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Tennessee's Harold Ford Jr. eyes N.Y. Senate race

January 6, 2010 |  8:54 am

Former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

Harold Ford Jr. came within a whisker of winning the Tennessee Senate race in 2006, foiled by a Republican Party ad in which a white actress said she had met the African American congressman at a Playboy party. “Harold, call me,” she cooed.

Three years ago Ford moved to New York, becoming vice chairman of Merrill Lynch. Now, according to the New York Times, a group of influential Democrats is urging the former congressman to consider challenging Democrat Kirsten E. Gillibrand. Appointed to fill the term of Hillary Clinton after the former first lady was tapped by President Obama to as secretary of State, Gillibrand lacks the star power that New Yorkers have come to expect in their senators.

For his part, the 39-year-old Ford said he plans to weigh the race over the next few months. He was coy during an appearance today on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," saying only that he was consulting with backers.

Among the rooting section: financier Steven Rattner and his wife, Maureen White, prolific Democratic fundraisers. “Maureen and I worked hard for Harold in his last race because we think the world of him,” Rattner told The Times. “He has extraordinary drive and intelligence and will excel at anything that he chooses to do.”

Other key backers include New York Board of Regents Chairman Merryl Tisch, whose husband, James Tisch, is chief executive of Loews Corp.; and HBO co-President Richard Plepler. Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an ex-Republican who has publicly tangled with Gillibrand, is said to be open to the idea.

Ford, who followed his father's footsteps to the House, has a reputation as a formidable fundraiser, which could spell trouble for Gillibrand, who as of October had raised $5.5 million. As chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, he could appeal to independents. As an African American, he could attract national donors. And as a telegenic member of the media's chattering classes, he would get lots of attention.

As the Village Voice put it this morning, Ford likes to come across as "the hottest cat to come out of Memphis since Elvis."

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski / Reuters

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