In June 2008, I ran against Sen. Robert Ford in the Democratic primary for State Senate District 42. Although I respected Sen. Ford’s work on behalf of hospital workers in the 1969 hospital strike, and on behalf of waterfront laborers more recently, I felt that in recent years he had become a symbol for a lot of what was wrong with South Carolina politics. He seemed to have a legislative agenda out of line with the residents of his district. It also appeared to me that on the most important issues, Ford followed the lead of Senate Majority Leader Glenn McConnell.
The only other time it seemed that Ford was in the news, it was for any matter that arguably contained a racial angle. On these issues, Ford could plausibly gain some political advantage by convincing his constituents that he was fighting for them.
The results from my race against Ford revealed a generational shift. Election returns showed that Ford’s support came from largely older, African-American voters. My support, far smaller than Ford’s, came from mostly younger voters, as well as a more diverse coalition of white and black voters. To my dismay, it seemed Ford could easily have won the race solely on the votes of African-Americans over 55 years of age — voters who still define him by his civil rights work many years ago.
The difference between our bases suggested that the people of my generation are much more progressive in their views than our parents and grandparents. While we acknowledge the prejudice and discrimination of the past, because we did not grow up in the era of segregation, we often do not define state problems in only black or white.
Ford comes from a different era, and for him, there is value in highlighting the racial aspects of any political matter. Because his district has been purposely drawn to be a majority African-American district, any time he can characterize an issue in black and white, he benefits. As long as he is able to position himself as the crusader against an oppressive, biased system, he will get re-elected. Any criticism from young African-Americans like myself must (in his view) be because we are ungrateful to the sacrifices made by his generation, we do not know our history, and we hate ourselves as we eagerly seek acceptance from our white peers.
Obviously, I disagree. Politicians like Ford have gained much mileage from this strategy, and while there was a time when such tactics were effective, there are signs that this type of politics is wearing thin. Ford’s public decision to back the school choice/voucher agenda was roundly criticized in the black community and by most supporters of public education. The reason the criticism of his Boeing letter struck such a raw nerve is because it debunked the myth that his seniority and friendship with other senate leaders guaranteed a seat at the negotiating table when matters of economic import came to our state. If so-called leaders in the community could not guarantee jobs when a major employer came to their district, the justification for supporting them becomes even more tenuous.
I have nothing personally against Robert Ford, I find him to be a nice person when I have met him, and I am sure that his intentions are largely noble. But he practices politics of a bygone era. The City Paper has been kind enough to give me this platform to share my perspective, and in doing so, I know that not everyone will agree with me. But the discourse that follows is what I believe moves our state forward.
There is a saying that only a hit dog yelps. In the event that any of my future columns are weighty enough to elicit a legislative response, I will take great comfort in knowing that my words are reaching their intended target.
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