On Super Tuesday, Americans will hit the polls in more than 20 states for primary elections, and candidates need to win big to secure their party’s nomination. Essence.com caught up with Harold Ford, Jr., the former Tennessee Rep., and asked for his thoughts on this election season and the premise of a Democratic nomination that will make history no matter which candidate wins.
Essence.com: Briefly explain the importance of Super Tuesday—should we expect that whoever wins the most primaries will get the party nomination?
Harold Ford, Jr.: Well, they could. There are a little over 2,000 delegates at stake on the Democratic side, and a little over 1,000 on the Republican side. But even after Tuesday the race may not be decided because, if the polls are to be believed, it looks as if it could be split, with Senator Clinton winning a few and Senator Obama winning a few, making the next round of primaries in the next several days that much more important.
Essence.com: There’s a lot of talk about the momentousness of having a woman and an African-American as Democratic frontrunners. What about this election has been the most interesting for you to watch?
Ford: You said it well. On the Democratic side you have a woman and an African-American running for president, and frankly one of them will be the nominee. Likely, one of them will be the next president. That makes it different in so many regards. I’m chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, so I can’t endorse anyone, but I’ve said to people, “When you’re considering these candidates, you have to be able to say why you’re voting for this person other than ‘I’m Black, and he’s Black’ or ‘I’m a woman, and she’s a woman.’ You have to answer a simple question: When you have kids or grandkids, will you be able to look back and say, ‘I voted for the person who could best make America stronger and greater, more united, and for that matter, enter the building on Day One to get things done?’ ”
Essence.com: Now that John Edwards is out of the race, do you think Obama and Clinton will campaign differently? Should they be doing something differently now?
Ford: We’ve seen in the last few days, that the big debate between Senators Clinton and Obama has been over health care and whose plan is better. I think the fact that you only have two candidates running makes it easier for the contenders to sharpen and highlight the differences between them.
Essence.com: Some remarks that have been made against Obama have had a racial slant, playing to stereotypes. I know you’ve had a similar experience as a candidate…
Ford: You know, I disagree. I didn’t look at that as racial. I know Barack’s candidacy is so much bigger than race. I don’t fault people’s spouses for being enthusiastic in supporting them. I know Michelle Obama has been very supportive of Barack, and Bill Clinton has been very supportive of Hillary. There’s been a lot of talk about it, but I think the real question is whether or not the candidates can deliver on the things they promise to do.
Essence.com: Okay, removing any implied racial aspect of comments made about Obama, how do you think he has handled statements made against him from a strategic angle?
Ford: I don’t want to get into the tactics of it, but I think it demonstrated that he can take a punch. And in politics, when you’re hit, if you fall down and can get back up, that’s when you really begin to mature and develop, not only as a candidate, but also as a political force. I think Barack has shown that. I think Hillary has shown that after losing in Iowa, coming back and winning New Hampshire after many people had counted her out. Both of these candidates should understand that this is simply a warm-up compared to what the Republicans may do to them in the fall.
Essence.com: You and Obama are often grouped together, along with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, as part of a new “post-civil rights” generation of Black politicians—not really associated with civil rights activism, allowing you to appeal to a broad spectrum of people. Is this an apt description of you all as politicians, and do you think it’s key to Obama’s success in the election?
Ford: I can’t speak for Barack or Cory or Governor Patrick. I don’t think of politics as civil rights, or not civil rights, Black…I just think of politics as a concept between right and wrong, and I always try to do what’s right. My generation has been very fortunate to enjoy the benefits of people who came before us. Our challenge is to make sure we make it easier for people who come behind us, whatever race they are. My politics have never been consumed with, or defined by, race. And I think one of the reasons people find Barack so appealing is he’s above that. What he’s attempting to do is to bring America together, not because we’re Black or White or Hispanic, but because we’re Americans.
Essence.com: But there seems to also be a schism between Obama and the civil rights generation. Despite the latest polls finding that a majority of African-Americans support Obama, many leaders in the civil rights generation have loudly supported Hillary Clinton. What do you think is behind this division?
Ford: I have no idea. You’d probably have to talk with them about it. People may have had relationships for years and years with Senator Clinton and her husband, and I assume that may be the reason. People who are in politics or in public life have a right to support whom they want to support.
Essence.com: Earlier you said that you tell people to not vote solely along race and gender lines…
Ford: Put that aside for a moment. Don’t get me wrong; I identify, as you can imagine, with Barack in some ways, and I identify with Hillary in some ways. But candidly, I identify with Barack moreso. But I’ve had to put that aside and ask myself the question as a voter: Who is best fit? I think everybody has to do that, Democrats and Republicans alike.
Essence.com: I was actually about to say that I think a lot of African-Americans are making our decisions the way that you just described, over policy issues and not necessarily based on how we identify racially. It seems that idea of us only looking at color or gender has become a storyline that gets media buzz.
Ford: Yes, I think the press and some of the political cable channels are more preoccupied with the issue of race than the specifics of policy. And frankly, the fact is that Americans have moved beyond some of the constructs that they promote as being the frontline of American politics. I don’t mean to sound naïve in suggesting that there aren’t a number of factors that go into people’s decision-making with their vote. But I think not just Black Americans, but a majority of Americans, and particularly a majority of Democrats, have walked into that polling booth and said “I’m going to vote for the person who can best represent me and my children and my grandchildren.” As long as you’re able to honestly say that, I think the country will be better off, and I think we’ll elect the right person.