Harold Ford’s Gay Problems

While his two votes backing an amendment to the US Constitution that defined marriage as “only the union of a man and a woman” and effectively barred any state or federal constitutional claim to marriage for same-sex couples might be enough to cost him gay support, earlier votes cast by Harold Ford in the House may further alienate gay and lesbian voters.

“Basically what people are saying is that his two votes on the Federal Marriage Amendment are unforgivable,” said Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, a gay political organization. “Even though he’s for marriage now, changing the Constitution is over the top. It shows such bad character.”

Ford, a Democrat who represented Memphis for five terms starting in 1997, is “strongly considering running” for the US Senate seat currently held by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, he wrote in a January 12 op-ed in the New York Post.

Dubious claim to long-time civil unions support masks a range of troubling positions

Gay political activists said that Ford could mount a credible campaign even with just eight months until the September Democratic primary. If Ford opts to run as an independent candidate, he has roughly ten months until New York’s general election. How he will do among gay voters is a question.

In addition to the marriage votes, Ford supported a 1998 amendment to a District of Columbia appropriations bill that banned gay adoption in the nation’s capital, according to a scorecard from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s leading gay lobby. He also opposed using federal funds to pay for needle exchange programs that year.

In the next Congress, Ford reversed his position on the gay adoption ban when that amendment was offered again, but he supported legislation that barred using federal funds to develop school curricula that addressed anti-gay bullying.

Ford compiled a mixed record during his five terms. In his first three, HRC gave him a 75, 90, and 100, but those scores fell to 44 and then 25 in his final two terms. His rankings were hurt most by his 2004 and 2006 votes for the marriage amendment, but he also opposed a federal hate crimes bill in his final term (after earlier supporting it) and declined to sponsor some legislation that HRC supported but never came to a vote. (Link to separate HRC scorecards for the 105th, the 106th, the 107th, the 108th, and the 109th Congress.)

Ford increasingly adopted conservative stances on a range of issues as he geared up for a 2006 race for an open US Senate seat from Tennessee. In 2006, Ford endorsed a Tennessee ballot initiative, which passed, that banned gay marriage in that state. He lost that Senate race and moved to New York three years ago.

In a January 11 appearance on “The Today Show,” Ford said he now supports gay marriage and had long supported civil unions.

“I’ve been a supporter of civil unions since I was elected to Congress in 96,” he said. “My support for fairness and equality long existed before I moved to New York.”

However, the earliest Ford statement supporting civil unions found by Gay City News came in 2007 at an appearance at East Tennessee State University that was reported in the East Tennessean, that school’s student newspaper. He also told students that he intended to run for office again.

In 2001 and 2003, HRC asked representatives to co-sponsor bills that granted benefits to the domestic partners of civilian federal workers. Ford was not a sponsor of that legislation in either congressional session.

Two months prior to Ford’s 2007 statement that he backed civil unions, he was harshly criticized for his marriage votes by the National Stonewall Democrats, a gay political group, when he was appointed chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group.

Davidson Goldin, Ford’s spokesman, did not respond to repeated calls and emails seeking documentation of Ford’s support for civil unions and comment on his other positions. Goldin promised comment would be forthcoming on the morning of January 13 — at which time a New York Times story appeared quoting Ford again saying he had supported civil unions since 1997 — but did not respond in that time frame to follow-up from Gay City News. The Times story mischaracterized his vote for a constitutional amendment, writing that he had twice voted for “legislation… outlaw[ing]” same-sex marriage. Marriage equality was outlawed in 1996 in the Defense of Marriage Act, adopted prior to Ford’s election to Congress. The constitutional amendment proposed in 2004 and 2006 was more far-reaching in its implications than DOMA.

For some in the community, the two marriage votes alone are enough to stop them from supporting Ford.

“I don’t know any gays who trust or would support Harold Ford,” said Jon Winkleman, a gay Democratic activist.

Should he make the run, Ford faces considerable obstacles. As of January 11, he had not established a campaign committee with the Federal Election Commission, a requirement for fundraising.

He does, however, appear to have the support of some wealthy New Yorkers. Gillibrand has $5.5 million in the bank and has courted the Democratic political establishment.

“She’s locked up a whole hell of a lot of party regulars,” said Daniel Tietz, a longtime gay political activist.

Gay politicos said they had never seen Ford at political events or, as Alan Fleishman, a Democratic district leader from Brooklyn, put it, “the kind of horrible things candidates have to do if they want to meet the loyalists.”

But running against that establishment may be Ford’s plan. Gillibrand will be the candidate who was selected by the governor, not elected by the people.

“She is the established candidate,” said Doug Robinson, co-president of the Out People of Color Political Action Club. “I think that she probably has the leading edge, but I wouldn’t rule him out either.”

Ford will be the insurgent, and that may make him attractive to New Yorkers.

“I have a deep concern that the LGBT political establishment follows the leadership of the Democratic Party,” Robinson said, evoking that spirit. “There are very few clubs that would say we’re outside the system and we look at the bigger picture and we look for the candidate that represents our values.”