If you were lucky enough to have been present at the Kennedy School of Government’s ARCO Forum last Wednesday night, you were privy to a wonderful treat! Congressman Harold E. Ford, Jr. (D-Tennessee), the second youngest member of the United States House of Representatives, delivered a dynamic public address before a diverse crowd of students, faculty, administration and local residents, touching upon the broad issues of the role of government in our lives, education, the plight of poor children in America, fiscal responsibility, campaign finance reform, among others.
While he may still remain unfamiliar to some (not for long!), Congressman Ford has appeared on the radar screens of key political and business leaders and is often touted as a rising star in the Democratic party who has the potential to achieve even higher office. Congressman Ford was elected by an overwhelming majority in his first two congressional races and ran unopposed last November in his bid for a third term in the House. Ford represents a new generation of political leaders who seek to replace the partisan politics of the past with fresh ideas and a pragmatic approach to the challenges of the 21st Century.
When Ford announced in 1996 that he intended to run for the same House seat his father had held for more than two decades, he attracted significant attention. Ford’s triumph marked the first time in history that an African-American had succeeded his father in Congress. While his detractors tried to find fault with his youth (which he considers to be an asset) and his lineage, few could argue with Congressman Ford’s impeccable credentials. He received his JD from the University of Michigan School of Law in 1996 and a bachelor’s degree in American History from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992. By the time the Congressman undertook his own political campaign, he was already well traveled in the halls of government.
Congressman Ford cut his first political ad at the tender age of four when he encouraged voters in Memphis, TN, to vote for his father who supported an improved economy and lower cookie prices! But he didn’t stop there. Ford worked under the leadership of the late U.S. Secretary Ronald Brown as Special Assistant to the Economic Development Administration in 1993, served as a Special Assistant for the 1992 Clinton/Gore Transition Team, and as an aide to the Senate Budget Committee under former U.S. Senator James Sasser.
A Fast Start
Since becoming a member of Congress, Harold Ford has not slowed down-and his fan club has continued to grow. He was elected president of the freshman class of Democrats during his first term in the House, and was chosen by his peers to be the regional whip for four southern states during his second term (a duty which placed him in charge of counting votes and persuading his undecided colleagues on the merits of various bills). In August 2000, Congressman Ford received the honor that he describes as the “high point of his political career” when then Vice President Al Gore called to inform him that he had been selected to deliver the keynote address at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, clearly placing him in the public eye.
As a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Congressman Ford is able to have significant impact on his main priority-improving education. He led efforts to secure federal funding for school construction needs and education initiatives and introduced “The Make College Affordable Act of 1999,” a bill that provides a full tax deduction for college education expenses and interest on student loans. Ford says, “Although America faces an array of challenges, in my view there is no single greater threat to our future economic prosperity, national security and social stability than an unprepared and underskilled workforce.”
As the keynote speaker at the 29th Annual Career/Alumni Conference sponsored by the African-American Student Union here in February, Congressman Ford told those in attendance that he had just been appointed to serve on the House Financial Services Committee as well. This gives Ford jurisdiction over many areas that will affect Harvard MBA’s across the country. The Congressman believes that “the New Economy presents a variety of challenges and opportunities for policy makers at all levels…and the Financial Services Committee must lead the way in reshaping government policy to fit a new [global] reality.”
Across the River
Listening to Harold Ford speak over at the KSG, it was easy to forget that this inspiring orator is just a month shy of his 31st birthday. He masterfully combined passionate delivery, a command of the relevant issues, Southern charm and dry wit into his speech (if you’re not careful, you will miss his clever punch lines) and had every person in the room eating out of the palm of his hand at its rousing conclusion. Congressman Ford speaks with the assurance of a well-seasoned politician and has an uncanny ability to get even those who disagree with his political viewpoints to listen as he makes a compelling case.
While Ford touched on many issues during his public address and earlier as a guest speaker during Donna Brazile’s lecture series (Ms. Brazile was Gore’s presidential campaign manager), he also spoke about his motivation for entering public service in the first place. While he admitted that some might call it “corny,” Congressman Ford says his goal is to make a real difference in people’s lives like some of “the risk takers and the doers and the dreamers in politics of old” and that he is often “frustrated by the lack of boldness in politics today.” He continued, “Ideas that seem really big, like building schools or providing healthcare for most Americans are derided, but I’ll fight for those big ideas because that’s what I believe in.”
It is probably safe to say that we have not heard the last from Congressman Ford who is contemplating undertaking a Senate race next year. Who knows, a couple of years down the road, those of us who saw the speech may be telling our children about the time we heard the President speak across the river…