NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Just a day after Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (search) announced he was running for the Senate, the FBI arrested his lawmaker uncle back home in Tennessee on corruption charges.
Ford has spent much of his career trying to distinguish himself from his powerful — and occasionally scandalous — Memphis political family. Now many wonder how the congressman, a rising star among the Democrats, will deal with this latest embarrassment.
"Clearly, it's not Harold Ford Jr. caught in this whole issue, but it obviously raises a cloud over the Ford family name," said Robert Swansbrough, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Ford is running in 2006 for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Overcoming the Ford family reputation is not the only challenge facing the younger Ford, who is 35. A black candidate has never won a major statewide office in Tennessee. And no Southern state has elected a black senator since Reconstruction.
The Democrats saw Ford's potential five years ago when then-presidential candidate and fellow Tennessean Al Gore (search) asked him to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. As always, the young, handsome, well-spoken Ford impressed.
He has positioned himself as a moderate- to conservative-leaning Democrat. He has supported President Bush's capital gains tax cuts and a constitutional amendment protecting school prayer, and has an anti-abortion voting record. He has also spoken out strongly in support of the military's effort in Iraq, and sided with "Blue Dog" Democrats on reducing the federal deficit.
And he has never been accused of any wrongdoing.
"I don't have anything to be ashamed of. There's nothing not positive about my candidacy and about me," Ford said earlier this month. "I think if I switched parties, the Republicans might anoint me senator."
Clearly there have been times his family name has helped. Ford's father served 22 years in Congress, and when the younger Ford ran for the same House seat in 1996, his campaign buttons read simply, "Jr."
He won despite family troubles at that time: His father had recently been cleared after a 10-year federal investigation and two trials on charges he accepted $1.2 million in bogus loans from two political supporters.
Last month, the congressman's uncle, John Ford (search), a 63-year-old state senator who has gotten into one scrape after another over the years, was arrested on charges of taking $55,000 in bribes. He was caught in a sting in which FBI agents posed as representatives of an electronics-recycling company seeking favorable legislation.
John Ford, with his customary defiance, suggested that federal authorities timed his arrest to spoil his nephew's Senate announcement. But the congressman winced at that assertion and said, "I would have preferred for that not to happen."
The GOP candidates for the Senate seat include former Reps. Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. The Republicans have yet to go after the younger Ford over his family, in part because they are locked in a tough primary fight.
But Swansbrough said he expects such attacks to come: "There's no way they would let this die."
For his part, Harold Ford Jr. said he is proud of his name and believes it will help, pointing to early polls showing any of his potential GOP opponents would have trouble against him.
"My name is bigger than anyone else's in the race," he said. "Now we have on more layer to overcome, and I think it's overcomeable."