WASHINGTON — Harold Ford Jr. is back in national politics. The young former congressman from Tennessee, who came close last fall to becoming the first African- American elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction, was named chair of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) Thursday.
The Washington-based DLC has been an ideological home base for a generation of successful Democratic politicians trying to carve out a centrist policy approach – including former President Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, now also running for president.
Speaking at a Monitor breakfast Thursday, Mr. Ford laid out the policy terrain he will be focusing on and how he hopes to help the Democratic Party build on its recent successes.
"This new majority in the Congress ... gives the nation a chance to not only see a new leadership but to experience and embark on a new direction on a lot of policy fronts – be it international terror; global competitiveness or globalization, whatever you choose to call it; be it ways to help lower the cost of healthcare," said Ford. "This congress has its work cut out for it."
Unlike most past DLC chairs, Ford does not currently hold elective office, and so he will travel extensively around the country, helping the group develop policy positions. Ford has also accepted a teaching position at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Two of the top three Democratic contenders, according to early polls, are active in the DLC – Senator Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina – but the group will not issue any endorsements. Part of the DLC's goal is to help expand the Democrats' appeal in parts of the country where it has struggled in recent years, including the South. Already, the Democrats have made gains in the Mountain West, after a period of decline.
Ford made clear that he intends to run for office again someday. When asked what went wrong in his race for the Senate, which he lost by three percentage points, he said: "It's over with, we didn't win."
"A lot of things happened right there at the end of the race.... I haven't sat down and looked at the numbers," he said. "I know I want to do it again one day. In my state, it takes a few times to run sometimes, one or two times to run before you win."
During the campaign, Ford, who is single, took some heat for his attendance at a Playboy party at last year's Super Bowl. This year, he won't be at the Super Bowl. But, he quipped, "I make clear [that] I love Jesus, I love girls, and I absolutely love football. That's not a DLC comment."
The Jesus part was not just a throwaway. During his race against the eventual winner, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, Ford liberally sprinkled religious references into his stump speech, speaking of his upbringing in the Baptist Church and how his faith informs his political views.
"I would hope that any candidate not be timid about sharing their faith," Ford said.
For him, some of the central issues of the day – healthcare, poverty, global warming – go right to the heart of his religious tradition.
"Anybody that really preaches about their faith, how could they not be concerned about those three issues," he said. "The New Testament's essentially dedicated to what people with money should do for people who don't have a lot of it. So ... if your religion actually informs your faith and not politics informing your faith, you should actually care about those things."
[ Editor's note: The original subhead misidentified Harold Ford's former office.]