Mr. Ford Takes Buffalo

72436209 Mr. Ford Takes BuffaloHarold Ford Jr. arrived mid-sermon.

It was 11:30 a.m. on Sunday in Buffalo, and Mr. Ford—toting a Jesuit prayer book, and trailed by a small coterie of reporters—was ushered into the sprawling purple sanctuary of the Greater Refuge Temple and belatedly took a seat in the fifth pew.

Bishop Robert L. Sanders Sr. was already into his crescendo. “When God gives vision, the reason why sometimes the fulfillment is delayed is because our character is not commensurate with the vision,” he intoned.

Behind the bishop, on a large projection screen, was a summary of the message: YOUR VISION SHALL BE FULFILLED, and, THIS IS 2010 – THE YEAR OF MANIFESTATION.

It was an auspicious message for Mr. Ford, the former Blue Dog congressman who is very publicly mulling a run for the U.S. Senate. In 2006, the last time he tried for the Senate, it ended badly—he lost a close, mud-spattered race in his home state of Tennessee.

What’s still unclear, though, is what Mr. Ford’s vision actually is: whether he’s actually planning to run, or if he’s executing what will ultimately turn out to have been a brilliant, relatively low-cost public-relations exercise. After all, there are plausibility issues. A conservative Democrat and newcomer to New York who spent the past couple of years making a pile on Wall Street would not seem to be ideally positioned.

But with appointed incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand stuck in the polls and seemingly unable to do anything about it, Mr. Ford’s early maneuvering has been taken very seriously by a number of high-profile donors and party officials and, perhaps most crucially, the press. And so here he was in Buffalo, embarking on a listening tour.

Just before the congregation could spill out into the aisles, the bishop invited Mr. Ford to say a few words. He strode to the center.

“Y’all’s pastor can preach—give him a hand,” said Mr. Ford, who wore a plain black suit and a plain white shirt. Instead of a Wall Street–themed tie—like the one with snorting bulls and dollar signs that he donned, in defiance of the current public mood about that industry, in Brooklyn last week—he wore a more politically benign number with horses and riders. And instead of the expensive-looking loafers he had worn to his photo shoot with The New York Times, Mr. Ford stood in a pair that was plain black, with a matte finish. (Bishop Sanders might have appreciated the nicer pair. “Save up till you can buy some good stuff,” he told his congregation. “If you’re buying a pair of shoes, just get one good pair.”)

“This reminds me of Memphis a little bit,” Mr. Ford said.

“He’s a carpetbagger. I’ve never had tolerance for carpetbaggers,” volunteered Samuel Herbert, 60, who moved to Buffalo from Harlem in 1972, and was wearing a T-shirt that read “HARLEM WILL ALWAYS BE BLACK.”

“He’s like a kid with their first pair of white Converse coming out of the house with no scuffs on him,” he said.

Most of the congregation—in fact, most of the good people of Buffalo—seemed never to have heard of Mr. Ford. He made an impression, though, and was mobbed in a hallway after the service as he formed an impromptu receiving line. “It’s my fault, baby,” he said to one parishioner, who was trying to squeeze past. “I’ve been standing right in front of you. I apologize.”

Between handshakes, Mr. Ford bought a copy of Bishop Sanders’ new book, and a miniature sweet potato pie. He made sure to leave the change behind, and he did his best to find common ground with the bishop.

“Do you have friends in Nashville? Or in Memphis? Give me some of ’em,” he said. “When you come down to New York City, do you preach?” he wondered. “Because I’d love for my wife to hear you preach.”

For the press, Mr. Ford has been a godsend. His smooth Southern character—unconventional, occasionally outlandish—his public statements from his past life in Tennessee and his nuanced maneuvering around those positions have given the daily papers plenty of fodder for constant coverage. It helps, of course, that Mr. Ford is stepping into an unnatural political vacuum engineered by Ms. Gillibrand’s minders—the senior senator, Chuck Schumer, and the White House political office—as they intimidated seemingly well-qualified New York officials, like Representative Steve Israel and Representative Carolyn Maloney, from the field of prospective nominees.

The trick for Mr. Ford, as a newly public commodity in New York, is to be parceled out in small enough doses not to be caught in any kind of novice, Caroline Kennedy–esque gaffes, and so his advisers—including former Bloomberg campaign manager Bradley Tusk, and, more visibly, spokesman Davidson Goldin—have been controlling questions, demurring on whether Mr. Ford will receive a bonus for his work at Merrill Lynch and deflecting pop quizzes that might reveal him to be unfamiliar with things that people who have lived in New York for more than parts of three years would know.

(Also traveling with Mr. Ford was his friend Dylan Glenn, who thrice ran as a Republican for a Georgia Congressional seat, worked as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and as deputy chief of staff to Republican Governor Sonny Perdue.)

In an unscheduled encounter with the press an hour before he got to church, Mr. Ford went into prevent mode. When The Observer greeted him—unannounced—at Buffalo International Airport, Mr. Ford introduced himself, then promptly turned to Mr. Goldin, who was trailing a few steps behind. “David,” he said, without breaking stride. Mr. Goldin was, at the moment, speaking hurriedly into a cord dangling from his left ear, trying to arrange their ride.

Mr.Goldin has fast become a sort of gatekeeper–slash–carnival barker for the man of the moment. A relative newcomer to the political-flack game whose recent clients include the troubled State Senator Hiram Monserrate, Mr. Goldin has enthusiastically taken on the task of tormenting party elders (or “bosses,” as the Ford camp has it), allowing Mr. Ford to play it relatively cool. This has been the case, at least, since Mr. Ford’s big debut, a wide-ranging interview with The Times that saw him stray wildly off message, into the rarefied realm of his regular pedicures and helicopter rides.

Since then, Mr. Goldin has become an increasingly prevalent part of Mr. Ford’s public image.

On Jan. 14, Mr. Goldin—himself a former reporter and editor for New York 1, The New York Sun and MSNBC—“interrupted” a Washington Post question about Mr. Ford’s bonus. A Daily News interview was “limited to his rationale” and a New York Post interview noted specific “ground rules.”

At the airport, Mr. Ford went out of his way to introduce himself to the two people who recognized him.

“I’m up here listening,” he told one of them.

Waiting for his ride in the concourse, Mr. Ford told The Observer he had been to Buffalo before, and met the mayor, but this was just a first stop like any other.

“There was no conspiracy behind it, where to start,” he said.

“They drove up yesterday, from New York City,” Mr. Goldin told his boss of The Observer. “Six hours.”

“I know how long it is,” Mr. Ford quickly replied.

Though Mr. Ford is winning the daily news cycle—and, perhaps, doing real damage to Ms. Gillibrand—he has a long way to go before establishing himself with New York’s voters in his own right. In the week before his Buffalo trip, two polls had him trailing Ms. Gillibrand by 20 points. So while the sitting senator’s approval rating remains at an enticingly low 31 percent, the bad news for Mr. Ford is that he’s still more effective as a troublemaker than as a candidate, and that he’s more likely to cost Ms. Gillibrand the seat than he is to win it himself. One gets the feeling that if he so much as fails to be in the press for a couple of days, the ground could shift under his feet, and that someone else—maybe one of the Democrats who had previously taken a pass on the race—might find it too tempting not to take advantage of the cover now provided by Mr. Ford to declare his or her own challenge to Ms. Gillibrand. Mr. Ford’s very presence, if he sticks around for a bit, could also entice new Republicans into the race, too, throwing the general election into doubt for whichever Democrat emerges. It will be easier for him to turn her into Martha Coakley than to transform himself into Scott Brown.

Accordingly, Mr. Ford’s messaging has been relentless, criticizing Mr. Obama and the party’s leaders on health care and the economy. At Gigi’s Soul Cafe, Mr. Ford handed out his new business card to a table of women finishing lunches of pot roast and fried chicken. The card was a noticeably simple affair that included his name—absent any title—a phone number and a new email address @Haroldfornewyork.com, which replaced a @Fordfortennessee.com address he had been using until recently.

At one table, he promised a woman a job in his office if he wins.

At another, Mr. Ford bragged to three older gentlemen about a Saturday piece in The Wall Street Journal that outlined his economic plan.

“Now, how does that go with the Obama plan?” Clifford Braxton wondered as he and two friends were finishing their breakfast. “You got to be able to work with him.”

“If I run for Senate and am lucky enough to be elected, I’ll represent you,” Mr. Ford replied.

“Yeah, but don’t forget, he’s elected to represent the people, too,” said Mr. Braxton.

Mr. Ford resisted Mr. Glenn’s hand on his arm as he tried to convince the men that he really could create jobs—even in Buffalo. Eventually, he acquiesced.

“Hogwash. That ain’t going to happen,” Mr. Braxton said after Mr. Ford had walked away. “This is Obama country,” he told The Observer later. “Why would we abandon him now?”

By getting out of Manhattan, Mr. Ford can also determine which elected leaders and county chairs are disaffected with the current senator, and thereby gauge which ones might be willing to break with the party and play along with his would-be candidacy.

On Friday, he called Buffalo’s popular two-term mayor, Byron Brown, to let him know he was coming. Mr. Brown promptly scheduled a 1 p.m. lunch at the Buffalo Chophouse—a swanky steakhouse that does not open its stately, castlelike wooden doors to the public until 4 p.m., but was happy to accommodate the mayor and Mr. Ford.

Mr. Brown, who wore a gold buffalo pin on his lapel, was already sipping on a cranberry juice when Mr. Ford arrived, late.

Velvet curtains blocked the gray day outside. The lighting was purposefully dim. The two men ascended a staircase to the empty second floor, and sat themselves at a small two-top, covered in a white tablecloth and backed by a long burgundy velvet couch, over which hung 12 framed oil paintings of dogs.

Mr. Brown had the strip steak. (“I brought him here because this is one of the best steakhouses in the city—the state, really,” Mr. Brown told The Observer after the meal.) Mr. Ford had the salmon, medium. “Smooth Operator” played softly on the Chophouse stereo. Reporters were allowed a few photographs and then were asked to wait downstairs. “One question each,” Mr. Goldin said when his boss and the mayor descended the stairs. The Buffalo press—now numbering three outlets and accustomed, it would seem, to the upstate “listening tour,” did not grill him.

Before he left, Mr. Ford made sure to shake the cook’s hand and thank him for the delicious salmon.

From there, Mr. Ford hurried to a nondescript building downtown, where he met briefly with the Erie County Democratic chairman, Len Lenihan, who is backing Ms. Gillibrand.

“He shook our hands and talked briefly,” said David Christ, 61, the security guard at Mr. Lenihan’s office, who got a handshake from Mr. Ford. Mr. Christ, a registered Republican and member of the National Rifle Association, wore a camouflage jacket and a Phantom F-4 baseball cap.

“If you remember when he was in the House of Representatives, he ran against Pelosi to become speaker of the House and got soundly whipped. It’s like I told Len before he left, he seems like a nice guy—individual politics, I’ll have to see—but Pelosi beat him because he hasn’t had to become that much of a son of a bitch yet.”

rpillifant@observer.com, apaybarah@observer.com