Former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr. delivered a keynote address at the Interfaith Chapel Thursday night as part of UR’s celebration of Black History Month, which was sponsored by the Black Students’ Union.
Ford’s lecture entitled ‘Civil Rights and Leadership in the 21st Century” focused on many of the problems facing our nation today, most notably education and how civic engagement, volunteering and student leadership can be used to find solutions.
Ford identified what he described as a ‘collective contentment” with our current schooling system that has allowed nations from around the world to pass us in K-12 education in recent decades.
‘America has become lazy, not as focused, not as determined,” Ford said, noting that the future will be up to young people. ‘[They have to harness] a change of attitude to retake our position in the world. The losers in the end are us,” Ford said.
In his speech, Ford recognized the challenges currently facing the U.S., but kept a positive outlook for young Americans in the post-Obama election era.
‘[There is] greater competition and greater expectations globally,” he said.
Ford also remarked on President Obama’s first year, claiming that the administration has averted unemployment climbing above 20 percent and another Great Depression.
‘It was far better than he’s gotten credit for,” he said. ‘[The administration] has been reluctant to talk about their successes.”
In the question-and-answer period following the lecture, Ford who was previously against same-sex marriage and twice voted for a Federal Marriage Amendment was asked if civil rights extended to same-sex couples.
Ford said he has since changed his stance with the guidance of his wife, and that his time outside of Washington has allowed him to gain greater perspective.
‘You don’t have to embrace me as an ally,” Ford said to one questioner, ‘But accept that I’m on your side.”
Ford, the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, spent the day in Rochester. He opened his lecture with by praising Nick Tahou’s garbage plates, which he had Thursday afternoon in his first-ever visit to the city.
He spoke with a few UR students and met with Mayor Robert Duffy, among other local groups throughout the day.
Ford has been widely speculated as a competitor in the Democratic primary to Gillibrand, who was appointed by Gov. David Paterson to fill Hilary Clinton’s seat. He said he would release an official announcement on whether he will run for the position in the coming weeks.
This announcement sparked a reaction from some of the students in the audience.
‘I thought [Ford] was a perfect example of a 21st century political entrepreneur,” junior Allison Reiman said. ‘He is socially and financially consertvative and he basically supports everything that is not on the democratic platform. That is scary.”
Ford was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1997 to 2007, representing the Memphis-area of Tennessee. The son of a former Congressman, Ford gave up his seat for an unsuccessful bid for Senate in Tennessee in 2006.
He has been living in New York City and serving as Vice Chairman of Merrill Lynch since 2007. In the wake of the Wall Street climate and bonuses that have angered many Americans, Ford said previously on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press” that he would disclose all necessary financial requirements if he were to announce his candidacy, but refused to divulge specifics in the meantime.
Ford donated the entirety of the funds, which he raised from his speech, back to the University.
At the end of his address, Ford responded to a question on whether he would run for Gillibrand’s seat and why he was considering entering the race.
‘I’ve been dismayed at times by the lack of leadership in the U.S. Senate and representation here in New York,” Ford said. ‘If I do run, there will be a simple message: We can do better.”
Smith is a member of the class of 2011.