Ford, Harold E. Jr. 1970–
Harold E. Ford, Jr. 1970–
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 26, Ford became the youngest member of the present Congress and the second youngest member of Congress in history. He is 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 deciding to retire in 1996.
Harold Eugene Ford, Jr. was born in Memphis in 1970. Yet another first that can be attached to Ford’s election is his being the first member of Congress born after a man landed on the moon. Instead of downplaying his youth, which might have been considered a liability, Ford ran a campaign emphasizing his “Generation X” status. His “New Vision” platform encompasses a series of economic, educational, and health reforms he believes will help America move into the 21st century on a stronger footing.
Ford began his political involvement at age four when he spoke on 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 1975, toddler 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 Rangel of New York. He also remembers spending happy hours at the Washington home of Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose son, Jesse, Jr., entered Congress in 1997 along with Ford as a representative from Illinois.
The oldest of three brothers, Ford spent his first nine years in Memphis, where he attended a public elementary school. In 1979, with Harold, Sr. securely entrenched in Congress, the Ford family moved to the Washington, D.C. area. Ford attended St. Alban’s School, a posh Episcopal school for boys that has educated many sons of the Washington power elite. One of Ford’s classmates was Jesse Jackson’s son, Yousef. Ford views 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
Born Harold Eugene Ford, Jr. on May 11, 1970 in Memphis, Tennessee; son of Harold Eugene Ford (a politician), and Dorothy Bowles Ford (an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Education —Graduated from St. Alban’s School, Washington, D.C., 1988; bachelor’s degree in American history, University of Pennsylvania, 1992; juris doctor, University of Michigan Law School, 1996. Religion —Baptist.
Career: Coordinator of Harold E. Ford, Sr’s congressional campaigns in 1992 and 1994; special assistant to the Justice/Civil Rights Cluster on the Clinton Transitional Team, 1992; special assistantat U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration, 1993; member of U.S. House of Representatives (Ninth District, Tennessee), 1997-; member of House Committee on Education and the Workforce and House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight.
Addresses: Home —Memphis, TN; Arlington, VA; Office —1523 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC, 20515-4209.
freshman and our candidate not only knows where the restrooms are, but where the committee rooms are.” Ford’s father served with Vice President Albert Gore in the Tennessee congressional delegation and Ethnic Newswatch described Ford as “practically a godson” to Gore.
After graduating from St. Alban’s School 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 of that year. He then joined the Justice/Civil Rights Cluster of the 1992 Clinton Transition Team as a special assistant.
In 1993, Ford worked under the leadership of the late U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron 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 is among Ford’s major goals as a member of Congress. “I believe the viability of America’s economic future is tied to the achievement of an aggressive and comprehensive urban policy strategy aimed at increasing public and private investment and spurring job growth. The challenges of the 21st century will command the formation of bold and creative alliances among the private, public, and civic sectors as we search for ways to meet the vast needs of the future marketplace,” Ford explained in material obtained from his official website.
Ford attended the University of Michigan Law School, taking time out from his law studies to coordinate his father’s 1994 campaign. Ford earned a law degree in 1996 and plans to take the bar exam in 1998. His $133,600 annual salary as a member of the House will help Ford pay back $15,000 in educational loans that piled up during his law school years.
In the spring of 1996, Harold E. Ford, Sr. announced that he would not seek a 12th term in Congress and was supporting his son as his successor. “I want to go out on top. I think public opinion polls show that I’m stronger than ever in my career. I want to come back home to Memphis and be a part 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 and was quoted in Jet. Ford, Sr., who is only in his early fifties, has taken a private sector job in Memphis and is expected to make a run for the U.S. Senate or for governor of Tennessee within the next few years.
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, is in the Tennessee state senate, and another uncle, James W. Ford, is on the Memphis city council. Name recognition made Ford the front runner in the ninth district Democratic primary. 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. Since all three candidates espoused liberal views, the campaign hinged on family and racial matters. According to the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, 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 the lackluster 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 sixty percent African American and includes most of the city of Memphis and some of its suburbs). This strategy did not pan out due to Jones being such a weak candidate. Also, Cohen failed to draw much support from the district’s white voters, most of whom tend to vote Republican.
Ford was accused of racism when he labelled Cohen “the great Republican hope.” Cohen claimed that the remark was meant to point out his race rather than his political views since the Republican party in Memphis is overwhelmingly white. “When you start talking about the great Republican hope, everybody knows you’re talking about the great white hope,” Cohen said at a news conference and was quoted in the New York Times. Ford denied that his remarks were racially motivated and argued that local Republicans had tried for more than two decades to unseat his father and would be pleased to see Cohen defeat his father’s son. Ford won the Democratic primary election, held in August 1996, with 62 percent of the vote. According to the New York Times, at a victory rally, Ford called his triumph “a victory for young people who are seeking guidance and hope and opportunity.” The ninth district is heavily Democratic and in the November general election, Ford easily defeated Republican Rod DeBerry, an African American who had run against Ford’s father in 1994.
Though Ford has frankly exploited his “Washington insider” status, he is quick 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 member of the U.S. House, Ford’s chief aim is to represent the people of 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 would like to see Memphis further develop as an international business center. Ford explained in Ethnic Newswatch. —”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 campaign. He wants the U.S. Department of Education to insure that all classrooms have Internet access. Ford is also a strong supporter of Head Start, a pre-school education program, and of President Clinton’s Goals 2000 education program. He is aware that such federally-based solutions have become increasingly unpopular with the public. “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,” Ford told Ethnic Newswatch
Protection of the environment is other issue of concern to Ford and he supports Democratic Party initiatives to preserve environmentally sensitive areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. In regard to juvenile crime, Ford would like to see more police on the street and increased funding for education and job training rather than for more prisons. Ford told Ethnic Newswatch —”I don’t mean that we shouldn’t be tough on those that are committing crime, but now is the time for us to find ways to motivate and challenge them. I want to know from the kids own point of view what will make learning easier and more interesting.” He is also a staunch supporter of affirmative action programs. “If Republicans can defend [Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas, Democrats can defend affirmative action,” Ford said in the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report. Soon after being sworn-in as a member of House, Ford was elected Second Vice President of the 105th Congress’ Freshman class, which means he will become president of the class in 1998. Ford was named a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight. These low-profile committees are typical assignments for freshman congressman. It seems likely that Ford, if he is re-elected, will move up the Congressional power ladder in the Democratic Party. According to the Houston Chronicle, Representative Maxine Waters, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, plans to showcase Ford at caucus events aimed at young people.
A self-described “workaholic” who takes the stairs rather than wait for the slow elevators in the U.S. Capitol building, Ford has little time for social life. He is busy from early in the morning to late at night and his one-bedroom apartment in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington, is little more than a place to sleep. A bachelor, Ford enjoys jazz music, especially John Coltrane, and gangster films. He is also a fan of the Washington Wizards basketball team. Two of his best friends in Congress are young Republicans—John Ensign of Nevada and Jon Christiansen of Nebraska—and they sometimes get together for stress-reducing basketball games in the House gym. Work and politics are what Ford thrives on. 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.”
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, August 28, 1997, p. A8; November 7, 1996, p. Bl; January 2, 1997, p. Bl; January 15, 1997, p. Bl; January 29, 1997, p. A11; March 17, 1997, p. Bl; March 26, 1997, p. B2; June 17, 1997, p. B2; August 10, 1997, p. E1
Nashville Tennessean, April 20, 1997, p. B7
New York Times, June 9, 1996, p. A26; July 30, 1996, p. B7; August 2, 1996, p. A20
People, November 18, 1996, pp. 50-55
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 also obtained from the Rep. Harold E. Ford, Jr. website (www.house.gov/ford) and Ethnic Newswatch (SoftLine Information, Inc.).
—Mary C. Kalfatovic
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