By TOM HUMPHREY
Democrats say that Tennessee Republicans injected racism into a fund-raising appeal by using "code words" and a photograph of Democratic Senate nominee Harold Ford Jr. "obviously altered" to make his complexion darker.
State Republican Chairman Bob Davis, who signed the letter deemed offensive by Democrats, says the charge is "a lot of baloney" and the state GOP has launched an active "outreach" program toward minority voters under his leadership.
Ford himself, meanwhile, has questioned whether a Republican National Committee television ad has racial overtones because it depicts a "dark, shadowy figure" resembling the congressman walking toward the camera through an alley.
"There’s a really nasty one running right now that I think injects a little race in this thing, the way they have me pictured," Ford told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
State Democratic Chairman Bob Tuke said the RNC ad is "almost Willie Horton" _ a reference to an ad depicting a black criminal used by Republicans against Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988.
"It has a black man walking toward you in an alley. It suggests danger from a black man who looks like Harold Ford," Tuke said.
RNC spokesman Danny Diaz called the contentions "outlandish."
The state GOP fund-raising letter has two photos of Ford, who would become the first black senator elected from the South if he defeats Republican Bob Corker on Nov. 7.
The letter was obtained by the Knoxville News Sentinel from a Republican who received the solicitation.
"They have darkened Harold Ford’s image to make a racist statement," Tuke said after reviewing the mailing. "It’s obviously altered."
Tuke and Jerry Maynard, who is black and the deputy director of the state Democratic Party, said the text of Davis’ letter also contains "code word" references to race.
As examples, they cited phrases in the following two sentences in the letter referring to Ford:
"He passes himself off as someone with a deep connection to the Volunteer State, but he gets obscene amounts of liberal money from out-of-state."
"Harold Ford is a smooth operator, cunning and disguising his real record, opportunistic as can be, hypocritical as they come and a true danger to Tennessee."
Blacks acting as if they are white may be said to be passing themselves off, Tuke said. "Smooth operator" is the title of a well-known song performed by Sade that refers to a "black smooth operator," he said.
In the text of the letter, both the phrases "passes himself off" and "smooth operator" are in bold type and underlined.
The letter also refers to Ford and former President Bill Clinton as "cut from the same camouflage cloth" in bold type.
"They ought to be ashamed of themselves," said Tuke. "It’s disgusting and sad that in 2006 a supposedly mainstream political party would be mailing out trash like this."
Davis and Chris Devaney, executive director of the state GOP, said the pictures in the mailing were not darkened and the phrases quoted are not "code words."
"That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of," said Davis. "They (Democrats) don’t want to talk about issues. They’re trying to bring race into it."
(Contact Tom Humphrey of The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee at www.knoxnews.com.)