SBF ISO congressional seat

Nikki Tinker, a corporate lawyer, has emerged as the front-runner in the Democratic primary race to succeed Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.).

Tinker, 34, will be the first to announce her candidacy, even though Ford has been campaigning for the Senate for two months. She told The Hill that she is “putting together the foundation” of a campaign before formally announcing her candidacy next month. If elected, she would become the youngest black female lawmaker in Congress and the youngest member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Nikki Tinker, a corporate lawyer, has emerged as the front-runner in the Democratic primary race to succeed Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.).

Tinker, 34, will be the first to announce her candidacy, even though Ford has been campaigning for the Senate for two months. She told The Hill that she is “putting together the foundation” of a campaign before formally announcing her candidacy next month. If elected, she would become the youngest black female lawmaker in Congress and the youngest member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Tinker and Ford have traveled much different paths to get to where they are. Ford is part of one of Tennessee’s most established political families. He grew up in Washington, D.C., attending the prestigious St. Albans School in Washington and the University of Pennsylvania.

Tinker was raised by a single mother in Gadsen, Ala. She earned her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Alabama, where she was the first black student elected president of the law school’s student body. After working in private practice in Birmingham and Memphis, she became the general counsel for Northwest Air Link in Memphis last year. She has served as Ford’s campaign manager.

“I understand business, and I understand the social needs of this community,” Tinker said, indicating that she would run as a centrist Democrat, like Ford. “I can bring both sides to the middle.” 

The 9th Congressional District of Tennessee, which includes Memphis, is a majority-minority district. The Ford family has held the seat for the past three decades; Ford’s father, Harold Sr., represented the district for 22 years before his son was elected in 1996. Without any member of the Ford family running, the Ford family’s political dynasty in the district will end after the 2006 midterm elections.  

Tennessee has been gripped by a corruption scandal that has ensnared Ford’s uncle, who had been a longtime Democratic state senator, as well as four other state representatives. Federal prosecutors have charged five elected officials for accepting bribes.

FBI agents set up a company, E-Cycle, which claimed to buy used equipment from the state and resell it at a profit. The “bagmen” offered cash to the lawmakers in exchange for their help in promoting legislation that would help E-Cycle win state contracts. The operation’s code name was “Tennessee Waltz.”

“People there are wanting to see new blood, new ideas and new faces,” said Jarvis Steward, a D.C.-based lobbyist and Ford’s former chief of staff, who is advising Tinker.

It is unclear whether corruption in Tennessee and in other states, such as Ohio and California, can lead to big changes in Congress. Paul Hackett, a former Marine Corps officer who served in Iraq, tried to tie his Republican opponent to Ohio’s corruption scandal in that state’s 2nd Congressional District. He lost by just four percentage points in a heavily GOP district.

In California, the political parties are waiting to see what role allegations play in the race to succeed Rep. Duke Cunningham (R), who has been accused of directing government contracts to a political benefactor who bought his house at an inflated price.

In Memphis, Ford’s uncle, John Ford, a state senator, resigned in May after being indicted on bribery and extortion charges. The FBI videotaped him accepting a bribe. In the special primary election to replace him held earlier this month, Ophelia Ford, his sister, won and is expected to coast to victory in the general election.

“The first real chance to see a backlash, we did not see it,” said Marcus Pohlmann, a political scientist at Rhodes College in Memphis. “These types of stories just don’t have that long of legs.”

Tinker has spent her time sizing up support within Memphis’s business community, churches and plaintiff’s bar. Like most other first-time candidates, she is reaching out to her sorority sisters and friends.

There could be as many as eight candidates seeking to win the Democratic primary.

“Right now, everyone is jockeying to figure out who is going to support who,” said Stewart.

Ford won with 84 percent in 2002 and 82 percent in 2004. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won Ford’s district with 65 percent last year, while President Bush defeated Kerry statewide, 57-43 percent.

The Democratic primary is scheduled for Aug. 3, 2006.