People have a habit of underestimating Robert Ford. I was one of them.

The state senator is best known for his brash comments, his friendship with Sen. Glenn McConnell, and his role in the Confederate flag compromise. Moving forward, he also will be known for his unlikely candidacy to be the next governor of the state of South Carolina.

While the conventional wisdom may be to dismiss Sen. Ford’s candidacy as some sort of publicity stunt, the surrealism of the recent inauguration has prompted me to view it as something different, the latest best chance to get more black South Carolinians engaged in state politics. If Ford’s candidacy suggests even a baby step toward moving our state political system beyond the current homogeneous, one-party political system, then Ford would deservedly become known as the most unlikely of state pioneers.

Prior to Douglas Wilder, the former African-American governor of Virginia, the thought of a black governor seemed far-fetched, particularly in the South. Until our recent presidential election, the thought of a black chief executive seemed even more remote. One could only imagine, then, how outrageous the candidacy of Shirley Chisholm must have seemed in 1968.

Chisholm, a pioneering member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York, was the first black female elected to Congress in 1968. Just a few years later, she took the bold step of announcing her run for the presidency of the United States, the first Democratic female and major-party black candidate to do so. While she garnered only a small fraction of first-ballot votes at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, her candidacy undoubtedly made Jesse Jackson’s presidential aspirations 12 years later a little less improbable. Jackson’s historic runs in 1984 and 1988 unquestionably paved the way for the miraculous events we all witnessed during this recent election.

The true measure of Chisholm’s success, then, was not the number of votes she received in 1972, or how close she came to getting elected. Rather, the measure was the path she cleared for future black presidential candidates, as well as the increased number of blacks and women she inspired to become politically involved.

Viewed through this prism and amidst the political backdrop of a state that has never elected an African American to statewide office, Ford’s announcement is all the more remarkable. If we consider his intended run as being solely about Robert Ford and his video poker agenda, we miss the larger point.

After 1902, blacks did not begin to appear in the South Carolina state legislature until 1970, and only then as a result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even then, it took a 1974 lawsuit under the same act to redraw the legislative district lines to increase the number of black legislators beyond the single digits. With this history, any remote possibility of further political barriers breaking down in our state should be extremely worthy of note.

Ford may not be the ideal candidate to become the state’s first black governor, but it is undeniable that he appeals to segments of the black electorate in a way that many in the mainstream cannot fathom. That does not mean one has to support Ford, if they are a proponent of greater diversity, or even agree with his positions. But it does mean that we all should take a closer look before we dismiss out of hand those candidates that “can’t win.” These candidates not only pave the way for others down the line, but they break down barriers that would otherwise go unchallenged.

If the current mode of politics is ever going to change in South Carolina, more women, more young people, and more minorities need to be involved in the political process. Without this type of engagement nationally, an Obama presidency would have been impossible to achieve.

Dwayne Green is a Charleston trial attorney who ran against Sen. Robert Ford for the Democratic nomination for S.C. Senate District 42.