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Ford won't challenge Gillibrand in primary

ALBANY - Former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. has decided against mounting a primary challenge to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Ford announced his decision Monday in a New York Times Op-Ed piece after spending about two months on a "listening tour" of the state. His move is a relief for Democrats worried a bitter primary would harm the winner and possibly give the seat to Republicans.

Gov. David A. Paterson appointed Gillibrand, from upstate Hudson, after Hillary Rodham Clinton became secretary of state in January 2009.

In the op-ed piece, Ford cited the downside of a primary to his party. He also was harshly critical of what he said were party bosses out of touch with the needs of residents.

"If I run, the likely result would be a brutal and highly negative Democratic primary - a primary where the winner emerges weakened and the Republican strengthened," he said in the op-ed, which was posted Monday night on nytimes.com. "I refuse to do anything that would . . . give the Senate majority to the Republicans," he continued.

The state's last GOP senator was Alfonse D'Amato of Island Park, who lost his re-election bid in 1998 to Charles Schumer, a Democrat from Brooklyn. The party's only declared candidate this year is Bruce Blakeman, former presiding officer of the Nassau Legislature. Daily News publisher Mortimer Zuckerman is also reportedly mulling a bid.

Gillibrand aide Glen Caplin said Monday night that she would continue "fighting for New York." A Ford spokesman declined to comment.

Ford's potential challenge to Gillibrand upset many, including the White House and Schumer, who have worked to clear the field. Reps. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) exited after being leaned on - a fact Ford noted in his op-ed.

Ford and Gillibrand have engaged in name-calling. He said she and Schumer were parakeets, putting party loyalty ahead of New York's interests. She pushed him to disclose his bonus from Merrill Lynch and said he was a carpetbagger.

On Long Island, Democratic Party leaders lauded Ford's decision. "I'm gratified," said Jay Jacobs, head of the Nassau and state committees. "I believe it was a personal sacrifice, giving up an opportunity for the greater good of the party."

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