News & Politics

Barrett: Remembering When Chuck Schumer Was Fighting for Harold Ford — in Tennessee (UPDATED)


See UPDATE after the jump

“Harold Ford is a great candidate who knows how to handle himself,” Chuck Schumer said in 2005. “We’re very hopeful about his candidacy.” Maybe a bit less hopeful today.

The fine line between irony and hypocrisy is crossed every day in politics. But in 2005 and 2006, the heavy artillery that our own Senator Schumer is now firing at Harold Ford was trained on Rosalind Kurita, a three-term Democratic state senator from Tennessee then running against Ford. Schumer was the chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee at the time and, though it was his job to try to get Democrats elected in general elections, he decided that DSCC had to throw its resources and power into primaries, handpicking candidates he thought could win in November. So, as Kurita put it, DSCC wouldn’t even list her name on its website as a candidate for the seat.

Kurita was running to Ford’s left, accusing him of sounding like a Republican half the time, declaring that with him, “you get a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” not a bad attack ad now for Kirsten Gillibrand, except that it might also be her motto.

A nurse and mother of three, married to an Asian American, a champion of Roe vs. Wade, a leading opponent of an English-only driver’s license initiative, and a fierce opponent of the credit-card-company-dictated bankruptcy bill that Ford voted for, Kurita was waging an uphill battle against Ford.

She complained bitterly that groups whose support she expected — like from Emily’s List, which exists to fund women candidates with progressive views — were instead stonewalling her, ostensibly on Schumer’s behalf. When Kurita quit a year and a half after she started her campaign, ceding the race to Ford, news accounts attributed it to her “hampered fundraising.” Bob Corker, the Republican candidate who wound up beating Ford in November, used Schumer as a punching bag, accusing him and other liberal Democrats like Hillary Clinton of making “a pact with the Ford political machine to hijack this race.”

While Schumer’s bet on Ford was a loser, his nationwide intrusion in state races, forcing the designation of his own slate of candidates, delivered the senate majority to Democrats in 2006. After another triumphant year in 2008, he stepped down as the DSCC chair.
Kurita was so embittered by the experience that she became the Pedro Espada of Tennessee, voting in 2007 with the Republicans to oust the longtime Democratic leader of the state senate and taking the second highest job in the newly GOP-run chamber for herself. Though she still managed to narrowly win a Democratic primary for her seat in 2008, the party organization stripped her of the nomination and she lost as a write-in that November.

Voice messages at her home and at the offices of her husband, who is a Tennessee doctor, weren’t returned. Jerry Skurnick, the veteran political consultant, pointed out that I omitted any reference in yesterday’s blog item to Bob Abrams’ loss to Al D’Amato in 1992, which followed a rough Democratic primary. I wrote that “no Democrat in modern times has lost a New York senate seat after a divisive primary,” and that is certainly true, since Abrams didn’t have a senate seat to lose. Geraldine Ferraro, who lost to Abrams in the primary, lent credence to the notion that he’d engaged in anti-Italian slurs against her, and that helped Republican Al D’Amato hold onto his seat that November. That’s quite a different set of circumstances than what we face now, when the untested and unelected incumbent Gillibrand, is trying to hold onto her seat without competition.

Research Assistance: Sarah M. Gates, Scott Greenberg, Alana Horowitz, Simon McCormack, T.J. Raphael

UPDATE: I called Rosalind Kurita, her husband’s office and Senator Schumer this morning, well before this blog was posted. I made it clear what I wanted to talk about and no one would answer questions. Nothing like posting a blog to provoke answers.

Kurita wanted to correct my suggestion that her switch to the Republicans in the Tennessee state senate was a result of her bitterness over the way she was treated in the race against Ford. She explained that the Republicans had the majority in the senate “for two years” and that two Republicans had voted with the Democrats to keep a Democratic leader in charge. She insists that her decision to support majority rule “had nothing to do with any bitterness,” but was instead a question of fairness, though she acknowledged that she lived with minority rule until after she was forced from the U.S. Senate primary. She also wanted me to know that her doctor husband is not an Asian American, though she conceded that he had been so described in Tennessee news accounts and that people thought he was.

A source associated with the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which is no longer chaired by Schumer, said that any actions the committee took in Tennessee to push Kurita out of the race were done “at the request of Harold Ford.” I have to fault myself for the point the DSCC source effectively made. My blog makes it sound like only Schumer was playing both sides of this question, ginning up prochoice leaders in New York to go after Ford, though in 2006, he was killing a prochoice candidate in favor of Ford. That’s just one way the senator’s done an about-face.

But irony is a double-edged sword. Ford insists he won’t be “bullied” by Boss Schumer out of the race now, but he enlisted the boss to bully Kurita out of another race three short years ago. I said that better in yesterday’s blog. I told Kurita that DSCC sources were telling me that her executioner in 2006 is today’s victim, Harold Ford, and tried to get her to comment. I got heavy breathing on the other end of the phone. All she’d actually say though was she “would have loved to have had a level playing field” in the senate race.

Then she added one carefully phrased comment, with Kirsten Gillibrand clearly in her mind: “I hope we will have as many women in the U.S. Senate as possible. I certainly don’t want to see somebody lose.” When I added with a smile, “you can’t believe how much money Emily’s List is raising for her,” Kurita replied: “You’re cruel.”

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