Wayne Ford's sentences take off like jackrabbits, but you scramble to keep up because the guy's got quite the story.
"I used to rob people so I could go home and listen to my name on WOL radio: 'Stanton Road bus robbed by three juveniles.' I just felt so powerful. People said, 'Don't mess with Wayne Ford, he'll kill you.' I drank wine, I did dope. I've done everything you can do. I was a wild man."
Ford doesn't hold anything back. He kicks it hard, in that urban-legend style of storytelling that the rappers have popularized. Except Ford's no MC. He's a transplanted Washingtonian who represents House District 71 in Des Moines, the only African American in the 150-member Iowa legislature. It's not every day--make that never--that a self-described young hoodlum from Anacostia ends up 30 years later as a political player in one of the whitest states in the nation. But Ford must have done something right.
"I've been blessed," he says.
This morning, he traveled in the snow to an apartment complex for the elderly and disabled and announced his endorsement of Al Gore. Standing beside him was Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who hopes to get enough Democrats elected this fall to become speaker of the House. Next to Gephardt was Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, who thanked Ford for his support and pledged to send him on the surrogate circuit. "It makes sense that a product of Ward 8 would support Al Gore," she said.
The 48-year-old Ford is loving his 15 minutes. He doesn't let on like your normal rube, smiling and blushing and aw-shucksing. Ford is from the streets. So his thing is: "I'm a pretty hot item right now." Period.
On Monday, Gore and Bill Bradley squared off in the quadrennial Brown & Black Presidential Forum that Ford founded in 1984, an expansion of a similar forum that Ford started in 1976. Except the new version is jointly sponsored with Latino leaders. "I'm the one who put Brown before Black," Ford says, explaining his early recognition that Hispanics would one day be the largest minority in the nation; they already are in Iowa. "It's called vision."
The Gore-Bradley encounter was widely covered by the media and focused exclusively on topics that had received little or no attention in previous debates--racial profiling, voting rights for ex-felons, diversity in appointments, the status of Cuban refugees.
Ford had pretty much decided beforehand that he would back Gore, but waited until after the debate to make his choice known. Good politics. Gore, he says, will make sure the economic boom continues, and not just for the fat cats but for the little skinny cats.
Ford himself is not skinny. He wears his hair short and his glasses big and packs a lot into a blue suit. He played defensive tackle here at Drake University and before that at Rochester Junior College in Minnesota and before that at Ballou High School in Southeast Washington. Which is where his story begins: robbing buses at 14, back in the '60s.
"My little group is one of the reasons they went to exact change," he claims.
His father and mother weren't together, and his father wasn't a part of his life. He was aimless. But fortunate. He got picked up for disorderly conduct once, he says, but otherwise escaped the arm of the law. "All my friends were getting locked up or killed. I was lucky."
At Ballou, he was voted "most likely not to succeed."
But then he got a football scholarship to Rochester Junior College, followed by another scholarship to Drake.
"Coming to Rochester slowed me down. Coming to Des Moines probably saved my life."
He graduated from Drake in 1974 with a degree in education and has never left. Culture shock? He got over that.
"When I first got here, I noticed that everybody kept their doors open. I didn't hear the sirens all the time. And there wasn't a liquor store on every corner. That's what I remember. And the people were friendly, the black people. 'Are you having a good day? How do you feel?' That was unheard of in D.C., because you would have thought somebody was trying to run a game on you."
In 1985 he founded Urban Dreams, a human resource center that works with troubled kids, ex-offenders, welfare mothers and others whose needs might be neglected. "I wanted to be kind of like the Good Samaritan. I'm working with all the same kind of people I knew in Anacostia."
In 1996 Wayne Ford was elected to the state House, completing a rise that could be titled "From the 'Hood to the Hill."
"In my district are some of the richest people in the state of Iowa," he says, "and some of the poorest." He is up for reelection again this year in a district that is 75 percent white, in a state that is overwhelmingly white. According to a Des Moines Register poll, fewer than 4 percent of likely voters in the presidential caucuses are black or Latino.
Does he ever think about all his success coming in such a white place?
Nah. "Des Moines is my home now," he says. So over the next few days, Ford will be working the phone banks, doing radio, whatever it takes to turn out caucus votes for Gore. It'll be a while before Gore picks up another endorsement like Ford's.
"I guess I've come a long way," he says. "From being a little inner-city kid to organizing the only minority presidential forum in the nation. Not bad."
CAPTION: Wayne Ford, from D.C. streets to Iowa politics.