Harold Ford and the Yassky Option

Harold Ford gave up his safe U.S. House seat to run for the Senate this year, a gamble that now appears on the verge of failing. But even in defeat, he might enjoy an option that many similar ex-House members don’t: the chance to reclaim his seat almost immediately.

That’s because Steve Cohen, the Democrat on course to succeed Ford representing the Memphis-based 9th District, will be supremely vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2008. Cohen, a longtime state senator who emerged with 29 percent of the vote from a 14-way Democratic primary in August, is white — in a 60 percent black district specifically designed to encourage the election of an African-American and protected by the Voting Rights Act.

That Cohen is white and Jewish played a major role in the primary, with ugly slurs occasionally making their way into the public discussion of the contest. Cohen defended himself by saying that he was a white man who would vote “like a black woman” and pledging to seek membership in the Congressional Black Caucus – an idea that was met with something between indifference and hostility by the CBC’s current members.

If Ford decides he wants to return to the House in ’08, knocking off Cohen in a primary would probably be a lay-up, since his star power could keep the field from getting too crowded.

The biggest question would be whether Ford will opt for this path, since he has clearly grown tired of the House and its creaky seniority system and plainly envisions a more prominent place for himself in American public life. Plus, to play the race card in an ’08 primary – even subtly – might negatively affect any hopes Ford might harbor of another statewide bid.

The situation in Ford’s district is not unlike the recent drama in New York’s 11th District, another Voting Rights district where a white Jew – Councilman David Yassky – ran in a crowded primary against several credible black candidates. Yassky, of course, was branded “a colonizer” by outgoing Congressman Major Owens, and was edged out by Yvette Clark in the September primary.

– Steve Kornacki