Wall Street Ties Could Trap New York Senator Wannabe Harold Ford Jr.

Harold Ford Jr., the former Tennessee congressman now preparing a Democratic primary challenge against New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, is considered one of the most talented politicians of his generation. But with public outrage toward Wall Street at an all-time high, Ford's deep ties to the financial community could work against him.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%%Since joining Merrill Lynch as a vice chairman in 2007, Ford has cultivated a network of powerful friends in finance including Steve Rattner, the influential financier and co-founder of Quadrangle Group, and Anson Beard, the former Chairman of Morgan Stanley who is Ford's stepfather-in-law. Beard was a member of the famous "Group of Eight" former Morgan Stanley execs who deposed Phillip Purcell during a dramatic Wall Street putsch in 2005.

"There are certainly some voters who will be turned off by Ford's Wall Street connections," says New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.

On Tuesday morning, Ford all but declared his candidacy in an Op-Ed in the New York Post, in which he wrote: "It's true: I am strongly considering running for the United States Senate."

For the last week, Ford and Gillibrand have played something of a shadow game, using powerful surrogates -- Ford counts Mayor Michael Bloomberg as an ally; Gillibrand boasts Senator Chuck Schumer -- to test the political climate and line up support. Gillibrand's camp appeared surprised -- alarmed even -- at the prospect that the talented Ford would challenge her, and it pushed back behind the scenes. Ford responded caustically, saying he wouldn't be bullied by her or her allies.

Now that Ford appears all but certain to enter the race, both sides will set up opposition research teams in an effort to discredit the other.

"Every Possible Avenue to Attack"

Ford's Wall Street experience as a vice chairman of Merrill Lynch and senior policy adviser -- along with his closeness to financial powerbrokers -- could very well be thrown in his face. "This could absolutely be an issue in the race," says Steven Greenberg, a pollster at Siena College in New York. "Campaigns are all about one side trying to define itself, and also trying to define the opponent. If Ford decides to get in, both camps will look for every possible avenue to attack."

Ford's Wall Street ties will certainly be an issue if Jonathan Tasini, who is also running for the Democratic nomination, has his way. "Any politician running with the taint of Wall Street money in 2010 is going to be in deep trouble," says Tasini, a longtime social activist who ran unsuccessfully for the nomination in 2006.

But Ford isn't the only major New York political candidate whose Wall Street credentials could be used against him.

"This is an issue that on the other side of the aisle Rick Lazio will have to face as well," Greenberg says, referring to the Republican former Senate candidate who has announced his intention to challenge New York Governor David Paterson. For the last several years, Lazio has served as a managing director at JPMorgan Chase.

New Yorkers Know Where Their Bread Is Buttered

Tasini predicts both Gillibrand and Ford will pay for their connections to Wall Street. "I would welcome Harold Ford Jr. into the race because it will be clear that both he and Sen. Gillibrand are awash in corporate Wall Street money, and I'm not."

Tasini says he expects "the outrage against Wall Street and the economic collapse to bring many voters to our camp."

Of course, it's important to remember that New York City is home to Wall Street, and while many New Yorkers are outraged at the conduct of the big banks over the last 18 months, many voters are also acutely aware of the key role the financial services industry plays in New York, says pollster Greenberg. In many ways, Wall Street has been New York's goose that lays the golden egg, and many New Yorkers understand the value of electing representatives with an intimate knowledge of how Wall Street works.

A spokesman for Ford declined to comment on his Wall Street experience.

Painted as The Ultimate Insider

Greenberg points out that most of the public hasn't tuned into this race yet and that the current political jockeying is designed for an audience of party insiders, journalists and professional politicos. It remains to be seen how much Ford's Wall Street connections will tarnish him as a candidate. "New Yorkers are much more focused on the issues that matter to them -- pocketbook issues, jobs, the economy, health care," Greenberg says.

Most likely, Ford's Wall Street ties will be used as one hue on a palette designed to paint him as the ultimate insider -- a charge Ford could be vulnerable to. Aside from his membership in Wall Street elite boy's club, Ford, whose father was a U.S. Congressman from Tennessee, has a reputation for being a consummate wheeler-dealer, and a slick -- almost too-slick -- political player.

Ford is currently chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist organization often associated with former President Bill Cllinton that has aroused the ire of party liberals. "Both campaigns will try to highlight weaknesses in the opponent," Greenberg says. For Ford, "it could be where he's been working, his DLC chairmanship as well as his more conservative views."

In fact, the pollster said, Ford will most likely have to tack to the left to attract the support of liberal New Yorkers in a Democratic primary. "We're already starting to see it in this morning's op-ed," Greenberg says. In the piece, Ford, who has lived in New York for three years, seeks to clarify his positions for New Yorkers by touting his pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-labor union and pro-same sex marriage credentials.
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