Mr. Ford—Jr.—Goes to Washington

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Harold E. Ford Jr., C’92, Democratic Congressman for the state of Tennessee, is chewing while he talks, for which he apologizes. “This is the first chance I’ve had to eat all day,” he explains, at 4:00 P.M. on January 9. “I gave my first speech on the floor of the House today.” The excitement is clear in his voice, even through his lunch

It’s been a busy week. On January 7, Ford was sworn-in to the United States House of Representatives, with his father, Harold E. Ford Sr., at his side. His election, in which he received 61 percent of the vote, followed the elder Ford’s retirement, after 22 years of service as a Representative for the same district. At 26 years old, Ford Jr. is the second-youngest member of Congress.

In his first speech, Ford spoke of his commitment to education for the youth of his district. “We have to search for ways to be involved in young people’s lives,” he explains, emphasizing a need to “rehabilitate schools and find funding for extracurricular activities, along with academics.” Indeed, Ford sees himself as “very active and vocal on the education issue.” He hopes “to preserve the Department of Education and expand its role”; his “New Vision” platform stated that “the Department of Education has to be to this Information Age what the Department of Defense was to the Cold War.”

During his campaign Ford spoke at more than 100 schools in the 9th District of Tennessee, talking to 53,000 kids. He says he plans to continue to “go to the kids — economically distressed, low-income kids” in his district. His message is upbeat, but serious. He wants to ask young students, “What will make you want to learn English, science, math?” He refers to the “insane debate over ebonics” as “a surrender.” However, he also feels a strong need to “reach out to those who don’t go on to college, because it isn’t for everyone.”

While at Penn, Ford, a history major, was co-founder and publisher of The Vision, the longest-lived independent African-American student newspaper on campus. He was also a columnist for The Daily Pennsylvanian. In his senior year he received the Spoon Award, the highest honor award given to a male senior active on campus.

Dr. Herman Beavers, associate professor of English at Penn and one of Ford’s teachers, welcomed Ford’s election. “He’s unique, in that he’s been groomed all of his life for this moment. … He understands politics with a level of intimacy that many people don’t,” Beavers told the DP in November.

Criticism leveled at Ford during the campaign that he was too young for the position and that his father had pushed him into the race doesn’t bother him at all. “I’ve known for a long time that this is what I wanted to do,” he says. He also points out that the history of public service in his family isn’t limited to his father: his grandfather and three uncles have also held elected positions. And Ford sees his age as an asset rather than a liability. “I have a sense of idealism about serving the public. I never went negative,” he explains, even in the face of criticism from his opponents.

Ford received his law degree from the University of Michigan last May; his experience in government includes working at the Commerce Department on the Clinton transition in 1992, and for former Democratic senator Jim Sasser.

Of his days at the University, Ford says, “I enjoyed Penn tremendously. It was a remarkably enriching experience, academically and socially.” Anything else? “Yeah, and I got to spend time with Jerome Allen.” Allen, W’95, Penn basketball standout and now playing for the NBA, might well say the same thing of Ford.

—Susan Lonkevich

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