Harold Ford arrived on the New York political scene six weeks ago with guns blazing, taking on fellow Democrat and incumbent Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand with a barrage of attacks.
While New Yorkers were jarred by the immediate verbal onslaught from a Tennessee transplant with no local party support, political insiders believe it’s all part of a well-coordinated strategy.
“It’s hard to imagine how anyone gets any traction without going on the attack,” said David Birsell, dean of Baruch College.
Trading barbs like “parakeet” and “tax dodge,” both the Ford and Gillibrand camps are exposing each other’s weaknesses but also honing their own strengths, observers said.
For Ford, 39, a former Tennessee congressman, the name-calling and tabloid headlines keep him in the public eye and help reinforce his image as an outsider harnessing voter outrage at incumbents, strategists said.
For Gillibrand, 43, an unexpectedly tough primary could sharpen her message. The presence of Ford — considered by many to be further to the right then she is with his opposition to the healthcare bill and partial birth abortion — has already helped solidify a liberal base that had been wary of her.
“If Gillibrand could pick anyone to be her opponent it would be someone like him,” said a political operative tied to organized labor.
Neither Ford - who plans to announce if he is running by March 1 - nor Gillibrand, who hails from upstate and was appointed to the seat last year, is well-known in Gotham, and the back-and-forth is the first many New Yorkers are hearing of them.
Both declined to be interviewed for this article.
Gillibrand has attacked Ford because he hasn’t revealed the bonus he was paid as a vice president at Merrill Lynch and for not filing a New York resident income tax return.
Meanwhile, Ford has characterized the senator as a “parakeet” because of her closeness to Sen. Charles Schumer and other party stalwarts, and his spokeswoman regularly refers to Gillibrand as the “unelected senator.”
The negative campaigning got so bad that state Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs called both Ford and Gillibrand two weeks ago. Both assured Jacobs that they would take a higher road, but the mudslinging has proceeded apace.
Ford spokeswoman, Tammy Sun, blamed “false attacks” from the other side; Gillibrand’s spokesman, Glen Caplin, argued that Ford’s insults haven’t hurt her campaign.
Gillibrand already has the support of much of the party’s base, with Democratic mayoral nominee Bill Thompson Monday becoming the lastest city pol to publicly back her.
But many political insiders caution not to count Ford out. With his ties to Wall Street, he’s expected to tap his network for campaign cash, and many consider him a skilled campaigner.
“He hasn’t turned on the charm yet,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a Hunter College political science professor.