Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is finally heeding New York Democrats’ advice that she get tough with Harold Ford Jr. — slamming the former Memphis congressman as an anti-gay-rights, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant tool of Wall Street money lords.
The problem for Gillibrand: Ford is embracing New York’s slappy-face politics faster than she can generate the comebacks.
On Monday, Ford dismissed Gillibrand as a party-controlled “parakeet.”
For good measure, his spokesman told POLITICO that Gillibrand is a “desperate liar.”
Gillibrand, Gov. David Paterson’s appointment to fill Hillary Clinton’s vacant Senate seat, has been thrown on the defensive by an aggressive challenger who has embraced New York’s brawling Democratic culture, if not its liberal politics.
The onetime Albany-area congresswoman has begun to mix it up in recent days, but her penchant for measured responses and attacking Ford through proxies hasn’t impressed many in a tabloid media market that rewards the brash and punishes the bashful.
Several Democratic sources told POLITICO that Gillibrand and her team get it — and are now seeking to augment her communications team with a consultant who will more aggressively target Ford, who spent Monday blasting away at the senator and her patron Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on New York Post columnist Fred Dicker’s radio show.
“One could argue that, to date, she had not been sufficiently aggressive in the New York media market, and that has backfired,” said Hank Scheinkopf, a veteran Democratic operative who has worked for many of the state’s elected officials.
“She cannot hide behind cutout characters. ... She’s going to have to get past him by getting past him,” he said.
“I’ve noticed a change in tenor,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), adding, “I think she should be tougher with him, and I think that she has been.”
“She needs more leg breakers,” said another longtime operative.
Gillibrand’s allies in New York and Washington said it’s now time for her to show her political independence from Schumer and President Barack Obama — who have tried to clear the field for her.
The 39-year-old Ford, who relocated to New York after losing a 2006 Senate race in Tennessee, has repeatedly lampooned Gillibrand as being protected by her “party bosses,” an argument that Ford advisers believe resonates with nationwide anti-Washington sentiment.
Democrats said the effort to brand Ford as out of step with New York’s more liberal primary voters has taken on fresh urgency after they witnessed Republican Scott Brown’s monumental Massachusetts Senate win, in which his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, failed to respond quickly to his insurgent campaign.
In a statement, Gillibrand took aim at the Wall Street-friendly Democrats who have pledged to back Ford’s candidacy, including the billionaire husband-and-wife team of Steve Rattner and Maureen White.
Anyone is “more than welcome” to run against her this year, she said, adding:
“That includes a former Tennessee congressman ... and Merrill executive who has an anti-choice and anti-LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] record and whose candidacy is being floated by a few Wall Street insiders.”
As if to demonstrate their differing styles, the Ford campaign responded to that tough statement with the rhetorical equivalent of a two-by-four.
“If the unelected senator and tobacco industry apologist has a new strategy based on distorting Harold’s support for abortion rights and gay rights, then she’s not only a puppet of the party bosses, she’s a desperate liar,” Ford spokesman Davidson Goldin said.
As she’s veered left over the past year to capture downstate support, Gillibrand has won over a number of liberal Democrats, along with members of the House delegation who were initially skeptical.
Still, several top New York Democrats — all supporting Gillibrand — told POLITICO that they have been unimpressed by her first year in office and discouraged by what many see as her excessively deferential style in private meetings with local power players.
That dissatisfaction has only grown in recent weeks, with many wondering why Gillibrand’s team didn’t move quickly to attack Ford in November, when POLITICO first reported that he was polling a possible race against her.
“Too little, too late,” said one Democrat who supports Gillibrand. “She needed to hit him hard and fast.”
Gillibrand’s persistent vulnerability is causing others to reconsider their earlier decisions to clear the field at the behest of Schumer and the White House. And it’s not clear whether Gillibrand’s most powerful patrons, Schumer and Obama, so rattled by the Massachusetts race, have much stomach to stop them.
Steve Israel, the congressman from Long Island and a Rahm Emanuel ally who is considered a leading candidate to replace Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-N.Y.) as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is being pressed to enter the race, according to several Democrats with knowledge of the situation.
But Israel, a moderate liberal with $1.8 million in cash on hand for his reelection campaign, told Newsday on Monday that such a run is extremely unlikely.
Gillibrand, 43, who represented a conservative-leaning upstate district for two years before her Senate appointment, so far has been successful at expanding her base. She is the darling of two of New York City’s most powerful special-interest groups — gays and abortion rights groups — who have been vocal and caustic critics of Ford’s record on gay marriage and choice.
If she faces Ford — in a race polls suggest she’d win easily — Gillibrand could neutralize charges that she’s a flip-flopper, since Ford, too, is beginning to reverse his positions on some key social issues.
Some observers said that it makes more sense for some of these new Gillibrand allies to be the ones engaging in the sharply negative campaign against Ford.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who has endorsed Gillibrand, said the “surest way to turn people against you is try to negatively define your opponent when you haven’t positively defined yourself,” adding that the senator instead needs to sell herself as a “very capable and effective legislator.”
“I think there is some resonating of outside interference and getting people out of primaries, and I think people don’t like that,” Engel said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why she’s having some difficulty in projecting herself.”
And Ford’s team clearly senses that. Soon after the initial reports of Ford’s potential candidacy, Schumer and Ford met at Schumer’s Manhattan office, where he advised Ford not to consider a race. News immediately leaked out after the two met, and Ford’s spokesman vowed that his boss would not be “bullied or intimidated.”
But Ford has stumbled in some of his early statements to the press, including a widely panned interview with The New York Times, in which he alluded to his ritzy lifestyle, mentioning that his lone stop in Staten Island had been in a helicopter, and indicated he would be an “independent” senator, something that may not play well with Democratic primary voters.
“We are gearing up to explain every bit of his voting record,” a source close to Gillibrand said. “He previewed his opposition research in his brilliant interview with The New York Times.”
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.