Election night last November did not go according to plan for Middletown Republicans. By the time the election was officially called, the party had suffered a bruising defeat. Not only had their three-term former mayor Seb Giuliano lost at the hands of a 28-year-old Democrat, but the town’s new guard Democrats had also pulled off a clean sweep of the common council, leaving Republicans for the second term in a row with only four seats—the bare minimum number of seats required by the city charter constitution for the minority party. The Republican Town Committee (RTC) was in shambles.
But the party had one bright spot. Ed Ford, a 22-year-old Black Republican, minister and recent Central Connecticut State University graduate, had beaten out four other candidates to become the youngest member on the council.
At a bar late in the evening on election night, a despondent town Republican loyalist told me that he was convinced Ford would be a lifeline for the future of the party, a new face that could revamp the party’s appeal to the town’s Black community as well as the quickly growing young population emerging in town. Having made his first appearance on “Fox and Friends” at the age of 19 after winning his election to the Middletown school board, Ford, as this Republican insisted, would be the conservative firebrand the RTC needed, the Candace Owens or Charlie Kirk of Middletown.
Now granted, this town Republican, red in the face, had dropped Ford’s name in the midst of a rather unhinged deluge of complaints about the alleged dirty tricks Democrats had pulled during the campaign, uncorroborated accusations that unregistered Wesleyan voters had swung the election, and ill-considered proposals to shut down Usdan and force Wesleyan students to eat exclusively at restaurants in town to support local businesses.
Within the context of this conspiratorial rant, I’ll admit that I wasn’t totally sure at the time how seriously to take this characterization of Ford. But I was certainly intrigued for a number of reasons.
It’s true that the historical tradition of Black republicanism in New England goes back to the country’s first Black senator since Reconstruction, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who was elected in 1966. Still, identifying with the Republican party as a 22-year-old Black man bucks the national trends as African-American communities and young people overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Statistically, it’s an anomaly.
Besides, the council’s supermajority rule requires that for a number of legislative matters the majority party will still need at least one member of the minority to vote with them. And with the youngest and most diverse collection of councilmembers on the Democratic side, I wanted to understand the political mindset of the Republicans’ newest councilmember to see how he would fit into the fold on the council.
Given the introduction I had received to Ford, when I sat down with him at Perk on Main for an interview a few days ago, I was a little taken aback by the direction that our conversation took. Over the course of our interview, Ford launched into impassioned arguments highlighting the continued existence of systemic racism and emphasizing the imperative for racial equity policies, increased public school funding to tackle the achievement gap, and criminal justice reform.
These were not the talking points I was used to hearing from national Republicans.
As we talked, I imagined that if someone overheard us at a nearby table they would never guess they were listening to the youngest Republican on the common council and might even make the unconscionable miscalculation of mistaking him for a….liberal Democrat.
“When we speak about the education system, the prison system, voting rights, these are systemic issues that still need to be fixed, and we can’t let our politicians and political parties get away with having colorblind philosophies anymore,” Ford said within the first five minutes of the interview.
I must have misunderstood what town Republicans had told me, or maybe this was all a big joke. I had been prepared for someone who would trigger the libs. This guy couldn’t trigger a snowflake if he had Ben Shapiro yelling instructions at him through an earpiece.
To be clear though, Ford’s political and moral values certainly originate from a conservative foundation, even if his governing philosophy falls more in line with third way centrism. While Ford started out further to the right, over the course of the 2016 Republican primary, he grew skeptical of the radicalism of the Tea Party movement and moved closer to the moderate wing, ultimately supporting Governor John Kasich. His brand of conservatism comes down to a more localized (small-r republicanism) unorthodox definition that diverges drastically from the populist insurgency that has taken hold of the party in the Trump era. Ford’s politics fit more within Connecticut’s lineage of liberal-leaning Rockefeller Republicans, who under recent republican governorships signed into law the state’s new estate tax and childcare insurance program.
“I consider myself a moderate Republican,” Ford said. “Connecticut Republicans are different from Alabama Republicans, Texas Republicans, and for sure national Republican. Our party leaders in Connecticut are pragmatic and just want to take care of the fiscal health of the state, maintain a limited government, and protect freedoms.”
As I listened to Ford lay out his political positions, which amounts to a defense of free market values, and fiscal responsibility, coupled with an abhorrence for race-blind thinking (all of which would have been mainstream for the Clinton New Democrats in the 1990s), it struck me as bizarre that Ford, who clearly has political ambitions, would choose to launch his political career for a stagnant party that has been in decline for years in the statehouse and especially in Middletown, where almost half of the RTC’s seats have still not been filled since the election. For someone whose values seemed on the surface only marginally different from mainstream Democrats, it was difficult for me to grasp what drew Ford to the GOP.
With such an unusual array of political positions, it can be difficult to figure out where Ford exactly fits into the political landscape of today’s politics, especially among his millennial peers.
The story that has been crafted about the new generation in politics, fueling the rise of democratic socialism and Bernie Sanders, centers around the mass disaffection from liberalism among many young voters around the ages 20-35. After seeing the Democratic Party’s involvement in the disaster of the Iraq war and the financial collapse and subsequent bailout of the banks, along with diminishing job prospects, the post-Cold War generation has turned on their party’s establishment and fundamentally rejected the political consensus that has governed American politics for the past forty years.
Ford stands not as the antithesis to this narrative, but rather as a supplement to it from the conservative side. His resistance to liberalism, much like that of the democratic Socialists, exposes some of the issues with Democratic Party politics of the past decades and offers a window into the mindset that has led some millennials to consider conservatism as an alternative.
While Ford was born and raised in Middletown, his mother and father grew up in the post-civil rights era South, where integration was slowly taking place and racial backlash fermenting. His father came from a rural tobacco town in South Carolina and went to an integrated high school. After working on tobacco fields for a few years on low wages, Ford’s father saw a military recruitment commercial one day and decided to join the army to seek a better life.
Through his service in the military, his father, who was never deployed for combat, was able to achieve upward mobility and cultivate a sense of patriotic pride despite knowing, from his experience growing up in the South, that his country did not treat Black Americans as equal citizens.
“He understands where he came from and experienced people treating him with racial prejudice, but at the end of the day he was able to transcend that and knows that what he fought for was for all of us, so that we could have the preservation of freedom,” Ford said. “He’s a true patriot and that’s where his conservatism comes from.”
After meeting Ford’s mother, his father moved to a Connecticut military base near Middletown where the family settled down and raised their children with the values that they believed had helped them escape the South for a better life.
“Growing up under a military household, just the admiration and respect I had for my father and all that he taught me made me a principled man and it made me someone who could stand adversity,” Ford said. “I understood life wasn’t always going to be fair to me because number one, I’m a Black man so it’s not like, ‘three strikes and you’re out,’ it’s more like, ‘one strike and you’re out.’ I was able to look at his life and learn resilience. From picking tobacco to living an upper middle class life.”
Generational divide plagues every family in America today. This has proved to be the case even for someone like Ford, whose conservatism stems from his non-abiding respect of his parents’ values. The conversations surrounding race that have re-emerged in the country’s political discourse in the past ten years, from the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, made lasting impressions on Ford’s political consciousness. As a function of the times he grew up in, Ford has come to see modern-day racism as an insidious set of systemic and institutional forces whereas his father remembers the overt racism that he was subjected to in the South. While his whole family came together in their support for Obama in both 2008 and 2012, the distinction between covert and overt racism sits at the heart of their disagreements.
“My parents and I agree that things have gotten better for Black communities today compared to how they were forty years ago,” Ford said. “But for my father to have seen upward mobility through a good job with the army, and be able to give his kids a better life than he had, he thinks the American Dream is more accessible to all Americans. I focus on the systems we still have in place that set Black people back and we need to bring equity to. I look at the prison system and education system and say that we still have a long way to go. But I do think over the years we’ve learned how to see one another’s perspective better.”
In addition to events in national news, Ford’s outlook on race was shaped by a number of direct experiences he had in high school where some teachers as well as peers overlooked him because of racial stereotypes and assumptions about his capabilities as a Black student.
“There was a sense of people having low expectations for me and questioning my ability to succeed because I was a Black boy,” Ford said. “All our Black and brown children are looked at in this way that is kind of how far are they going to go, how capable are they of succeeding and that mindset is a product of the system of racism that’s been set in this country for generations.”
In the way Ford discusses these years of his life, it’s clear that the adversity he faced in high school instilled in him an identification with being an outsider, which underlies his Black republicanism. As senior class vice president, his high school experience also gave him his first taste of public service and inspired his passion for creating a more racially equitable school system, which was a major campaign issue that he ran on. Since taking office on the city council, Ford has been a strong advocate to improve the public school system and lessen the achievement gap between Black and white students.
During his college years, Ford decided that he wanted to get involved in local politics in Middletown when he picked up a brochure for the town Republicans and didn’t see a single African American featured in it. As someone who considered himself a conservative and felt that many members of the Black community shared those values even if they voted for Democrats, Ford not only saw it as morally unjust that Republicans weren’t making efforts to diversify their party but also simply bad politics if they wanted to have any chance of winning future elections.
“We’re doing something wrong when there’s only a single or even a few people of color on our ballot,” Ford said. “How does that look to the Black community? What kind of a message does that send them? Republicans can do that by first of all, listening to us, then reaching out to us and not coming back with a colorblind philosophy because colorblindness is not going to to draw us in, and colorblindness is only going to alienate us.”
He took this as a challenge to change his white aging party from within, rather than defecting to the Democratic party, who have more actively sought inclusion. Ford ran for the Middletown school board and won, getting the attention of local party leaders and marking him as a rising star.
“What I’ll say is that it’s just a misnomer that all Republicans are racist,” Ford, who looks up to Black republicans like South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, said. “There are a lot of Republicans out here that treated me with the utmost dignity and respect. But the problem is I came to them, they didn’t come to me and that’s where I’m trying to get our party to change. It’s about outreach.”
Still, a few years later when Ford ran for the council he found himself once again the only Black person on the ballot with an R next to his name.
For many Black voters, this lack of diversity in the party isn’t just a poor electoral strategy; it shows the Republican Party’s true colors. So why does Ford feel that it’s a worthwhile endeavor to change the party from the inside, rather than becoming an independent or simply a conservative Democrat?
“A lot of people ask me why don’t I just leave the party?” Ford said. “And it’s because I believe there should be a home for Black folks with moderate to conservative values like I do. And if I truly want to see change, I have to be that change. It’s my obligation to bring in more people that look and live like me and also want to see this party change.”
Ford’s framing of the imperative for an inclusive Republican Party, responsive to the needs of Black people also strikes at the heart of another key motivation behind his political affiliation: frustration with the Democratic Party.
Whereas many liberals view the modern GOP as one fundamentally shaped by Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Reagan’s War on Drugs, or George HW Bush’s Willy Horton ad, Ford looks at it differently. While individual Republicans may have unsavory and corrosive views on race, in Ford’s view, the biggest structural problems that have plagued the Black community such as mass incarceration were bipartisan efforts in which both parties are complicit. Ford says he grew up seeing Democratic politicians come to his community around election season and insincerely trumpet the cause of racial justice without delivering on their promises, because they believed the Black vote could be taken for granted.
“The Democratic Party has taken advantage of us for too long,” Ford said. “Every election they come around and give us promises and those weren’t kept. This isn’t a specific individual, it’s how the party has operated since the 1970s. And after a while you say, ‘Hey, I don’t know if I’m going to keep voting for you if you don’t stick to your word.””
Fundamentally, Ford thinks if both parties can viably compete for the votes of Black communities, then politicians will be incentivized to actually deliver and pass legislation in the statehouse addressing issues important to Black people.
“Black people are not a monolith,” said Ford. “Black people might vote 90 percent Democratic, but most of us don’t agree with all Democratic principles and when we have Black people in both parties, then we really have a seat at the table. If one party is not acting right and not treating us the way they should be treating us, the other party has a presence. Our vote won’t be taken for granted any longer.”
Many of Ford’s philosophical disagreements with liberals also come from his reaction to the way he believes Democrats have run the state government, holding the governor’s house for six out of the last 10 administrations since 1955. While deindustrialization and disappearing jobs have been leading many families for decades to leave the state, in more recent years, the flight of insurance companies out of state of Connecticut, which used to be known as the insurance capital, has lead to further economic hardships for many communities across the state.
“A lot of the issues with the state’s economy were caused by overburdening taxation and regulation that has driven a lot of businesses out of this state,” Ford, who works part time as an assistant clerk for the state senate republicans, said. “It wasn’t the economic system’s fault, it was mismanagement by the state.”
While Ford may diagnose many problems similar to Democrats, especially on topics of racial equity, he often believes in different policy prescriptions to address them. Ford describes himself as an ardent capitalist that instinctively is inclined to free market solutions, public-private partnerships, and lower taxes to stimulate growth. Yet, in an age of rising economic inequality and widespread discontent with the trickle down supply-side economic model, Ford recognizes that capitalism will have to adapt.
“Capitalism is not perfect and I get parts of the argument for democratic socialism in that there have been areas where capitalism has failed, but I think it’s a better system in that it allows disadvantaged individuals and communities to generate wealth and create better lives for their children,” Ford said. “Looking at my family, who went from working on cotton fields to being upper middle class in one generation, that’s what I believe in.”
While Ford thinks social programs are important to help low-income families who are going through rough times, he would like to see state and local governments focus more on aiding Black business ventures and entrepreneurship.
“Black poverty is a huge issue, but we don’t need more liberal policies to try to get these people on increased welfare and not help them get out of poverty rate,” Ford said. “We need to put some investments into supporting Black businesses, and providing some grants to help Black youth start businesses, start organizations, find their dreams because that’s how you’re going to help people become independent for themselves and build generational Black wealth, which is what conservatism is all about.”
On some social issues, Ford also disagrees on a fundamental level with liberal orthodoxy. Ford, an ordained minister, leans pro-life on the question of women’s reproductive rights because of his religious faith.
“When it comes to defending life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I think of that word life and it’s a difficult question for me,” Ford said. “There are nuances because I do think that there are situations where the woman needs to have that choice. It’s obviously not easy being a woman and to go through pregnancy and I will never experience that in my life, but I think we can find a way to help both the woman and the child so that the woman has the support and financial resources she needs. Too many people in my party for too long have only focused on the side of the child and I want us to take both into consideration.”
For Ford, it’s tricky to balance his personal conviction of on abortion with his belieif in limited government, preaching minimal involvement in people’s lives. However, Ford also finds the racial eugenic undertones in the early history of the reproductive movement deeply unsettling, even if the politics of reproductive rights today have changed significantly.
“The majority of abortions are happening in the Black community,” Ford said. “A lot of our babies aren’t even getting to see the light of day and many families are not given the resources to feel confident about raising a child so they abort it. We’re losing all these beautiful Black babies and that’s a racial injustice to me. When you’re looking at it from this perspective, and why the majority of abortions happen in Black communities, I feel very uncomfrtable that this movement was in part founded by Margaret Sanger, who was a white supremacist and I know it has a different purpose today but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have a similar effect to limit the Black population.”
In the way Ford tries to straddle the middle ground between women’s rights and pro-life values on even such a deep cutting moral issue such as abortion, which many people see as black and white, you can see the centrist appraoch that guides his governing philosophy.
“I’m a centrist because I agree with some conservative values on some things and I hold progressive values on others,” Ford said. “I shy away from the radical fringes of either side because I think there are pragmatic solutions that we can find compromise on in the middle that work for everyone. Especially on the local level there’s a lot of nuance to Democrats’ and Republicans’ stances. And for me, on the council, I didn’t get elected to just be partisan, I got elected to represent all of Middletown. And I will work with any Republican or Democrat to get things done.”
But that brand of conservatism would be pretty unfamiliar to most of his fellow Republicans. Ford at the moment is certainly out of step with his own party as he ideologically sits about as far as you possibly could from the national Trump Republicans. While many of his economic positions and limited government ideals sound like the Gingrich Republicans of twenty years ago, his rejection of their racial colorblindness sets him apart from that conservative camp as well. He’s not a blast from the past, nor an anchor for the present state of affairs. Rather, Ford looks like the type of Republican that the millennial progressives in his generation could only dream the party might look like in ten years.
Luke Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.