Michael Ford, prominent Democratic campaign strategist, dies at 65


Michael Ford, a prominent political consultant for Democrats, was a veteran of nine White House campaigns and a senior adviser to several of them. (Jacob Slaton/Clinton School of Public Service)
November 9, 2013

Michael Ford, a prominent political consultant who helped craft campaign strategies for dozens of Democratic candidates over several decades, including presidential hopefuls Edward M. Kennedy in 1980, Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Howard Dean in 2004, died Nov. 5 — Election Day — at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was 65.

The cause was complications from melanoma, said his sister Mary Jo Ford.

Mr. Ford — a veteran of nine White House campaigns and a senior adviser to several of them — was once described by Newsweek magazine as having “an odd blend of boiler-room savvy and cloisterish philosophy.” He was particularly admired as a field organizer and for his ability to inspire the young people who provide much of the shoe-leather labor involved in campaigning.

Democratic strategist Joe Trippi recalled that he first encountered Mr. Ford in Iowa in 1979 at an organizing event for Kennedy, the Massachusetts senator then seeking the Democratic nomination for president. (The nomination ultimately went to President Jimmy Carter.)

Trippi, now a top political consultant, was at the time a “$15-a-day organizer.” He said in an interview that Mr. Ford had “molded and mentored a whole generation of organizers and strategists of the party.”

During Mondale’s ultimately unsuccessful 1984 race, Mr. Ford was the campaign’s field director and reportedly advocated what he described as “dramatic and perhaps high-risk strategies” to overcome the incumbent, Republican President Ronald Reagan.

Among other ideas, Newsweek reported, Mr. Ford suggested choosing an unexpected running mate. Mondale, a former vice president and Minnesota senator, ultimately selected Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York. She became the first woman to appear on a presidential ticket as a major-party­ nominee.

Mr. Ford also served presidential candidates including Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana in 1976 and California Gov. Jerry Brown in 1992. In all, Mr. Ford managed more than 100 local, state and national campaigns, according to information provided by Trippi.

Michael Francis Ford was born June 27, 1948, in the District, the son of a CIA employee and a homemaker. He was drawn to the Democratic Party in part, his sister said, by the charisma of John F. Kennedy. Like the president, Mr. Ford came from an Irish Catholic family.

He graduated from St. John’s College High School in Washington in 1966 and received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Xavier University in Cincinnati in 1970. His early political activity included campaign work for Democratic presidential candidates Hubert H. Humphrey, who lost to Republican Richard M. Nixon in 1968, and George S. McGovern, who lost to Nixon in 1972.

In 1978, Mr. Ford received a master’s degree in government from Georgetown University.

During the early years of his career, Mr. Ford worked in Ohio for the American Federation of Labor’s state, county and municipal employees union and as executive assistant to Gov. John J. Gilligan (D).

Mr. Ford also was Jerry Springer’s chief of staff when the TV talk-show host was mayor of Cincinnati. He was Springer’s campaign manager when Springer unsuccessfully sought the Ohio governor’s seat in 1982.

Mr. Ford’s marriage to Barbara Bison ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 27 years, Sally Schwartz Ford of Glyndon, Md.; a son, Matthew Ford of New York; two sisters, Mary Jo Ford of Herndon, Va., and Maureen Jester of Damascus, Md.; and two brothers, Patrick Ford of Columbia, Md., and Christopher Ford of Detroit.

In addition to his campaign work, Mr. Ford was chief executive of Bay Communications, a media consulting firm he founded in 1988 that had political, corporate and other clients.

He made news in the 1990s when he and a colleague moved to create a sort of mutual fund through which small investors could buy pieces of stock in Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway holding company, whose shares were too expensive for most investors to afford.

Buffett began offering Berkshire B, also called “Baby Berkshire” shares, for a fraction of the price of standard ones. Newsweek wrote at the time that “the gestation of Baby Berkshire began not on Wall Street,” but with Mr. Ford.

At Xavier University, Mr. Ford was founding director of the Center for the Study of the American Dream.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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