Former State Sen. Joel Ford was elected to the UNC Board of Governors Wednesday, becoming the conservative-dominated board’s only Democrat.
The N.C. Senate chose Ford to replace Darrell Allison, who stepped down from the board to become the new chancellor of Fayetteville State University.
Ford is in some ways a surprising choice for a position on the governing board of the 17-campus UNC System. While former state lawmakers have often been given board seats, the Republican majority does not usually consider Democrats. Ford will be the only Democrat on a board entirely composed of Republicans and unaffiliated people with strong conservative ties. There are 24 voting members on the Board of Governors.
In an interview with Policy Watch Tuesday, Ford said he didn’t realize there were no other Democrats on the board. “Wow,” Ford said. “I guess if confirmed you can reclassify me as a unicorn.”
Ford is an atypical Democrat, often at odds with his own party during his six years in the General Assembly.
“I’m more of a moderate centrist,” Ford said. “I believe I’ve proven myself to be an independent thinker. I supported what I wanted to support and didn’t support what I didn’t. I think that’s rare in this environment of hyper-partisanship.”
Notably, Ford is a supporter of charter schools —- an issue that divides Democrats but made Ford allies on the political right.
He was also a sponsor of the 2018 voter ID bill later blocked by a federal court that found it to be at least partially motivated by racial discrimination. He was the only Senate Democrat to join Republicans in a vote to overturn Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the bill. In blocking the voter ID law, U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs noted that Ford admitted in a deposition that he considered switching parties around the time the bill was passed.
“There has been a lot of assumptions about that,” Ford said. “I want to make it clear that I am still a registered Democrat.”
Ford has also had a fraught relationship with the LGBTQ community. In 2016 he was one of the few Democrats to support a Republican bill to allow magistrates to recuse themselves from performing same-sex marriages.
He was conspicuously absent during the vote on HB2, the controversial law that banned local governments from adopting anti-discrimination rules that include LGBT people. He later said he would support repeal, but clashed with fellow Democrats — including Gov. Roy Cooper — on how to accomplish it.
HB2 originated in reaction to a local ordinance in Ford’s home town of Charlotte, where the city council extended greater legal protections to LGBT people. Ford said he supported the ordinance but not the controversial provision that would have allowed people to choose public bathrooms that match their gender identity. Ford sponsored a bill to repeal HB2 that included a moratorium on local non-discrimination ordinances and was one of the few Democrats to support putting LGBT protections to local referendum votes.
Those stances hurt Ford in his run for mayor of Charlotte in 2017, when he came third in a field of five in the Democratic primary. In 2018 he lost the Democratic primary for his District 38 Senate seat to Mujtaba Mohammed, who went on to win the seat.
On Wednesday, Mohammed spoke in support of Ford’s board of governors nomination before the Senate vote.
“I know that many of you know Joel and I have had our differences and we may not agree on everything,” Mohammed said.
But as a former state Senator who represented UNC-Charlotte and a graduate of N.C. A&T, Ford has a love for the UNC System and historically black colleges and universities, Mohammed said.
“It’s because of that love and advocacy and diversity of that representation and experience that I know Joel Ford will bring…that’s why I ask for his support and I ask for you to join in allowing Senator Ford to serve our community to the best of his capacity and be a champion for our UNC System, our HBCUs and UNC-Charlotte,” Mohammed said.
Senator Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) also supported Ford’s nomination.
“He will be an outstanding member of that board,” Rabon said. “As you all know, Joel speaks his mind and has an ability to get along with people on both sides of the aisle and help with his background the board that he’s going to represent.”
Despite being a former chairman of the Mecklenburg County’s Democratic Party, Ford said, he never saw service in the General Assembly through a partisan lens.
“I value my independence more than my political affiliation,” Ford said. “If you look at my record of service and support for legislation, it reflects that. It becomes easy to pick aside. It’s easy to go to the blue corner or the red corner.” That wasn’t a political asset in the current environment, Ford said.
“I believe when you have districts that are drawn the way that they’re drawn, you have two extremes — either super blue/liberal or super red/conservative districts,” Ford said. “And those kinds of districts turn out those kinds of elected officials. So there is very little room for moderates to centrists. I was clearly elected by a Democratic constituency, but I have more of a moderate to centrist viewpoint. I believe the toxicity — political toxicity — contributed to wanting someone of a more ideological manner. And I lost.”
But that same independence — coupled with his experience in the General Assembly — could be an asset on the board of governors, he said.
“Having served in the General Assembly, I do believe it could be a positive contribution just based upon the nature of the work,” Ford said. “From working on education to Senate Appropriations, that and my independent thinking … to me, that can only be a plus.” Until he is actually confirmed, Ford said it was premature to talk specifics about the board and what he might do there. “I am very appreciative and humbled by the opportunity to serve the state in this capacity,” Ford said. “But until there’s a confirmation, it’s just an idea.”
Also elected to the board Wednesday were current members Art Pope and Jimmy Clark as well as the current board chair, Randy Ramsey, who were reappointed. New board members include Lee Roberts, an investment partner and budget director under former Gov. Pat McCrory; Chapel Hill real estate developer Kirk Bradley; and and Sonja Nichols, a security services firm president from Charlotte. Nichols, a Republican, ran unsuccessfully for the District 37 state Senate Seat held by Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg).