Harold Ford arrived in New York through one of its finer entry points: Sag Harbor, an exclusive section of pricey East Hampton, where in 2003 his father and predecessor in Congress bought a spacious house for $1.8 million.
The Sag Harbor spot, with tennis court and pool, was the perfect base for a young congressman from Tennessee who had always looked beyond his safe seat, a perfect platform for the beginnings of his campaign to win over the Hamptons and its exclusive and donor-filled social set - if not New York at large.
Ford’s public deliberation over running for Senate from New York has drawn the usual charges of carpetbagging, and the more serious question of whether he’s out of step with the liberal state’s values. But people close to Ford say the former congressman, a political nomad since childhood, is far more a New Yorker than anything else.
His political weakness, in short, isn’t that he’s not from New York. It’s that he’s spent the time since he lost a race for Senate and took a high-paid job with Merrill Lynch living a gilded Manhattan life available to only a few.
Ford’s life could only be lived in New York. NBC sends a black car to whisk him to 30 Rock for “Morning Joe.” He breakfasts at the Regency, favorite haunt of senior bankers. His favorite “hangout,” a close friend said, is the Waverly Inn, the exclusive, clubby restaurant run by Vanity Fair editor and scene-maker Graydon Carter. After that, it’s Gray Goose vodka at the 35th floor bar at the Mandarin Oriental, one of the city’s most expensive hotels. His social circle include the likes of investor Ronald Perelman, who described Ford as a “very close friend” in an email.
The real marvel, according to some who know him, was his ability to relate to Memphis, his Deep South hometown, rather than his fluency and comfort with a certain privileged New York world.
Ford told the New York Times Tuesday that he has a “fundamental difference” from the incumbent, Kristen Gillibrand, “on independence,” but the New York scene that has embraced him defines the city’s inside: He’s being advised by the camp of billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, encouraged by its top Democratic fundraisers, and supported by a phalanx of boldfaced names.
“He’s more of a New Yorker than I am,” said David Glenn, a former Bush White House official and Ford friend who works in the city’s finance sector. “He thrives off the energy of the city and the people.”
Indeed, while Ford has been viewed in New York as an outsider, Tennessee political observers express some uncertainty about where he has actually lived for the past three years. Until the last few days, his website indicated that Ford divided his time between Memphis and the state capital, Nashville, but most of his associates there say he actually spent far more time in New York. Or at least that’s where they thought he was. Most don’t really know.
Since leaving the House, his work for Merrill Lynch, television commentary, teaching and political strategizing and family commitments have had him spread over at least five locations: New York, where he is now living with his new wife; Washington, where he has had contracts for FOX and MSNBC while also chairing the Democratic Leadership Council; Nashville, where he taught a class at Vanderbilt and had a Merrill office; Memphis, where he kept a condominium in his family’s longtime hometown and liked to return for basketball games; and Florida, where both his father and in-laws have homes.
Ambiguity over Ford’s actual domicile is nothing new. Ford was raised mostly in Washington, attending the city’s exclusive St. Alban’s School. He went to college at Penn and received his law degree at Michigan. In between, he worked on Capitol Hill and in the Clinton administration. Despite not having lived in Memphis since he was a child, Ford was elected to take his father’s House seat there in 1996 – the same year he received his J.D.
From his first days in the House, Ford positioned himself for statewide office in Tennessee. At home, that meant taking more conservative policy stances. Up North, it meant making a name in the Democratic Party’s money capital.
A law school friend, Jason Levien, recalled spending time with Ford in New York in the late 1990s.
“I grew up in New York City and he had more friends and connections there than I did,” Levien said. “He was like the mayor. I used to joke with him, ‘Harold, you should run from New York.’”
Despite such a vagabond lifestyle, Ford kept a close eye on Tennessee politics in the aftermath of his Senate loss.
In 2007 and into 2008, the former congressman had regular lunches with Democratic officials in Nashville to pick up intelligence and remind the state capital’s political class that he was still interested in a future run, according to a Tennessee Democrat.
But the sessions stopped by the end of 2008, at which point Democrats began to think it was unlikely that he’d run for governor in 2010, the contest he was mulling and in which he would have been the Democratic frontrunner.
Last April he made that decision formal, issuing a statement which read: “There will be another race and time to ask for your support” – widely assumed to be another bid at statewide office in Tennessee.
But Ford had, by then, settled down in New York with his new wife, Emily Threlkeld, a fashion industry executive whose stepfather, Anson Beard, is a legendary Wall Street figure. And around that same time, with Hillary Clinton running for president and an open seat in his adopted home town likely to open up, people around Ford began pondering an audacious New York run.
Back in 2008, Threlkeld mentioned to a friend that Ford was considering making the race, the friend said. Gov. David Paterson’s choice of Gillibrand, a little known upstate congressman, to fill Clinton’s seat after she resigned to become secretary of state, fueled the interest.
Ford started hearing about it at cocktail parties: Influential figures like fundraisers Steve Rattner and Maureen White, who had long had a rocky relationship with Gillibrand, were urging him to run. He seemed, said one member of that scene who talked to him about the Senate, like he was “bored” with his banking job, and ready for a new challenge.
Ford fills the sort of hazy role at Merrill traditionally occupied by political stars at New York investment firms. They’re rainmakers and image-buffers, there to impress clients, make connections, and put a politic foot forward in public settings.
But Ford arrived at the tail of the boom, and stayed at Merrill through its absorption by Bank of America and through a controversial round of bonuses at the end of 2008. His spokesman, Davidson Goldin, refused to say whether he’d received one, but New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has requested information on the bonuses from the bank, which received federal support to weather the crisis.
“He’s not bored,” said Glenn, the friend. To the contrary, “he had to get comfortable with the new team, got comfortable with the new team, and decided to stay.”
Now Ford is considering leaving the bank to step back into politics, and feeling his way onto the unfamiliar terrain of the common man. His spokesman, Goldin, said in response to a question about one litmus test – whether he takes the subway – that he rides it “regularly,” but Ford told the Times he only hops on when it’s cold and he can’t find a cab.
There are, after all, other forms of transportation available.
“The only place I have not spent considerable time is Staten Island,” he told the Times reporter, who asked if he’d ever, in fact, visited the borough.
“I landed there in the helicopter, so I can say yes,” said Ford.