Harold Ford Jr. Speaks in South Side

Former Tennessee Congressman Harold C. Ford Jr. spoke about the economy, jobs and immigration reform at the Southwest Community Center Sunday as part of a whirlwind tour of Syracuse.

Ford, a 39-year-old Democrat who served in the U.S. Congress from 1997 to 2007, is considering challenging New York junior senator Kirsten Gillibrand in this November’s election. He spoke for about 12 minutes before answering four audience questions.

Addressing an attentive crowd of about 50 people, Ford said that improving the economy should be the government’s first priority now and offered fairly concrete suggestions for how to do it.

“If you’re going to borrow money … you at least need to get the biggest bang for your buck, and I’m not convinced that we’re doing that with the route that we’ve traveled thus far,” he said.

Ford described himself as a “tax-cutting Democrat,” saying, “I happen to think that the wealthiest people in the country aren’t the only ones who could benefit from tax cuts.”

He suggested a cut in the federal payroll tax, which takes a six percent bite out of every American’s salary. He also advocated creating Cash for Clunkers-inspired rebate programs for American-made appliances and technology and proposed a $250 “green credit card” for people to improve their homes’ energy efficiency.

Ford moved to New York after losing a Senate bid in Tennessee in 2006. He is currently a vice chairman with Merrill Lynch and is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council.

He has not yet committed to running for office, but said he is traveling to “understand even better the peculiar, unique, particular challenges right here in Central New York.”
He acknowledged questions about whether he’s sufficiently familiar with New York to represent the state in the Senate, but said, “I think anyone has a right to run for anything they want to run for.”

He said that New York should be a leader in green manufacturing and energy production and cautioned that the United States is falling behind China in those areas.

“We have to recognize the flow of the global economy and the momentum behind where jobs are being created,” he said.

Ford who pronounced himself “about as big a supporter as anyone of the president,” said that the prolonged health care debate “has been exhausting for Congress and for the country.” He continued, “Once people are back working again, once people feel some security … then we can have the meaningful and real conversation about health care.”

Ford said he supports a “broad immigration reform bill” that includes a path to citizenship and a guest worker program. “It ought to be understandable and it ought to be clear,” he said.

Walter Dixie, executive director of Jubilee Homes, served as Ford’s escort around the city during a tour that also included stops at Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church, Living Water C.O.G.I.C., lunch with Mayor Stephanie Miner and a meeting with the Latino Community Forum.

“Right now, it’s all positive,” Dixie said of Ford. “He’s listening to folks in the community. That’s what’s important.”

P.E. Clark, a downtown resident, said she wasn’t sure that Ford, a Manhattan resident, is knowledgeable enough about upstate New York. “Time will tell. He didn’t say much that was state-specific,” she said.

Among the audience members were Syracuse common councilor Lance Denno, Onondaga County legislators Thomas Buckel and Linda Ervin, state assemblywoman Joan Christensen and Syracuse city school board member Monique Wright-Williams, who moderated the question-and-answer segment.

Christensen said she was impressed initially by Ford, but pointed out, “We’ve always had superstars as our senators. New York just demands that. Broadway isn’t the only place we have stars.” She acknowledged that Ford has a lot to learn about New York issues, but said, “What any senator could do at the federal level to help the state, it helps us out as well.”

Ford has not given a definite timetable for his decision on entering the race. Last week, he referred to Gillibrand as a “parakeet” and accused her of taking orders from Democratic leadership. The junior senator responded by scolding him for “name-calling” and ridiculed his claim to be a Washington outsider. Ford’s father, Harold Ford Sr., served in Congress for 22 years.