Report from the NY sandbox: Gillibrand, Ford, rubber, glue

Doug Heye Contributor
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As Senate Democrats find themselves playing defense in key races throughout the nation, one consistent theme has been the number of campaigns where Democrats are locked in contested primaries.

We see it playing out across the country: in Colorado, Sen. Michael Bennet faces former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff; Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo squares off against Attorney General Jack Conway; while in Ohio, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher is challenged for the nomination by Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

These intra-party contests are now joined by the Empire State, where former Tennessee Congressman and Senate candidate Harold Ford is making serious moves to challenge incumbent Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for the Democratic nomination.

Voters expecting a high-minded discussion on what’s best for New York will likely be disappointed. The tactics and rhetoric coming from Gillibrand and Ford thus far have been, well, juvenile. Saying politics can be a sandbox is an oft-used metaphor, but has the benefit of being true in this case. Instead of two heavyweights slugging it out in the ring, Gillibrand and Ford have resembled children fighting in a sandbox. Lincoln/Davis, this is not; “I’m rubber, you’re glue” is more on the mark.

Asked recently if he had ever been to Staten Island, Ford replied, “I landed there in the helicopter, so I can say yes.” Ford also acknowledged having regular pedicures, citing a foot problem. In the context of his 2006 campaign, where Ford was attacked relentlessly by a National Republican Senatorial Committee ad that labeled him “Fancy Ford” and built a webpage with that name (not to mention the Republican National Committee’s “Harold, Call Me” ad many considered responsible for Ford’s loss…), the comments seem to validate the past criticism.

That’s when “The Battle of the Bird,” as coined by New York’s News 10, began.

Facing the opposition of powerful New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and the New York Democratic Party establishment, Ford lashed out at Gillibrand, calling her a “canary” for her deference to Schumer and Democratic political bosses.

Grabbing a handful of sand in an attempt to show she’s no one’s bird, Gillibrand went to Twitter replying, “‘Parakeet?’ I wouldn’t allow my 6 yr old to engage in this kind of namecalling. And HF thinks he should be a Senator?” Oh, SNAP!

Before the State of the Union, Gillibrand hit Twitter again, tweeting, “Looking forward to #SOTU tonight. If HF were here, he would probably be sitting on the Republican side.”

Calling Ford a Republican over his positions shifting as he has shifted from Tennessee to New York is risky business. It was her position on guns that threatened a challenge from Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy and other Democrats, unhappy at being leap-frogged by the relative newcomer.

Gillibrand has also said Ford is only in New York because Tennessee voters did not trust him enough to be their Senator and that Ford has “a right to run and he has a right to lose.” It’s another example of the glass house in which Gillibrand finds herself; New York voters have not placed their trust in Gillibrand, only Gov. David Paterson has.

No one has enjoyed all of this more than the same NRSC that launched the “Fancy Ford” attacks four years ago. After Gillibrand attacked Ford as being “(I-Wall Street)”–which reminded some of the Obama campaign’s racially-tinged labeling of then New York Sen. Hillary Clinton as “(D-Punjab),” the NRSC gleefully forwarded Gillibrand’s attack noting it was unusual for a sitting Senator to criticize their own state and suggesting it demonstrated the upstate Gillibrand is not yet fully up to speed on the economic realities of New York City.

Hoping to avoid a primary squabble that exists solely of inane and childish personal barbs, New York Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs is calling for a truce, reminding Gillibrand and Ford, “We’re not picking a prom queen here.” It’s the political equivalent of a parent turning around to the children in the backseat and yelling, “I will turn this car around right now!”

As polls show this threatens to be another divisive Democratic primary and Ford’s attacks caught Gillibrand by surprise, it’s clear there’s still a lot of sand in the sandbox.

Doug Heye, a veteran of political campaigns throughout the nation, has worked in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and George W. Bush’s administration.