In his first extensive interview since he began weighing a run for United States Senate from New York, Harold E. Ford Jr. distanced himself from his previous opposition to same-sex marriage, his description of himself as “pro-life” and his push to permit local police officers to enforce federal immigration law, and said he would be a fiercer advocate for New York than Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Mr. Ford said that he had missed politics since leaving Congress four years ago and believes New Yorkers would be open to his candidacy, despite his Tennessee roots and intermittent Southern accent.
In a clear swipe at Ms. Gillibrand, he said he would not be a lap dog for Democratic leaders in Washington, who have rushed to her defense since Mr. Ford expressed interest in the seat.
“If I am elected senator from New York, Harry Reid will not instruct me how to vote,” he said, referring to Mr. Reid’s efforts to keep him out of the campaign.
Mr. Ford agreed to the interview with The New York Times as he tests the response to his possible candidacy. His interest in the race, reported a week ago, has set off intense reaction and furious strategizing among Senate Democratic leaders and White House officials, as they try to discourage his campaign and avoid an ugly and expensive primary in September that could risk losing a crucial Senate seat.
A Ford campaign could become a delicate subject for the Obama administration, however, which is more reluctant to assert itself in New York politics after failing last year in its effort to elbow Gov. David A. Paterson out of his election bid.
Mr. Ford said he had been emboldened by the response he had received from the public in recent days. Everyone — from the cabdrivers who shuttle him around the city to the executives with whom he rubs elbows on Wall Street — has urged him to run, he said.
During a trip from New York to Palm Beach on Thursday, flight attendants and passengers stopped in the aisle to cheer him on, he said. “I didn’t hear anyone say, you better not run against that Kirsten Gillibrand,” he said.
Again and again, during the interview, he returned to the subject of the economy, saying Ms. Gillibrand, an upstate lawmaker who was appointed by Mr. Paterson to fill the seat vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton, has failed to aggressively focus on creating jobs. He called for a major reduction in the corporate tax rate and a payroll tax holiday to encourage hiring.
Zeroing in on a perception that Ms. Gillibrand too readily defers to Senate leaders, especially Senator Charles E. Schumer, he added: “We have a fundamental difference on independence. We have a difference on the level, the kind and the stature of advocacy New Yorkers deserve. And we have some honest differences on issues.”
He blasted her support for the proposed health care overhaul, which is expected to cost New York an extra $1 billion a year, and for opposing the taxpayer bailout of the financial industry.
“It was a mistake,” he said, noting that most Wall Street firms had already paid back the money. “How can you be against ensuring that the lifeblood of your city and of your state survives?”
Asked to grade her performance in the Senate, he said: “It would certainly be hard to give a grade that would be a glowing one.”
Mr. Ford, however, acknowledged that he gave Ms. Gillibrand a $1,000 campaign contribution shortly after her appointment, saying he had done so at the request of a friend. “She had only been a senator for two days,” he added.
After Mr. Ford, a five-term Tennessee congressman, arrived in New York, he took a job as a vice chairman at Merrill Lynch (now Bank of America). But he kept a toe in politics, becoming a commentator on Fox and then NBC, which features him several days a week on programs like MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Speaking from a conference room at New York University, where he is a teacher, Mr. Ford, 39, expressed enthusiasm about his new hometown, though he described a life quite different than most New Yorkers. On many days, he is driven to an NBC television studio in a chauffeured car. He and his wife, Emily, a 29-year-old fashion executive, live a few blocks from the Lexington Avenue subway line in the Flatiron district. But Mr. Ford said he takes the subway only occasionally in the winter, to avoid the cold when he cannot hail a cab.
Asked whether he had visited all five boroughs, he mentioned taking a helicopter ride across the city with fellow executives, at the invitation of Raymond W. Kelly, New York City’s police commissioner. “The only place I have not spent considerable time is Staten Island,” he said, adding that “I landed there in the helicopter, so I can say yes.”
Asked about his baseball loyalties, he responded: “I am a Yankees fan,” and added that he had yet to visit Citi Field, the home of the Mets.
He has breakfast most mornings at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, and he receives regular pedicures. (He described them as treatment for a foot condition.)
Mr. Ford declined to discuss what he is paid by the bank, but publicly available data suggests that he earns at least $1 million a year. Asked what role outsize pay packages played in fueling the financial crisis, Mr. Ford said he objected to capping executive compensation on Wall Street. “I am a capitalist,” he said. “I believe that people take risk, and there are rewards if they do well; they should lose if they don’t.”
But what is likely to gain the most immediate attention is his record on issues, which Ms. Gillibrand’s defenders say is too conservative for New York.
Mr. Ford twice voted for legislation in the House that would make same-sex marriage illegal. In 2006, when Tennessee voters considered a ballot initiative to outlaw the practice, he vowed to support it. “I oppose gay marriage,” he said at the time.
But in the interview, he said he had changed his mind. He said that he had endorsed civil unions since entering Congress, and that, after watching the debate about marriage unfold in state legislatures and courtrooms, his position had evolved.
“I don’t think it’s a great leap to go from civil unions to gay marriage,” he said. “I may be in the minority in believing that. But I don’t think there is.”
When pressed, he said he would seek to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage, and said he would “revisit” the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Mr. Ford has repeatedly described himself as “pro-life,” and has voted to ban a procedure opponents call partial-birth abortions and to require that minors receive parental consent before receiving an abortion.
In the interview, however, he said: “To describe me as pro-life is just wrong. I am personally pro-choice and legislatively pro-choice.”
Explaining the previous remarks, he said he refused to cede “the language of life” to the political right. Mr. Ford said that he had always supported abortion rights, but that when he campaigned in Tennessee, he used the phrase “pro-life” more broadly to highlight what he saw as the hypocrisy of Republican policies that denied benefits to returning war veterans, or equal pay to National Guardsmen.
He said he would not abandon his opposition to partial-birth abortion and support for parental consent, saying that if a 15-year-old girl cannot see an R-rated movie without an adult, she should not receive an abortion without a parent’s permission.
He supported Congressional legislation in 2006 to allow local police officers to investigate and arrest illegal immigrants, despite the objections of many advocates and lawmakers, like Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who said it would discourage people from cooperating with the police. He says his views on the subject have changed.
“I have come to better understand the issue,” he said. “Empowering local enforcement to do what federal law enforcement was not doing seemed to make sense in my state,” he said, referring to Tennessee. Mr. Ford, a member of the National Rifle Association, also voted for legislation to limit lawsuits against gun makers, and he cast one of the few Democratic votes for a bill to repeal the District of Columbia’s restrictions on guns.
When asked about the tough restrictions that mayors in New York and Newark have put in place, however, he said, “All of Mayor Bloomberg and Mayor Booker’s efforts in the region, I support.”
Asked about his own experience with guns, he said he was an occasional bird hunter. “I shoot at things that can’t shoot back,” he said with a smile, “and will continue to do that.”
Offering a glimpse into a possible campaign strategy, Mr. Ford and his aides said he would run as an insurgent who is uncontrolled by the entrenched political class that he says has rallied around Ms. Gillibrand. His tentative slogan: “Harold Ford: nobody’s man but ours.”
Advisers said the strategy would appeal to a restive electorate battered by the recession, and help blunt the impact of future endorsements of Ms. Gillibrand.
Mr. Ford has officially been a resident of the state only since 2009, and did not vote in November’s mayoral election. He still has a Tennessee driver’s license. But he has tied into the city’s charity circuit, through Prep for Prep, which helps low-income students attend private schools.
He has traveled to Buffalo and Syracuse, and this month will begin an upstate tour.
He is studying up on his New York history and readily mentioned names of New York lawmakers, like Rubén Díaz Jr., the Bronx borough president, with whom he played in a charity basketball game, and Representative Joseph Crowley of Queens, who he said threw elbows at him throughout the game.
“New York has, in many ways, become home,” he said.
Related reading: Gawker: New York Times Allows Harold Ford to Destroy Himself
"Right. So, just so we're clear, Harold Ford: you want to run for office in New York. You want people in New York to vote for you. Democrats in New York are the people you are trying to appeal to. And, when asked if you prefer the Giants or the Jets, your answer is that you're better friends with the Tisches than with Woody Johnson, so Giants...? That is an insane answer. That is the answer of a man who has not left his bubble of town cars-to-MSNBC and billionaire Democratic donor friends for six years. Harold: name the quarterbacks, not the owners.
Oh, he also defends banker bonuses, and his job-creation program is "a huge-tax cut bill for business people," and also " we need to lower the corporate tax rate from 35 to 25 percent." And: a capital-gains tax cut! That is my favorite kind of economic stimulus! So, congrats, Senator Gillibrand, the New York Times just gave you a present."
Ezra Klein seconds that emotion.