Aaron Ford's rise to the Senate pinnacle, from food stamps to floor leader
Originally posted 1/17/17, 2 AM
Before Aaron Ford had the highest title in the Nevada Senate, five degrees to his name and personal invitations to White House events, there was the Aaron Ford who was on food stamps.
At 21, Ford found himself a single father applying for Section 8 housing and the Women, Infants and Children program so he could afford formula for his infant son and a roof over their heads. If he ever thought of dropping out of college at that point, halfway through his bachelor’s degree, he said the thought didn’t last long.
“My motivation was to be different than what I experienced growing up,” said Ford, whose family struggled financially when he was child in Texas. “I want my kids to see what a real man looks like.”
At 44, the tall, sharply dressed Democrat who’s known for his measured approaches to policy and his signature bow ties is about to take the helm of the Legislature. His resume is spangled with “rising star” awards and his name is often dropped as a potential gubernatorial contender in 2018.
Now married to a successful lawyer and raising four boys, including the eldest who has applications pending at medical schools across the country, he doesn’t shy away from telling them about the leaner times and a life that could have gone so differently
“It’s my history, it’s my story, it’s what makes me who I am,” Ford said. “I think they look at it as an example of being able to persevere, to continue to fight and strive and never let things get in the way.”
Born in Dallas in 1972, Ford was always mature beyond his age, said his mother, Denise Claiborne.
“When all the kids were putting together three- and four-piece puzzles, he was putting together bigger puzzles,” she recalled.
As the oldest of three boys, Ford was the one to keep his siblings in check for his mother, a homemaker and a single mom for several years before launching a 27-year career in the postal service.
He also had a penchant for helping others. A natural at math, he tutored the next-door neighbor children and volunteered as an aide in the office at his school, Claiborne said.
While the family couldn’t afford to put him in Boy Scouts like he wanted, he dove into the free activities his school offered. There was the brief stint playing the baritone in the marching band in freshman year of high school, a less-than-successful attempt at the football team and community service activities with the Key Club.
Claiborne had signed her boys up for Upward Bound, a program for students like them who could be the first in their families to attend college.
It stuck. Ford “just put his heads in his books,” Claiborne said, and landed a half-tuition academic scholarship to Texas A&M University.
Ford’s mother pushed him to study Spanish after seeing job postings that put
a premium on bilingual applicants. He took to the language with gusto, studying it all four years of high school and tuning into Spanish TV shows and radio stations on his own.
“I’d always been enamored with this notion of other people, foreign languages,” he said. Even when he could only manage the present tense, “I tried to speak it as much as I could.”
In college, he signed up for the ultimate opportunity to use his Spanish — a year-long study abroad program at Universidad de las Americas in Puebla, Mexico.
But, as he puts it, life got in the way.
His first son Avery was born in the summer of 1993, two months before he was scheduled to leave, and when his relationship with the boy’s mother ended a short time later, he took custody. With some childcare help from his mother and stepfather, he still ventured to Mexico, albeit for just a semester.
He’s apparently passed on the language bug. Avery followed in his dad’s footsteps two decades later, studying abroad in Argentina for six months.
A year later and just a semester before he finished his bachelor’s, Ford met Berna, who was studying at the University of Texas School of Law. The two had mutual friends who hosted a get-together the day after Thanksgiving to play cards.
As Ford tells it, he knew she was smitten because she sang him a song that night — “Sweet Love” by Anita Baker.
He recalls reaching into his wallet and pulling out half a dozen pictures of his toddler son just to see how she’d react when she found out he was a single dad.
It was a memorable night even for Claiborne.
“He called me one night at 2 a.m., woke me up and said he’s met his wife,” she said.
Berna had a similar message for her mother the next day. They celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary on New Year’s Day.
Ford said the secret to their relationship is “we don’t consider each other competition,” he said. “We just genuinely want to help the other be as fulfilled as possible.”
Among other things, Berna, a devout Christian, encouraged her husband to get back on track when he says he was slacking on church attendance and tithing. Ford was raised Baptist, and the family makes it a point to attend services at Victory Missionary Baptist Church in Las Vegas whenever they’re in town.
By all accounts, he’s not taking his mom’s advice to play it cool about his accomplished wife. On Twitter, he posts pictures of their anniversary dinner date and of the flowers that she sends him when he’s away in Carson City.
“He wears it on his shoulder,” Claiborne said about her son. “I had to tell him — you can’t let a woman know how deeply, deeply you’re into her.”
In the classroom
While they’re both from Texas, the couple was soon hopscotching around the country, taking turns pursuing their next career and educational steps.
“It’s just what we do — we support each other,” Berna said. “We do what we have to do to help the other person get to that next level, whatever that next level might be.”
Ford first followed Berna to Austin, where she was finishing law school and he landed a job as a middle school math teacher in the inner city.
Not much older than the students themselves, he launched a club aimed at teaching the boys how to be men. At the “Gentleman’s Club,” the boys learned how to dress to impress and that they needed to say “ma’am” and open the door for the ladies.
When the couple headed to the East Coast so Ford could pursue a master’s in education at George Washington University, he taught high school math and launched the Diaspora Club, aimed at educating the teens on African-American history and culture.
He landed at Ohio State University with dreams of launching an international chain of charter schools with an exchange program between Latin America and the U.S. But he met mentors who had both their PhD in education and their law degree, and he was inspired to add a J.D. to the bachelor’s, two master’s and doctorate degrees he already had.
His mom says she wasn’t sure when he’d ever leave school.
“I said, ‘Are you afraid to get into the workforce? You’ve been in school so long,” she recalled. “He said mom, I’ve got a plan.”
The Fords worked in legal jobs in Las Vegas and Texas from the early 2000s, landing permanently back in Nevada in 2007.
Berna remembers her husband had an appetite for politics from shortly after they married. Before they moved to Nevada, Ford spent time working as a field organizer on General Wesley Clark’s unsuccessful bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
But it wasn’t until the excitement of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s first presidential bid that his own political career started taking flight. He worked as an organizer under Steven Horsford, an up-and-coming state senator and one of the top officials in Obama’s Nevada campaign, and the two met one day at a Starbucks to talk about Ford’s background and ambitions.
“He made a great impression,” said Horsford, who took note of Ford’s classroom experience and the fact that Ford and his wife were raising one of their nephews along with their three boys. “We continued to talk, one thing led to another and he ended up running for office in 2010.”
The district had a slight Republican advantage that Ford thought he could beat. But he lost badly to Republican Sen. Joe Hardy, a Boulder City doctor who’s now in his second term.
“Obviously that was a tough cycle and he wasn’t successful, but with the perseverance and persistence that he has as part of his character he kept trying,” Horsford said.
Ford launched another state Senate bid in 2012, this time in a newly drawn district that favored Democrats. He won handily, going on to earn “Freshman Senator of the Year” honors from both the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Sen. Mo Denis, who served as majority leader in the 2013 session before Democrats fell back into the minority, said the top leadership role was taking a toll on him and he supported Ford taking the reins after the transition.
"One of the things I knew really well having been in the majority was you really needed a bulldog to step up," Denis said. "While I could play that role, it was better to have Sen. Ford do that."
In the 2015 session, Ford served as leader of the Senate Democrats, and he spearheaded the fundraising, recruitment and campaign effort that helped Democrats reclaim the powerful majority position in the 2016 election.
He’ll now be majority leader, a position Horsford himself held through 2012.
“It’s a quite remarkable career and shows just how talented and capable of a leader he is,” Horsford said.
When Ford first took the helm of the Senate Democrats in the 2015 session, the party was licking its wounds after widespread Republican victories in the midterms. Republicans, who already had one of their own as governor, gained control of all top elected offices and majorities in both the Senate and Assembly.
“A lot of people wanted to call what happened a red wave. I call it a blue boycott,” Ford said. “Democrats didn’t come out to the polls because we weren’t speaking to them on issues and topics that were important to them.”
He said one of his first moves was to hire a communications director and start highlighting his caucus’ agenda. The group developed the Nevada Blueprint, a glossy, full-color booklet and accompanying website listing Democratic policy priorities, each backed up by a bill draft request.
With Republicans in control and Gov. Brian Sandoval driving an intricate policy agenda and tax increase through the Legislature, Democrats’ own plans were mostly pushed by the wayside in the 120-day session and they fell in line with Sandoval’s education reforms and funding package.
"We did so because we believe that investing in children is more important than party labels," Ford said in his response to Sandoval's State of the State address.
But Ford remains so loyal to the blueprint brand — and its focus on boosting the economic prospects of the middle class — that it’s the background image on his Twitter profile. A revamped blueprint is in the works, and its goals of women’s pay equality, affordable childcare and affordable college stand a better chance in the now-Democratic-controlled chambers.
Aside from an economic message, Ford has taken to heart the issue of police shootings.
After his teenage son Aaron, who goes by the nickname Deuce, told him he felt unsafe, Ford ushered a bill through the Legislature last session that requires Nevada Highway Patrol officers to wear body cameras. Deuce personally testified at the hearing.
“He’s a dad just like any other dad — he wants his children to be safe,” said Berna Ford. “His children happen to have a different skin color that may or not warrant necessary precautions.”
Democrats had little power to block determined Republicans in 2015. In one example, then-Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson pushed a monumental bill to reorganize the Clark County School District through the Senate in the final half-hour of the session. Democrats stood helplessly calling out loud for more discussion.
Ford voted against the measure on grounds that it was rushed through without debate. He later warmed to the idea but doesn’t let people forget about its hasty debut.
Colleagues think the experience of being in the minority has been a good thing for their leader.
“It’s like with anything else when you’ve been through something tough and you’ve had your back against the wall and you had to fight so much,” said Democratic Sen. Kelvin Atkinson. “I think that experience will work volumes for him. We’re all excited to see how much he has grown.”
Roberson, the cunning Republican leader who’s gone through his own humbling experiences when he lost a congressional primary and control of the state Senate majority, said in spite of public sparring, he had dinner with Ford shortly after the election and offered congratulations and advice.
“Senator Ford and I have a good relationship. We worked generally well together last session,” he told The Nevada Independent. “There is a level of trust between us, but again, this is politics and at some point there will be moments in the session where we will be adverse and that’s just the process.”
Roberson suggested that in a state where a Republican wields veto power, Democrats still need Republican buy-in and wouldn’t be able to run away with their agenda.
“I think it’s important for people to remember we have divided government,” he said.
“This is not 2015 where you had one party in control of the executive and both houses of the legislative. That’s a big reason we were able to pass such historic measures. I would not expect that this session.”
Ford has talked in the past about his ambitions to be governor or maybe even president some day. But he’s more sober about it now, saying he wants to focus on doing the best he can in his job as Senate Majority Leader.
Colleagues describe him as collaborative and inclusive of fellow senators’ opinions, almost to a fault. Atkinson, who characterizes himself as more impulsive and reactionary, says Ford takes more time to think through his responses.
Ford was able to rally a critical mass of votes within a Democratic caucus divided on a plan to put public money toward an NFL stadium in Las Vegas. Colleagues say members valued his opinion — that the project was worth it because it would create jobs, especially in the hard-hit construction industry.
“Truthfully, there were a couple of us that didn’t go along, but he had most of the caucus on his team, which was amazing,” said Sen. Tick Segerblom, who was one of three Democrats who voted against the stadium plan. “There was never any, ‘If you don’t vote this way, you’re not going to be a committee chairman, or we’re going to punish you someway or another.’ At the end of the day, he’s very respectful of everyone’s opinions, and if I ever have a deeply held opinion, at least thus far he’s never said I’m going to punish you because of it.”
Ford’s inclusive nature extended so far that he’s welcomed Sen. Patricia Farley, a registered Republican who recently switched to non-partisan, to caucus with the Democrats this session. She said she was having massive conflict with Republican caucus leaders who weren’t adjusting her committee schedule to accommodate her needs as a single mom of two elementary-aged girls.
“He got a hold of the schedule and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘Oh my gosh, you can’t do that. Patty, I was a single dad. I knew what it was like to race to get to daycare by 6 o’clock at night before it closes,’” she said.
Farley said Ford checks with her before issuing statements on behalf of the caucus, knowing that she might have different opinion on the issues, and he tried to dissuade her from seeking a smaller office because he said he didn’t want her to feel like a lesser member of the group.
“He's very collaborative. He sat down and met with me on my agenda,” she said. “I think it’s with everybody. This is very different for me.”
Ford has shown a more confrontational attitude to Republicans including Sen. Dean Heller, who he called out in a public letter this month that asked pointed questions about an impending Obamacare repeal. He also doesn’t spare jabs at Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who’s gone on the offensive against what he calls Obama Administration overreach.
Laxalt is considered a likely candidate for governor in 2018, especially after potential Republican contenders Heller and Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison announced they wouldn't run.
Ford’s chances in a gubernatorial race in 2018 will hinge on the outcome of his work in the Legislature’s top role and how the Democratic primary field shapes up. One obvious potential Democratic contender is Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, who’s built up a formidable campaign war chest of about $3 million.
Progressive leaders who were on the opposite side of Ford on the stadium project hope his gubernatorial ambitions and fundraising needs don’t push him too far into the middle this session. They argue that he needs to go left and excite the liberal base to navigate a Democratic primary.
“We’ll hold his feet to the fire to promote a progressive agenda,” said Bob Fulkerson of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Action Fund. “We hope that the money and the power that the gambling industry has, that the bankers have … we would hope he puts that aside and look toward the long term.”
Close to home
While Ford is the standard-bearer for Nevada Democrats in the statehouse,
his son Avery says at home he’s just a dad — the kind that loves sports and will take the XBox away if you don’t keep your grades up.
Avery Ford has traveled as his dad’s plus-one to Democratic conventions, overseas diplomatic missions and countless other political appearances. But he says his best memories were when it was just him and his father driving the 12-hour trip to his college in Colorado on roads where radio signals don’t reach.
“We just talk the whole way,” he said. “It’s a blanket judge-free zone.”
Avery is still developing his own political opinions and says he and his dad clash on some issues. A self-proclaimed broke recent grad, he chafes at the government pulling a chunk of taxes out of his check, but he said he’s also keenly aware that in his early years, it was a government safety net that helped him and his dad rise up from daunting circumstances.
“He’s my role model because of how he experienced what he did as a single father,” Avery said. “I really do black out how he got there and I just think of how he made it through and that inspires me."