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Keli Goff Headshot

Could Chuck Schumer Give New York Its Own Scott Brown?

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This piece is republished courtesy of TheLoop21.com.

Not since Coca-Cola tried and failed to sell "New Coke" to the American public has a brand faced such seemingly swift rejection to a makeover as former Congressman Harold Ford.

Harold, the original, was a Democratic rising star, with so much crossover appeal that he came this close to being elected to the Senate -- in Tennessee. No small feat for a Democrat, let alone a black one. Yet just three short years later, the return of the "new Ford" as a possible New York Senate candidate has been greeted with a mixture of golf claps and derision. So how did yesterday's rising star get pegged as tomorrow's sinking ship before his boat even left the dock this time around?

To be fair, some of the blame does go to Ford himself, or perhaps to whatever consultants he's paying to advise him at the moment. (Heads up Harold. They owe you a refund for the last month.) Beginning with his awkward New York Times interview his rollout has not exactly been what you'd call smooth. But nothing he has done on the trail has constituted a bona fide career-ending gaffe, certainly not in a state where Eliot Spitzer considers a political comeback a possibility. (Yes, I'm serious.)

And yet from the reception in the local media to the reception from some local elected officials, I can't recall a political welcome this chilly in the Big Apple since the 2004 Republican National Convention. So why does it seem that Ford is being politically run out of town before he's even had the chance to actually run for office?

It can't be that anyone seriously has an issue with the so-called carpetbagger criticism that some have levied, since both Senators Kennedy and Clinton moved here and became some of the most beloved Senators our state has ever had. It also can't be that anyone really believes that Ford's previously documented conservative leanings make him unviable. After all, one of the reasons Gillibrand was perceived as a questionable choice by liberals, and a reasonable choice by other Dems, was because of her own conservative cred, which served her well as an Upstate Congresswoman. It also can't be that anyone really believes that Ford's attempt to give himself the political equivalent of a makeover is a disqualifying factor, since Gillibrand did just that (to the disappointment of her Upstate constituents) after being appointed to the Senate herself. So what exactly is the difference? I think to anyone who's a student of New York politics the answer is pretty clear. It's not that Gillibrand is perceived as the strongest candidate for Democrats. If that were the case then her poll numbers would be rock solid, but after a year on the job they're not even close. She is however, perceived as the strongest candidate for one Democrat in particular: her political patron, and New York's political king of all media, Sen. Chuck Schumer.

By now everyone knows that the process to replace Sen. Clinton was a debacle from the get-go. There was the embarrassing Caroline Kennedy episode (which proved more embarrassing for New York's Governor than for Kennedy) but equally embarrassing has been the level of interference Sen. Schumer (aided at varying moments by the White House), has attempted to run to protect Gillibrand from the perils of a primary. At last count, at least three candidates had been scared off or elbowed out in an effort to protect Gillibrand's seat (you know, the one she wasn't elected to.)

Schumer, in particular, seems determined to protect his political investment at all costs. Why wouldn't he? After all, unlike the inconvenient Senator who preceded her, Hillary Clinton, no one actually believes that Gillibrand will ever upstage Schumer in terms of accomplishments or power, but most importantly, in media attention -- no one, including Schumer. (If you've never heard the joke, "Where's the most dangerous place to be? Between Chuck Schumer and a news camera," then you may not follow politics as closely as you think.)

After years of toiling in Hillary's shadow, Schumer appears to have finally found a political soul mate; a fellow New York Senator who won't steal his spotlight and who will, for the most part, do whatever he says. That's great for him, (particularly at a time when his own poll numbers are at an all time low) but that doesn't automatically mean it's great for New Yorkers.

Look, I don't know if Harold Ford will make a good Senator for New York. Perhaps he is simply too rusty, politically speaking, to even make a good candidate. But I do believe he has a right to find out and a right to run, particularly against a candidate who didn't run for the seat in the first place. If Sen. Gillibrand is as talented as Sen. Schumer (and any of her other supporters) thinks that she is, then she should have no trouble beating Ford, or any other candidate, in a primary. The fact that they seem so deadset on stopping one from taking place tells me that perhaps they are not as confident as they would like for us to believe.

If that's true, then Democrats in New York, and beyond, should be concerned. Because as everyone learned in Massachusetts, sending a weak candidate into a general election, even in a comfortably blue state, is not a recipe for success, but for disaster.

And with an approval rating of just 31% among New York Democrats after a year on the job, I wouldn't exactly call Sen. Gillibrand's election a sure thing.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a political writer.

www.keligoff.com