Ford, Harold E., Jr.

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Harold E. Ford Jr.


Financial executive, politician, political analyst

The election of Harold E. Ford Jr. to the U.S. House of Representatives in November of 1996 was a noteworthy event for a number of reasons. At age twenty-six, Ford became the second youngest member of Congress in U.S. history. He was also the first African American to succeed a parent in office; Ford's father, Harold E. Ford Sr., represented Tennessee's ninth district for eleven terms before retiring in 1996. Even though Ford no longer serves in Congress, having narrowly lost his 2006 bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate, he remains a political force as chair of the Democratic Leadership Council and as a highly visible political commentator on television and in the print media. He has also made his mark in the business world as an executive with the major financial firm Merrill Lynch & Co.

Harold Eugene Ford Jr. was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1970. Ford began his political involvement at age four, when he spoke in a radio advertisement that was part of his father's first campaign for Congress. According the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, when his father was sworn in as a member of Congress in January of 1975, Ford turned to his mother, Dorothy, and said, "This is what I want to do when I grow up." As a boy, Ford accompanied his father to Congressional Black Caucus meetings, and he fondly recalls bouncing on the knee of Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York. He also remembers spending several happy hours at the Washington home of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose son, Jesse Jr., entered Congress in 1997 as a representative from Illinois.

Arrived in House with Connections

The oldest of three brothers, Ford spent his first nine years in Memphis, where he attended a public elementary school. In 1979, with Ford Sr. securely entrenched in Congress, the Ford family moved to the Washington, D.C., area. There, Ford attended St. Alban's School, an exclusive Episcopal boys' school that has educated many sons of the Washington power elite. Ford viewed his familiarity with the ways of Washington as an asset. As a Ford campaign spokesman told the New York Times in 1996, "Whoever wins is going to be a freshman and our candidate not only knows where the restrooms are, but where the committee rooms are." Indeed, Ford's early political ties reach the highest ranks of government. Ford Sr. served alongside the former vice president Al Gore Jr. in the Tennessee congressional delegation, and Ethnic NewsWatch described Ford as "practically a godson" to Gore.

After graduating from St. Alban's in 1988, Ford enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League college in Philadelphia. While studying for a degree in American history, Ford was an active campus leader and journalist. Believing that the opinions of minority students were not being given sufficient hearing, Ford co-founded The Vision, an African-American student newspaper. After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1992, Ford returned to Tennessee to coordinate his father's congressional campaign. He then joined the Justice/Civil Rights Cluster of the 1992 Clinton Transition Team as a special assistant.

In 1993 Ford worked under the U.S. secretary of commerce Ron H. Brown, a longtime friend of the Ford family, as a special assistant to the Economic Development Administration. While serving in this position, he wrote policy papers promoting economic recovery in the Los Angeles area after the 1992 riots. Encouraging economic development in urban areas was among Ford's major goals as a member of Congress.

Ran Father's Reelection Campaign

Ford attended the University of Michigan Law School, taking time out from his legal studies to coordinate his father's 1994 campaign. Ford eventually earned his law degree in 1996. That spring, Ford Sr. announced that he would not seek a twelfth term in Congress and was supporting his son as his successor. "I want to go out on top. I think that public opinion polls show that I'm stronger than ever in my career. I want to come back home to Memphis and be apart of this city. I went with a new vision in 1974 and I think it's time for a new vision and a new generation to come," Ford Sr. announced at a Memphis press conference, as quoted in Jet.

The Ford family is deeply entrenched in the Memphis business and political scenes. Ford's grandfather, Newton Jackson Ford, was a prominent funeral home director. Ford's uncle, John Newton Ford, served in the Tennessee state senate until his political career was abruptly ended by a bribery scandal in 2005. Another uncle, James W. Ford, was a member of the Memphis city council and a Shelby County commissioner. With this family history, name recognition made Ford the front runner in the ninth district Democratic primary during his first campaign for Congress. Campaign buttons and T-shirts simply said "Jr." Ford's opponents in the primary were Rufus Jones, a state representative, and Steve Cohen, a state senator. Because all three candidates espoused liberal views, the campaign hinged on family and racial matters. According to the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, the Memphis mayor W.W. Herenton, a political rival of the Ford family and an African American, "openly shopped around for a heavy-hitting politician to back for a run against Ford, but could not recruit his top-choice candidates." Herenton had to settle for Jones, his former brother-in-law. Cohen, the only white candidate in the race, hoped that Ford and Jones would split the black vote (the ninth district is 60 percent African American and encompasses most of Memphis and some of its suburbs). Jones proved to be a weak candidate, and Cohen failed to draw much support from the district's white voters, most of whom tend to vote Republican.

At a Glance …

Born Harold Eugene Ford Jr. on May 11, 1970, in Memphis, TN; son of Harold Eugene Ford Sr. (a politician) and Dorothy Bowles Ford (an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Politics: Democrat. Religion: Baptist. Education: University of Pennsylvania, bachelor's degree in American history, 1992; University of Michigan Law School, Juris Doctor, 1996.

Career: Congressional campaign coordinator for Harold E. Ford Sr., 1992, 1994; Justice/Civil Rights Cluster on the Clinton Transitional Team, special assistant, 1992; U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration, special assistant, 1993; U.S. House of Representatives, representative from the Ninth District, Tennessee, 1997-2007; Democratic Leadership Council, chair, 2007—; Merrill Lynch & Co., vice chairman and senior policy adviser, 2007—; Vanderbilt University, visiting professor, 2007; political analyst, 2007—.

Memberships: Council on Foreign Relations; U.S. Joint Forces Command's Transformation Advisory Group.

Addresses: Home—Memphis, TN. Office—Merrill Lynch & Co., 4 World Financial Center, 250 Vesey St., New York, NY 10080.

Ford was accused of racism when he labeled Cohen "the great Republican hope." Cohen claimed that the remark was meant to point out his race rather than his political views because the Republican Party in Memphis is overwhelmingly white. Ford denied that his remarks were racially motivated, arguing that local Republicans had tried for more than two decades to unseat Ford Sr. and would be pleased to see Cohen defeat Ford Jr. Ford won the August of 1996 Democratic primary with 62 percent of the vote. According to the New York Times, Ford said at a victory rally that his triumph was "a victory for young people who are seeking guidance and hope and opportunity." In the November general election, Ford easily defeated Republican Rod DeBerry, an African American who had run against Ford's father in 1994 to represent the heavily Democratic ninth district. Soon after being sworn in as a member of the House, Ford was elected Second Vice President of the 105th Congress's freshman class.

Reelected with Little Resistance

Ford happily exploited his "Washington insider" status, but during his tenure in Congress he was careful to point out that family connections alone cannot get anybody elected. Ford explained in the Chattanooga Free Press, "If I went out and said, I'm Harold Ford, Jr., and couldn't construct a sentence, nobody would vote for me. You can't inherit it. You've got to go out and earn it."

As a U.S. representative, Ford championed the interests of the people in his district. "You don't send people to Washington who can't deliver. You send someone who knows the system and the process, who can deliver for the district," Ford told Black Enterprise. He sought to transform Memphis into more of an international business center. Ford explained to Ethnic News-Watch, "I think we should communicate more with the Department of Commerce in developing the city as a foreign trade zone…. Memphis has an opportunity to really grow from a global perspective and become a major player."

Ford visited nearly one hundred schools during his first campaign, and once in office he urged the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that all classrooms have Internet access. Ford was also a strong supporter of Head Start, a preschool education program that was created during President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty. Those were tough positions to take during a period that saw the popularity of government-based solutions to social problems plummet. Ford told Ethnic NewsWatch, "I certainly don't want to be portrayed (or misunderstood) as one who feels the federal government ought to come in and dictate how, when, where and what kids should be taught, but I do say that the federal government has the responsibility to ensure that young people are exposed to the highest level of education that his country can afford."

Lost Senate Bid

A self-described workaholic who took the stairs rather than wait for the slow elevators in the U.S. Capitol building, Ford dove into his job with gusto, treating his one-bedroom apartment in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington, as little more than a place to sleep. In true bipartisan spirit, two of his best friends in Congress during his first years in the House were young Republicans: John Ensign of Nevada and Jon L. Christiansen of Nebraska. For Ford, working long hours did not necessarily represent a sacrifice. He said of his job to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, "I am serious about this but you have to understand: This is fun for me. I enjoy this. I got hooked on politics early. I'm here to do a job and I take it very seriously, but I'm having the time of my life."

Ford won his 1998 reelection contest by a huge margin, and in 2000 the Republicans did not bother to field a candidate for the seat. That year, Ford was the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, where the fellow Tennessean Al Gore was nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate. Ford was easily reelected again in 2002 and 2004. In 2005 he announced that he was planning to run in 2006 for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Senate Majority Leader William Frist, who had earlier indicated that he would not seek reelection. In November of 2006 Ford lost a hotly contested race to Republican Bob Corker. After that disappointment, Ford wasted little time licking his wounds. In January of 2007 he was elected chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization that promotes centrist policy priorities within the Democratic Party. A month later, Ford accepted a position as vice chairman and senior policy adviser at the investment bank Merrill Lynch & Co. Apparently these two jobs were not enough; Ford also filled his postcongressional days with a visiting professorship at Vanderbilt University and as a political analyst with NBC News. However, while he is managing to keep busy outside of the halls of government, do not count on this lifelong insider to remain outside too long; the New York Observer reported in July 2007 that when asked "What's next?" by the NBC executive Vic Garvey, Ford replied: "I'm gonna be Governor."



American Prospect, September 2007, p. 23.

Atlanta Constitution, July 22, 1997, p. A8.

Black Enterprise, November 1996, p. 20.

Chattanooga Free Press, October 9, 1996, p. A7.

Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, January 4, 1997, pp. 84-85.

Houston Chronicle, January 5, 1997, p. A4.

Jet, May 6, 1996, p.6; January 17, 1997, pp. 4-6.

Memphis Commercial Appeal, November 7, 1996, p. B1; January 2, 1997, p. B1; January 15, 1997, p. B1; January 29, 1997, p. A11; March 17, 1997, p. B1; March 26, 1997, p. B2; June 17, 1997, p. B2; August 10, 1997, p. E1; August 28, 1997, p. A8.

Nashville Tennessean, April 20, 1997, p. B7.

Newsweek, October 30, 2006, p. 26.

New York Observer, July 3, 2007.

New York Times, June 9, 1996, p. A26; July 30, 1996, p. B7; August 2, 1996, p. A20; November 5, 2006, p. A1.

People, November 18, 1996, pp. 50-55.

Time, August 13, 2007.

Tri-State Defender, November 13, 1996, p. A1.

Washington Post, November 7, 1996, p. A39; November 12, 1996, p. D3; March 11, 1997, p. E2; April 29, 1997, p. B2; June 14, 1997, p. A7.

Information for this profile was also obtained from Ethnic NewsWatch.


"Harold E. Ford, Jr.," Merrill Lynch & Co., (accessed September 9, 2008).


"Former Congressman Harold E. Ford, Jr. Joins Merrill Lynch as Vice Chairman," Merrill Lynch & Co. press release, February 14, 2007, (accessed September 9, 2008).

—Mary C. Kalfatovic and Bob Jacobson