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By Kevin Robillard January 19, 2010

Harold Ford's comments on abortion prompt charges of flip-flopping

There are many, many differences between New York and Tennessee. One has Jay-Z, the other the Grand Ole Opry. One has Famous Ray's Pizza, the other, Memphis barbecue.

So it's not a surprise a politician running for office in Tennessee would say different things than one in New York. What's at least a little surprising, though, is that a former congressman from Tennessee -- Harold Ford Jr. -- is now considering running for Senate from New York.

Ford, who served five terms in the U.S. House representing the Memphis area, ran for the U.S. Senate in Tennesee in 2006 and lost to Republican Bob Corker. Ford's family has deep roots in the Memphis area -- his House seat had previously been held by his father -- but after the Senate loss, Ford moved to New York City to be with his girlfriend (now wife). Ford is now the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate, pro-business Democrats and a senior policy adviser at Bank of America.

He's considering running for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate against Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to the seat by Gov. David Patterson after Hillary Clinton was named secretary of state. Gillibrand's appointment disappointed some Democrats, who believe she is too conservative on immigration and gun rights.

But Ford's time in Tennessee is already coming back to haunt him. Not because he's a carpetbagger -- New York elected Robert F. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, after all -- but because of several statements he made about abortion while running for Senate in Tennessee.

There have been allegations that Ford flip-flopped, particularly after an interview last week in the New York Times. Reporter Michael Barbaro said in the interview that "we know you describe yourself as pro-life," but Ford interjected: "No, no, let's be clear."

Later in the interview, Ford elaborated: "To say that I am pro-life is just wrong. I am personally pro-choice and legislatively pro-choice."

NARAL Pro-Choice New York, however, put out this YouTube video of Ford telling then-MSNBC host Tucker Carlson and then-Fox News host Alan Colmes during the 2006 campaign that he is "pro-life."

Is this a classic flip-flop? Did he say one thing to appeal to the conservatives in Tennessee, and something else to strike a chord with the liberal New Yorkers?

It's not that simple. Ford's actual positions on abortion didn't change at all -- just his descriptions of them. When Ford first ran for Congress, his district was safely Democratic and he ran as an abortion rights supporter. His voting record in Congress reflects this.

For his five terms in the House, the National Right to Life Committee found Ford voted with the group's anti-abortion positions 5, 6, 18, 25 and 22 percent of the time. While he was running for Senate in Tennessee, Douglas Johnson, the committee's legislative director, wrote an open letter in which he said he was "astonished" journalists and commentators were "unskeptically" accepting Ford's "pro-life" declarations when "his claim ... cannot survive 10 minutes study of his actual voting record."

But at the other end of the spectrum, NARAL Pro-Choice America isn't enamored with Ford, either. Its president, Nancy Keenan, said in a statement last week that Ford "did not have a consistently pro-choice record," and made clear the organization was supporting Gillibrand.

Why are both sides unhappy?

Ford isn't a purist on abortion rights. He supports them generally, but he also voted to ban late-term abortions and to require parental notification for girls under 18 seeking abortions. He's held those positions consistently, but has alternated between describing them as "pro-choice" or "pro-life."

Ford's "pro-life" period appears to be an attempt to appeal to more conservative voters outside of his Memphis base while he was running for Senate in Tennessee. Aides also told the New York Daily News this week it was an attempt to make the "language of life" relevant to issues like education and health care.

His two "pro-choice" periods come before he ran for the Senate in Tennessee and now that he may run in New York.

So his descriptions have changed, but his positions haven't. We give Ford a Half-Flip.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

New York Times, Interview With Harold Ford, Jr., By Michael Barbaro, January 12, 2010

YouTube, Harold Ford, Jr. is NOT pro-choice, By NARAL Pro-Choice New York, January 8, 2010

National Right to Life Committee, Legislative Action Center

National Right to Life Committee, Harold Ford Jr., Is Not Pro-Life, By Douglas Johnson, October 30, 2006

NARAL Pro-Choice America, NARAL Pro-Choice America Issues Statement Regarding Harold Ford's Voting Record on Choice, January 12, 2010

New York Daily News, 'Political chameleon' Ford is neither pro-choice nor anti-choice on abortion, crusaders contend, By David Saltonstall and Michael Saul, January 15, 2010

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Harold Ford's comments on abortion prompt charges of flip-flopping

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