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August 07, 2008

Harold Ford, Jr. condemns Tinker ads

One largely unexplored angle of the racially divisive primary between Rep. Steve Cohen and Nikki Tinker is the role – or lack thereof – that the district’s former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. has played in the race.

Despite representing the Memphis district for a decade, Ford until this afternoon had been conspicuously silent on Tinker’s racially-tinged attack ads – something he has first-hand experience with.

But this afternoon, Ford issued a statement sharply rebuking Tinker’s campaign advertisements.

“Whenever race, religion or gender is invoked in a political contest, it generally means the candidate has run out of legitimate arguments for why he/she should be elected,” Ford said. “Communities and nations are always made weaker when political figures try to divide us for political advantage. It is my strong hope that lessons will be learned.”

Ford has a long and contentious history with Cohen. Cohen ran against him in the 1996 Democratic primary after Ford’s father retired from Congress, and he lost badly.  And Ford's own brother challenged Cohen as an independent even after he won the Democratic nomination in 2006.

From my colleague Jonathan Martin’s classic piece from The New Republic looking back at the Ford-Cohen relationship:

In 1996, when Representative Harold Ford Sr. stepped down from his House seat to become a lobbyist, Cohen decided to expand his political career beyond the confines of local politics. But there was someone already in his way — 26-year-old Harold Ford Jr. "I'd spent fourteen years in the Senate, had the experience, and didn't like the idea of [the seat] being handed down like an heirloom," Cohen recalled.

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Despite the long odds, Cohen gave it everything he had until the polls closed. Worn out by the time he got to his election night party, Cohen did not take his 25-percentage-point trouncing by the untested scion well. Irked by Ford's considerable margins in black precincts, his mouth got the better of him. "It is impossible for a person who is not African American to get a large vote in the African American community ... against a substantial candidate," Cohen lashed out. "The fact is, I am white, and it doesn't seem to matter what you do."