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Published: 10/28/2001

Jack Ford: `Professor' quietly gets the job done

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The debate is over, and in the press room at the Valentine Theatre on Tuesday night the media is grilling Toledo mayoral candidate Ray Kest about his performance.

Sitting to his left is State Rep. Jack Ford taking in the scene. Showing little emotion. Acting as if he's not there.

Then, it's his turn.

“What did you think about the debate?” he is asked.

“I enjoy these things. Not as a participant, but sitting outside and observing it. I'm always learning something,” he says in his quiet way, sounding, as usual, as if he's reading the weekly farm report from the floor of the public library.

This, people will tell you, is the quintessential Jack Ford, the 54-year-old former Toledo city council president attempting to become the city's first African-American mayor.

In addition to a political career concluding its 15th year, the cerebral Mr. Ford is a social worker, an educator, and a corporate employee - a blend of professions that is atypical among government leaders and has led to some criticism of his candidacy.

He's an atypical politician in other ways as well.

Unlike the man he's attempting to replace, Carty Finkbeiner, Mr. Ford will not run out of his way to meet a potential voter with a smile on his face, throw out his hand, and say, “Hi, I'm Jack Ford, and I'm running for mayor of Toledo.”

That is not his style.

Jack Ford, even his friends will tell you, is short on charisma, weak on charm, and a flop in the flamboyant department.

With this in mind, Mr. Ford's brain trust concocted this theme for their candidate: Serious Leadership for Serious Times.

“It isn't just a slogan,” says Mr. Ford's campaign manager, Jim Ruvolo. “With Jack, there's a reason for that.”

Yet, his supporters note, you don't have to be Bill Cosby to be mayor.

“Appearances are overrated. Substance ought to be the issue in this campaign,” says former city official and African-American community leader Pete Culp. “You have to listen to Jack; he's very bright.”

Although it's only about 130 miles to Toledo from his native Springfield, Ohio, John Marshal Ford has traveled a considerable distance from his modest roots.

When he was only 6 weeks old his parents, Edna and Stanton Ford, split, leaving young Jackie, as he was called, and an older brother, Stanton, living with their mother. When Jack was 6, his mother married John Watkins, with whom she had a third son, Bruce Watkins.

His mother worked as a cook for a fraternity at Wittenberg University and at various homes around town. Mr. Ford remembers her fostering one of his greatest passions when she began bringing home condensed novels provided by her clients.

“As a young kid of modest circumstances, I had books in my rooms,” says Mr. Ford.

He was not close to his father or stepfather, but revered his mother, whom, he says, taught him values he has tried to follow. “She always told me to be fair to people. She wouldn't tolerate meanness by anybody, and she was very generous.”

Along with reading, young Jack liked to make a buck. By 12, he was washing dishes in a local restaurant, where he eventually was elevated to short-order cook.

Mr. Ford grew quickly. By 13, he stood six-feet tall and was an intimidating presence among his smaller classmates.

At Springfield South High School he found a use for his size: He joined the football team. In his senior year he was a standout guard on the undefeated Springfield South squad.

He fared well in the classroom too, where he had a particular fondness for government, history, and English. His classmates recall him as friendly and smart but reserved and shy.

“He was one of those people who could come into a room and you wouldn't know he was there because he was so quiet,” says Annie Sykes, wife of Toledo Public Schools board member Larry Skyes, who graduated with Mr. Ford in 1965.

Mrs. Sykes says she was unaware of Mr. Ford's career path until she met him at a dinner years later in Toledo.

“I found out he was in politics; that was quite a surprise. For him to come from a town like Springfield and achieve what he has is real complimentary to him.”

By his senior year Mr. Ford had been hired by a Springfield machine shop owner.

He worked after school until 10 p.m. and made $2.18 an hour. The experience helped foster an intense work ethic, which he has maintained, and the notion of empowering youth with responsibility, one of the cornerstones of his mayoral platform.

“I always had a hundred dollars in my pocket, and I was only 16,” he says.

Mr. Ford chipped in at home with some of his earnings, but took care of himself as well. His closet was filled with every color of Ban-Lon shirts.

“If you wore them, you were cool,” he says.

Earning his keep taught him something even cooler: “If you have money you can live life on your own terms and you can help people.”

Mr. Ford had planned to attend Miami University. But one day after school he returned home and discovered Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes kibitzing in the kitchen with his mother while dining on her fried chicken, biscuits, and gravy. Young Jack, intimidated by the presence of Coach Hayes, moved on to the next room.

“It was over,” he says, and he accepted a scholarship to OSU.

That fall, he joined the Buckeyes' freshman squad but the next year he hurt his leg and the year after that he was finished with football. Mr. Ford says he didn't get along with Coach Hayes but, as he so often did, he learned something from the experience.

“This is classic Woody,” Mr. Ford says. “He would say, `If you want to be successful you get up in the morning before the other guy. You make sure you practice right. And then when he goes home you make sure you keep practicing and, generally, on game day, you will win.' I found that to be true in my life.”

It took Mr. Ford until his junior year to discover his calling: “I wanted to be in a profession to help people.”

That led him to a degree in social work and a job as a counselor with the Ohio Youth Commission, where he remained 11 years.

Soon after, he enrolled in law school at the University of Toledo. Although he had no intention of practicing, Mr. Ford figured the degree would be useful, as would the master's degree in public education he earned at UT after he completed law school in 1975.

“I love it,” he says, “and it's been good politics.”

In 1980, Mr. Ford became director of substance abuse for the Lucas County Mental Health Board. At the time, the board directed several agencies dealing with substance abuse, all of which were struggling.

Mr. Ford was asked to solve the problem. He responded by consolidating all of the agencies into one organization, Substance Abuse Services, Inc., or SASI.

“It was tough,” he recalls. “People didn't want to give up their turf.”

Nor did they want to take orders from a 33-year-old novice who suddenly directed a staff of 60 and controlled a $1.5 million budget.

“I was the executive director of a large organization, and I was black,” he says. “I broke a lot of new ground.”

Under Mr. Ford's guidance SASI developed innovative programs such as Basic Alcohol Education Services for K-3 students, Medication Education for the Elderly, and HIV-testing centers at UT and Bowling Green State University, says Carroll Parks, SASI's president and CEO.

“He was very committed to prevention and treatment services for those in need. SASI was fortunate to have Jack set out a pretty great foundation.”

Mr. Parks replaced Mr. Ford in 1994 after Mr. Ford became a state representative and could no longer work for an organization that received state funding.

In the meantime, Mr. Ford directed the effort to establish the J. Frank Troy Senior Center, helped revitalize the former Cordelia Martin Health Center board, and started Adelante, Inc., a social service center for the city's Latino residents - achievements that earned him many awards.

Mr. Ford's opponent, Lucas County treasurer Ray Kest, has said Mr. Ford's background as a social worker does not qualify him to be mayor, particularly during a sagging economy. But city councilman Louis Escobar, Adelante's executive director and a Ford supporter, disagrees.

“In order to run an agency, as Jack did SASI and in founding Adelante, you not only have to have the ability of a social worker but the financial background on how to raise money and set up a budget and deal with personnel. To me, it's a microcosm of running a city,” he says.

Mr. Ford's stint as an African-American politics professor piqued his interest in a run for public office. To gain experience, in the early 1980s he aided Mr. Finkbeiner in his city council campaign, and managed successful campaigns for former State Rep. Casey Jones and former Toledo school board member Nelson Grace. When Mr. Grace was appointed to Linda Furney's vacant city council seat, Mr. Ford became a finalist to take Mr. Nelson's place on the school board. An early favorite, Mr. Ford found out he was not selected on the day they buried his 70-year-old mother, in 1985. The impact was severe.

Two years later, Mr. Ford was elected to the first of four consecutive terms on city council.

Not surprisingly, he developed a platform closely related to his social services background, particularly issues affecting the African-American community. He pushed for an anti-drug paraphernalia law, a handgun ordinance, a ban on cigarette vending machines, and increased minority hirings and promotions. His efforts did not go unnoticed.

“I worked 27 years with the city,” says Mr. Culp, the former commissioner of renewal operations, “and there were various minorities on council from time to time. Jack, to me, understood the issues far better than any other minority councilman in terms of the total community and those issues that affected the African-American community.”

Even one of Mr. Ford's rivals at the time, former Republican mayor Donna Owens, gives him high marks for the way in which he carried himself on council.

“One of the things about Jack, he's certainly strong for any cause he believes in. He really cared about people improving their lot in life. He always treated me with respect, which, I think, is critically important, especially if you're a female in an authoritative position,” says Ms. Owens, now a commissioner for the Ohio Industrial Commission.

Not everything went smoothly for Mr. Ford. In contrast to his present image as a quiet and aloof politician, Mr. Ford's early days on council were frequently spent staging one press conference after another to promote his issue-of-the-moment. This did not sit well with some of his colleagues.

“There was a period I was kind of a camera hog,” he admits. “Some members of council took offense and we talked about it.”

Council member Eleanor Kahle, a close friend of Mr. Ford's, had some sharp advice for her colleague. “She told me,” Mr. Ford says, “that if I wanted to go to the next level I needed to stop some of the grandstanding. I took her advice to heart.”

In the 1993 election, he was the leading vote-getter and was selected council president by his colleagues. In 1994, he vacated his seat to replace the retiring Casey Jones in the Ohio House. By 1998, he had risen to minority leader, leading the Democrats in a GOP-controlled House. Three of the 36 bills he has introduced have been signed into law, each dealing with social service issues.

Mr. Kest, who has touted a pro-business, pro-development platform, contends that Mr. Ford's track record in Columbus has been decidedly anti-business.

Says Mr. Ford: “When you're in the legislature you ... reflect the committee you are on. I was not on the economic development committee. I was not on the finance committee.”

It's late Tuesday night after the debate. Mr. Ford has moved from the Valentine Theatre to a nearby conference room. He has removed his olive suit coat and is sipping a soft drink. He has added girth to his frame since his football days. The extra weight coupled with an admitted poor diet are partly responsible for the Type 2 diabetes he contracted 14 years ago and controls with a daily pill.

It's late, but that's not a problem for a man who works four jobs - in addition to his House post and UT teaching position he's director of diversity at ProMedica Health System and teaches a course at BGSU. He gets by on four hours of sleep most nights.

“I'm lucky. That's all I need,” says Mr. Ford, who's considerably more engaging in a one-on-one conversation.

With term limits preventing Mr. Ford from running when his House term expires next year, he decided his best option was to return to Toledo and run for mayor, which he announced in May. Although Mr. Kest entered the race five months earlier, it was Mr. Ford who won the backing of the local Democratic Party over his rival, also a Democrat. Mr. Ford then edged Mr. Kest out of the top spot by 41 votes in the Sept. 11 primary, also beating four other candidates.

Mr. Ford has crafted a populist platform that promotes a commitment to youth, expanded social and city services, anti-sprawl, and continuing downtown development and city beautification. He says he has the connections in Columbus and Washington to make things happen.

His problems lie elsewhere, beginning with the color of his skin. Mr. Ford says a number of his volunteers have been hassled while canvassing by white residents who said in a derogatory way that they will not vote for a black man. Mr. Ford reckons about 3 percent of white voters feel that way.

“In a tight race, 3 percent can make a difference,” he says.

Mr. Ford has had his problems in the African-American community as well.

The editor of the city's only African-American newspaper, The Toledo Journal, is supporting Mr. Kest.

“My personal belief is I don't think [Mr. Ford] has a commitment toward the black community,” says Myron Stewart. “Jack is not Andrew Young. He's not Coleman Young.”

Says Mr. Ford, who refutes Mr. Stewart's charges: “Some of that has hurt me.”

Mr. Ford admits that his two interracial marriages will hurt him as well - the first to Claudia Worthy, which ended in divorce in 1990, and the second in 1992 to Cynthia Hall, his current wife. Mr. Ford's family includes Cynthia's son, Ryan, 16; a daughter, Jessica, 15, from his first marriage; and 7-year-old Jacqueline, his daughter by Cynthia. They live in West Toledo.

Says Mr. Culp, the former city official: “There are some people in the black community who are just like people in the white community. They don't like interracial marriages. If that's the reason they use not to vote for Jack he ought to be glad. Those are not the kind of people he would want to build a coalition with. And there is a small segment of the white community who no matter how devout a Democrat they are or a Christian they cannot [conceive] an African-American leading this community.”

Mr. Ford, a member of New Covenant Baptist Church, says he'll do just fine in the minority neighborhoods.

“[The racism] is compensated by, I think, a heavier vote in the African-American community that's based on pride that I'm a candidate.”

Although Mr. Ford boasts about his laid-back style, he does have a temper. An August, 1988, argument with his then-wife Claudia led Toledo police to file an unusual incident report. Following the argument, which Mr. Ford says involved money, he walked the several miles in humid weather from his residence off Cherry Street to Promenade Park with a neighbor who told police she was concerned about Mr. Ford's depressed state, according to the report. Police, accompanied by Claudia, met them at the park, but Mr. Ford declined to return home.

“I didn't want to come into my neighborhood in a police car,” he says. “My political antenna went up. I realized it could be a story.”

According to the report, Mr. Ford walked on toward the Anthony Wayne Bridge, alarming police, his wife, and the neighbor. Mr. Ford says he was hungry and headed to the Big Boy restaurant at the foot of the bridge, which is where police say they next met him.

The incident ended there, and Mr. Ford returned home with former Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Richard Knepper, a family friend, later that night.

The police report of the incident, which was never reported by the media, suggested that Mr. Ford may have taken an overdose of medication, but he says the only medication he took that day was for his diabetes.

“If I was suicidal or doing crazy things you would have seen, I think, further incidences,” he says.

Claudia Ford, interviewed Tuesday night at the debate, says she has a good relationship with her ex-husband.

“I'm campaigning for him, aren't I?” said Ms. Ford, a Toledo attorney.

Mr. Ford has been oft-criticized for his work at ProMedica, where he earns more than $50,000 a year to go with his $51,674 salary as a legislator.

Labor representatives supporting Mr. Kest cite the company's anti-union position while others believe Mr. Ford has conflicting interests.

Mr. Ford, who has said he will quit all of his jobs if he becomes mayor, scoffs at such criticism.

“Anyone who thinks it would be an embarrassment to me is wasting their time. I love working there,” he says.

Then there's the matter of Mr. Ford's public persona as a wooden campaigner who lacks the magnetic personality some voters require of their leaders.

Mr. Ford says you need to get up close and personal to know him better.

“I hear this,” he says, “`I didn't think I was going to like you until I talked with you.' Or, `You intimidated me because you're so big, but you're just a teddy bear.' So I don't know how it will shake out. I do know this. I've been given a fair chance.”



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