IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Harold Ford Jr. recounts early road to politics

The former congressman and rising political star has written about his family and his take on the future of America in "More Davids Than Goliaths." In this excerpt, he shares the struggles his father faced running for office and how that inspired him.
/ Source: TODAY books

The former congressman and rising political star has written about his family and his take on the future of America in “More Davids Than Goliaths.” In this excerpt, he shares the struggles his father faced running for office and how that inspired him. 

Chapter one
“This is Harold Ford, Jr., and I’m campaigning for my daddy for Congress. If you want a better house to live in, better schools to go to, and lower cookie prices, vote for my daddy.” I made my first political ad when I was four years old. It was 1974, and my father was running for Congress. My mom propped me up on a brown folding table at the back of my dad’s campaign headquarters and I spoke into a microphone attached to a cassette recorder.

I did it in one take.

Politics was ingrained in me early. It was part of me in the best of ways. For my entire life, I’ve met and heard people, especially other politicians, talk about how they started early in politics by handing out leaflets, brochures, and so on. My start in politics was equally honest — a commercial for my dad on his first congressional campaign. In a lot of ways, politics was — and remains — a part of my genetic makeup, and, for that matter, so was my party identification. I learned to be a Democrat the old-fashioned way: I was told that I was going to be one by my father and mother.

The campaign headquarters was a comfortable setting for me. I was there almost every day. My folks would pick me up at preschool and take me to the headquarters, where I delighted in the hustle and bustle and the steady inrush and outrush of staff and volunteers. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved being around people.

As a kid, I always felt comfortable around adults. I didn’t necessarily prefer adults over my peers, but sitting with, listening to, and talking in front of adults never really bothered me or made me nervous. I wasn’t overconfident or anything like that. But I wasn’t lacking confidence — I get that from both my mom and my dad. Nor was I different from other kids my age in that I enjoyed and played sports. It was more that I wanted to be a part of the conversation — I wanted to help in any way I could. I felt a particular but unarticulated closeness to the politics surrounding me — perhaps because it was my family involved and my dad’s name on the ballot.

A few days after I made the ad, I heard it on the radio. I was sitting between my parents in the car. My mother smiled. My father grinned. I remember, at a precocious moment, thinking at the time, “I enjoy talking, and I really enjoy talking about campaigning.” Although I didn’t appreciate what exactly my dad was going to do to get people better homes and kids better schools, I knew he was going to try.

After the ad, I started going to more and more campaign events with my parents. It isn’t uncommon for politicians to introduce their families or even to ask their families to join them onstage while they are speaking. And my dad would often do that. He would sometimes allow me to introduce him, and I often repeated my line from the radio ad. The cookie line was my favorite line in the introduction — my mother drafted that line. When introducing my dad, I always committed the additional lines to memory. I never used notes or read from a prepared text—even to this day, I don’t use prepared remarks. I will sometimes refer to notes, but never a written speech. I don’t use prepared remarks primarily because I find them hard to read with passion, sincerity, and force.

I remember speaking at one of my father’s congressional prayer breakfasts in Memphis when I was seven. My dad’s speaker that year was his congressional colleague and my parents’ longtime friend Andrew Young. I helped introduce Congressman Young. I reminded the audience how much a role model Congressman Young was to people of all ages, especially for aspiring politicians like me. Prior to the speech, I remember going with my dad and some other politicians to meet with Congressman Young in his hotel in downtown Memphis. I sat at the dining room table in the hotel with Congressman Young and my dad as they discussed politics. I was just absorbing. My dad’s focus was always people, especially hardworking poor people. My dad was listening closely to Congressman Young talk about how he and Maynard Jackson had built a black-white coalition in Atlanta premised on propelling black elected officials into high political offices and growing business opportunities for the entire Atlanta business community, including minority businesses. Memphis’s persistent and pernicious occupation with race had prevented us from electing an African American mayor and widening sustainable business opportunities and growth to black businesses in the city. My dad’s belief was that a racially diverse and successful Memphis business community was essential to better political and social cohesion in Memphis. One of the keys to realizing that dream was for the Memphis political landscape to become more racially and politically diverse first. Atlanta was a model for Memphis.

One of the things I learned from my dad at an early age about politics was never to allow jealousy, envy, or pettiness to get in the way of learning from a political peer. My dad inspired and taught a lot of politicians, younger and older, but he never shied away from learning himself. Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson are two southern politicians whom my dad respected and learned from.

Growing up in a political household seemed normal because it’s all I knew. There were three basic givens in the house for Jake, Isaac, and me. We had to do our homework every night, we had to go to church every Sunday (and oftentimes Sunday school), and we worked on political campaigns for my dad and my uncles.

There was only one of those I genuinely enjoyed and relished — campaigning. Don’t get me wrong, my parents didn’t force us to campaign, but it was expected. And my brothers loved it as well. But with all the expectations placed on us to campaign, there were not concurrent expectations for us to enter politics. My parents would have been as pleased or satisfied if any of us had elected to become a doctor, a teacher, a journalist, a scientist, a cop, or a lawyer — wherever our desires and abilities led us, they would have been fine with. Having said that, I don’t remember a time when politics, public service, and campaigns didn’t excite and drive me. Even after my parents moved us to Washington in 1979 during my dad’s third term in Congress, I very much looked forward to returning to Memphis in the summers, especially election summers, to join the campaign. The work for me was primarily grassroots — bumper stickering cars at shopping centers, putting up yard signs, and handing out campaign literature. The older I got, the more responsibility

I was given. Eventually, I managed my dad’s campaigns and was responsible for more of the organizational aspects of the campaigns. I wrote the text of the literature, spoke on my dad’s behalf, organized fund-raising, and planned big events. But the grassroots work for me never stopped — even after he’d served ten terms in the Congress, my dad’s commitment to grass-roots campaigning never waned. We would always start and finish the day shaking hands, slapping on bumper stickers, and taking pictures with constituents at shopping centers, grocery stores, malls, and busy intersections. My passion for and comfort with retail politics developed honestly. It might even be genetic.

Every Sunday morning we had a ritual in the house. The arrangement was very straightforward — if you ate breakfast, you went to church. I ate every Sunday morning. My mother would fry chicken, boil rice, and bake biscuits almost every Sunday. Even my Jewish friends who would sleep over would be required to go to church with us in Washington if they had breakfast. Although my family never disavowed our membership at our home church in Memphis (Mt. Moriah-East Baptist Church, which is where my brothers and I were baptized by Reverend Melvin Charles Smith), we were visiting members at two churches in Washington: New Bethel Baptist, pastured by Reverend Walter Fauntroy, who was also Washington, D.C.’s delegate to Congress, and Metropolitan Baptist, pastured by Reverend H. Beecher Hicks. Initially, I was more comfortable in church in Memphis, but as we attended more and more services in D.C., I grew to love New Bethel and Metropolitan. Reverend Fauntroy was as good a gospel singer in the pulpit as he was a pastor.

On the campaign trail in 1996 during my first run for Congress, I’d often ask young parents where they attended church. I was often surprised by their answers, which can be best paraphrased as “I go to New Salem, but I can’t get my kids to go.” Or, “I attend Olive Grove Baptist, but I can’t get my kids to go.” I was surprised, if not shocked, to hear this because when I was growing up, kids didn’t have decision-making authority like that in any home that I knew of. Although eating breakfast was what triggered the requirement to go to church in my house, I always knew that even if I didn’t eat breakfast, I was still going to church. In short, there was no opt-out provision in the Ford household.

Sometimes we even had to go to church during the week.

When my parents were attending political and social events in the evenings, they would leave my brothers and me with one of the most wonderful families I’ve ever known, the Ingrams. The Ingram girls, Lori and Debra, were our primary babysitters. Their mother, Mrs. Ingram, was the moral pillar of the household, and she insisted that everyone accompany her to Lambert Church of God in Christ on Wednesday nights. We knew that if we went to the Ingrams’ on a Wednesday night, we would be going to church. It didn’t occur to us to argue. Wednesday night church wasn’t ideal, since we had just gone to church three days earlier and were due again in church four days later. However, Wednesday night church was bearable because the choir sang well at Lambert, and the pastor’s sermon was not as long on Wednesday as it was on Sunday. Although, Church of God in Christ sermons were always longer.

On Sunday, the thought of after-church dinner eased some of the pain of sitting through services.

The Ford family convened for Sunday dinner at my dad’s parents’ home on Golf Club Circle. Newton Jackson, or “N.J.” as everyone called him, and Vera Ford — we called her Grandma Vera — were the patriarch and matriarch of this sprawling Ford family. N.J. and Vera had fifteen children between them, and twelve had survived — eight boys and four girls. I had so many cousins that I sometimes lost track. Every Sunday meal felt like a family reunion. During election season, there were always politicians joining us for dinner — some elected and others aspiring. Anyone running for governor, senator — even president with Jimmy Carter — made his or her way to South Memphis to have dinner at my grandparents’ home after church. It wasn’t uncommon for forty to be seated for dinner on a Sunday evening.

My grandfather was always there to greet us when we arrived, still in our church suits and clip-on ties. A regal man with soft gray hair, he’d say, “Come to Granddaddy,” and reach into his pocket for a dollar’s worth of quarters. On any given Sunday, there were a dozen or more kids running around the house; during the holidays, there were more. My grandfather spent much of the evening surrounded by jostling groups of grandkids.

My grandmother and aunt Joyce — and sometimes my mother, who is quite a cook herself — handled the cooking responsibilities. They cooked huge, delicious dinners: turkey, fried chicken, spaghetti, sweet potatoes, string beans, collard greens, squash, cabbage, candied yams (still my favorite — thankfully, my wife and mother-in-law make them for me now), sliced tomatoes, dressing, rolls, and corn bread. It wasn’t the best dinner if one was trying to diet, but it was some kind of good.

N.J. sat at the head of the table and led the conversations. He would tuck his big white cloth napkin into his collar to keep sweet potatoes and collard greens off his shirt and tie. He said grace only after Vera sat down next to him and received his thanks for preparing the meal. It didn’t matter how powerful the politicians at the table were; they all waited for my grandmother. My grandfather stood before she took her seat. When politicians and candidates came to N.J.’s home for Sunday dinners, he grilled, dazzled, and charmed them all at once. N.J.’s influence was local, but his political interests were broader than Memphis and Tennessee. His involvement and leadership in the national association of black funeral directors provided him a large and substantive business platform to discuss politics. My grandfather didn’t hesitate to ask politicians about their families and personal lives while also measuring their political beliefs and agendas against his own.

I sat at the kids’ table in the kitchen along with my brothers and a dozen or so cousins. (When I was elected to Congress, I finally got to sit at the adults’ table.) When we finished eating, long before the adults, we would pile into a guest bedroom in the house and watch Hee Haw, a Southern favorite. I loved spending time with my cousins. My uncles Joe and John and my aunts Ophelia and Joyce came to dinner with their children almost every Sunday. Aunt Joyce’s daughters, Bilene, Pam, Vicki, and Jeannie, and Aunt Ophelia’s daughter, Sophia, were like sisters to my brothers and me. My father’s older siblings lived in New York and California, and they came with their kids on holidays and during the summer. Smart and sophisticated, my out-of-town cousins were great role models for the younger cousins. I remember when my cousin Lewis accepted a football scholarship to Stanford. My cousin Teresa graduated from Harvard Business School, and another cousin, Debbie, graduated from Harvard Law School. Debbie’s sister, Shelly, graduated from Columbia School of Journalism. It was the first time I’d heard of these schools. Most of my dad’s family, including my dad, were graduates of Tennessee State University in Nashville, a prestigious and historically black school. My father’s educational journey continued at mortuary school in Nashville and later at Howard University’s School of Ford Business. My dad entered Howard’s program shortly after we moved to Washington in 1979. It was clear to me that my mother wanted her boys to follow the college paths of their out-of-town cousins.

In December 1863, two slaves named Jackson and Essex Geeter escaped from a Mississippi plantation. The men were brothers. They made their way to a Union Army camp in La Grange, Tennessee, where they enlisted. For the next two years, they served with distinction; Essex rose to the rank of corporal. After being honorably discharged in 1866, they settled in southwest Shelby County — now South Memphis — and bought property. By the time Essex decided to run for a seat on the county school board many years later, he had become a widely respected member of the community. He won the seat and initiated my family’s tradition of public service.

Essex’s brother Jackson also prospered. When he passed away in the summer of 1920, his widow, Sallie Geeter, deeded land to Shelby County for the establishment of an elementary school. Geeter School, which still stands, has educated thousands of kids from South Memphis, including my father and his siblings.

Albert Ford, another former slave some years older than Essex and Jackson, settled near the Geeters in Shelby County. Albert’s son, Newton F. Ford, ran for a seat on the Shelby County Court at the same time Essex Geeter ran for a seat on the county school board. On August 2, 1888, they both won their races.

The Geeter and Ford families were formally united when Newton’s son, Lewie C. Ford, married Ophelia Edna Geeter, daughter of Jackson and Sallie Geeter. Ophelia gave birth to my grandfather, Newton Jackson Ford (N.J.).

N.J. carried on the family tradition of public service. Although he lost a bid for the Tennessee state legislature in 1965, he was elected as a delegate to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention in 1977. It was an influential position in Tennessee politics. N.J.’s public service wasn’t limited to running for and serving in public office. He helped fund children’s education and sports programs and was an active supporter of the Boy Scouts of America. He was a lifetime member of the NAACP.

As the founder and owner of a successful funeral home in South Memphis, he considered it his duty to give back to the community. I remember looking through photo albums dedicated to N.J.’s philanthropic work; in many of the photos, he was being honored for his contributions to local causes and organizations.

Although my grandmother Vera Ford never ran for or was appointed to any office, she was a dynamic political force. She was voted Tennessee Mother of the Year and continually honored by the state for her service to her community.

November 4, 1974, was a historic night for the Ford family. My father won his congressional seat, and two of my uncles, John and Emmitt, prevailed in their respective races for state senate and state house. It was the first time in American history that three brothers had been on the same ballot on the same day and all won.

My father became the first African American elected to Congress from Tennessee. He was the first — and is still the only — African American Democrat to unseat an incumbent

Republican congressman, and he won despite the fact that the federal government had not required Tennessee to redraw congressional districts after the 1970 census to guarantee minority representation. The district was predominantly white.

Fortunately for my father, his opponent, Dan Kuykendall, had lost touch with the voters. Although Kuykendall had been in office for several terms, he fell victim to a strong anti-Republican political current fueled by Watergate and a young, dynamic, tireless, and fearless challenger — my dad.

Presumably to deny my father both publicity and equal status, Kuykendall refused to debate him throughout the campaign. Kuykendall believed that sharing a platform with Harold Ford was beneath him. He never imagined that a state representative with a big afro from South Memphis could beat him.

My father was undaunted. He campaigned and campaigned. He accepted every invitation he received to attend candidate forums and debates, even when Kuykendall refused to show. When Kuykendall was a no-show to debates, my father would bring a briefcase and place it in front of the chair or podium where Kuykendall was supposed to sit or stand. After my father finished answering a question, he would look at the stand-in briefcase and proceed to give Kuykendall’s answer, which he derived from Kuykendall’s voting record. So, when the questions in a debate turned to health care, he pulled out several documents proving Kuykendall’s slavish support of the pharmaceutical industry over the needs of senior citizens and working people.

My dad outworked and outcampaigned Kuykendall. He had no choice because history and demographics were not on his side. On Election Day, my dad and his team gathered in their war room. To count votes, he largely relied on two people, Osbie Howard and Frank Banks. They remain great friends today. I don’t remember much about that campaign, but I’ll never forget Osbie and Frank constantly putting up numbers on a Memphis precinct map in the war room. My dad had a volunteer or a staffer at every polling place in the district, and as soon as the polls closed and the votes were counted, the staffer or volunteer would collect the numbers off the voting machines and call. (The actual ballots were then physically transported to the Elections Commission office for certification.)

The counting was slow, but my dad, Frank, and Osbie had built a prediction model based on turnout and win-loss margin in specific precincts. Early on, it became clear that my dad was overperforming in his base areas. The trend continued, and finally, late that night, Frank and Osbie said, “Harold, we think you’ve won it. We think you won this race by fewer than 500 votes.”

Not long after Frank and Osbie’s declaration, the local media began reporting that my dad was losing decisively, by nearly 5,000 votes. News of an impending Kuykendall victory was spreading. Kuykendall started doing interviews suggesting that he had won.

Frank and Osbie saw the media reports. My dad insisted that they recheck their numbers. “There’s no way. That’s not plausible. Unless we’re missing something and our numbers are completely off.” So they did the math again. They reached the same conclusion: My dad had won by roughly 500 votes. The local news declared Kuykendall the winner based on the final results from the Elections Commission. My father decided that the only way to reconcile Frank and Osbie’s numbers — and his own belief that he had won — with the Elections Commission’s final numbers was to go down to the Elections Commission headquarters and demand a recount.

What happened then transformed politics in Memphis and introduced the city and the region to a new era of public service. “I have reason to believe these numbers are not accurate,” my dad said at the commission, “and I want to contest them.” He was told flatly that the race was over, he had lost, and he would get no recount. When he argued, he was met with racial epithets. “You n------ go home,” someone said. “You lost.”

The ballots, it turned out, were still being transported and unloaded in a garage behind the building. A cleaning woman on swing shift, who happened to be passing by, told my father about the tremendous activity in the garage. My dad walked over to the area where the cleaning lady had been and began poking around, inspecting trucks and ballot boxes. He soon noticed several stacks of sealed boxes and realized that the boxes contained ballots from several of the largest black precincts in the city. My dad was unsure of the status of the ballots. Meaning, he couldn’t verify if they had been counted yet and were a part of the final tally. He was suspicious because the boxes containing the ballots were sealed. After a few minutes of not being able to get a credible answer from anyone in the garage about the ballots, my dad was convinced — the Memphis political power structure was trying to steal the election from him.

“We’ve done the math ourselves very carefully,” he said, “based on official tallies from the precincts, and here we are being told that we’ve lost and can’t get a recount — yet we’ve got sealed boxes of ballots sitting here at the Elections Commission. We’re not going home until those ballots are counted,” my dad told the press.

It wasn’t long before the election commissioners appeared and publicly conceded that my father had won. They declared him the victor before they had even counted all the ballots in question.

Kuykendall was on a local TV news show declaring his victory when he was passed a note saying that in fact my dad had won the race. He walked off the air without a word. He never bothered to congratulate his opponent.

The commissioners were never held accountable for attempting to steal the race. No one was indicted and no one was reprimanded for any infraction or violation. They claimed that they had simply overlooked a few boxes of ballots. No serious mistakes, they said, had been made.

In the end, my dad won by a margin of 532 votes. Frank and Osbie had been off by 32 votes.

Excerpted from “More Davids Than Goliaths,” by Harold Ford, Jr. Copyright (c), published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.