years as the family has kept seats on the Shelby County Commission, Memphis City Council and in the Tennessee Senate.

Ford’s son Justin won the Democratic primary in May to claim his father’s seat on the commission.

Joe Ford entered politics as a candidate in 1994, winning election to the City Council seat his brother James gave up when he was elected to the County Commission. Joe Ford ran for Memphis mayor in 1999.

He was talked into a challenge of incumbent Willie Herenton that started late and was underfunded, despite the presence of older brother and one-time Memphis Congressman Harold Sr. in his brother’s corner. Harold Ford Sr. himself had considered a bid for Memphis mayor in the 1980s.

The 1999 bid had all of the trappings of a Ford campaign from the political machine’s 1980s prime with a few new elements. Early on, Ford talked on the record about a drinking problem he conquered.

But he was up against an incumbent who never would have used it against Ford. Herenton campaigns have always used a different playbook – the campaign is always about Herenton.

Eight years before Herenton called challenger Herman Morris a “boy,” he called Joe Ford a “boy” at a church campaign forum in which he taunted Harold Ford Sr., who was standing in the back of the room, to get into the race himself.

Joe Ford learned a lot from the defeat. When James Ford died in 2002, Joe won appointment to the commission seat and claimed it in an election that followed. He then emerged as the family spokesman.

John Ford was facing federal corruption charges in Memphis and Nashville that would end his storied political career. And since Harold Ford Sr. left Congress in 1996, became a lobbyist and moved to Fisher Island, Fla., the family’s political machine has continually been declared dead.

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