Did Charlotte task force co-chair equate Trump voters with white supremacists?

James Ford, 2015 North Carolina Teacher Of The Year.
James Ford, 2015 North Carolina Teacher Of The Year.

Conservatives are challenging a social media post by the new co-chair of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg economic opportunity task force, saying his comments equate Donald Trump voters with white supremacists.

James Ford, a former North Carolina teacher of the year, was named as co-chair of a task force to seek funding and implement the recommendations of a report that was released Monday.

On March 19, Ford responded to a tweet that linked to a Virginia newspaper editorial. The editorial said Appalachian voters who supported Trump will bear the costs of his budget cuts.

Ford’s response said there may be “redemption” for those voters, but “they must disavow white supremacy. That ideology keeps them stuck.”

Charlotte lawyer Jeremy Stephenson, a conservative Republican and 2015 school board candidate – but not a Trump voter – said a friend sent him the post, which he recirculated on Facebook.

 ‘White supremacy,’ to me that means Nazi, period,” Stephenson said. “And (Ford) knows that and it’s not tongue in cheek. It’s in a similar vein to folks who are willing to say everything Trump says is a lie and that he surrounds himself with liars. It’s just destructive rhetoric.”

Ford, in response, noted that the comment was from his personal Twitter account. But he didn’t back away from what he wrote, which he said referred specifically to voters in Appalachia.

“Those are my words, and I’m certainly willing to be held accountable for them,” he said. “But those who follow me know I address issues of race, segregation and social equity pretty head-on and have historically not been afraid to raise these issues.”

Ford said the continuing discussions of opportunity in Charlotte will require frank talk across racial and social lines. He views the willingness of residents to bridge differences of opinion as a test of the city’s commitment to change.

“It’s a historical fact that race has been used to build a wedge issue to keep poor whites from aligning with poor blacks and Hispanics,” he said. “I’m not disparaging all conservatives or all Trump supporters, but you can’t deny that racism and xenophobia was a large part of his ascendancy.”

Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of the Foundation for the Carolinas, noted Ford’s accomplishments as teacher of the year and being named Charlottean of the Year by Charlotte Magazine in 2014. The foundation helped fund the task force.

“James Ford was appointed to co-chair the implementation task force because of his strong professional credentials in a key subject area of the report, namely education, and his close ties to constituent groups impacted by the task force report,” Marsicano said in a statement. He did not directly address the tweet.

The last few years have been a whirlwind for James Ford, 34, who went from being a teacher at Garinger High teacher and winner of CMS Teacher of the Year to North Carolina Teacher of the Year in 2014-15.

Ford was named to co-chair the new Leading on Opportunity Council after discussions with community leaders, the original Economic Opportunity Task Force co-chairs, and the professional team working on the project, he said. The council will be made up of members who represent diverse points of view and will work “to ensure the bipartisan goal of ensuring that every child in our community has the opportunity to achieve their dreams.”

Ford, a former Garinger High history teacher and Illinois native, won the state’s top-teacher award in 2014.

The following year he left teaching to join the Public School Forum of North Carolina, an education research and advocacy group, where he works with new teachers and on policies to turn around the state’s chronically struggling schools.

Forum President Keith Poston has said Ford is equally at ease with students, teachers, politicians and corporate leaders. “It’s a rare talent in a polarized political environment to navigate and circulate the way he has,” Poston said in 2015.

Ford began posting on racial issues on social media more often after the police shooting and unrest in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force formed in May 2015 in response to a 2014 study from Harvard University and UC-Berkeley that found poor children in Charlotte less likely to escape poverty compared to their peers in America’s 50 largest cities.

Violent protests that rocked Charlotte in September, following the fatal Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, added urgency to the task. Some residents pointed to the city’s underlying economic inequality as a root cause of the protests.

Conservative Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James said he takes Ford’s tweet “with a grain of salt.”

“The purpose of this whole economic opportunity approach is not to engage in some sort of political dogma,” he said. “If they’re trying to convince Mecklenburg County, white and black, that it’s necessary to do things like busing or housing integration, I don’t think you accomplish much by calling a big chunk of the county white supremacists.”

Trump badly lost Mecklenburg County to Democrat Hillary Clinton in November’s presidential election but still received 155,000 votes.

Stephenson said he found much of the Opportunity Task Force report “very exciting,” particularly for not avoiding sensitive topics such as increased access to birth control. He doesn’t think Ford should be removed from his new post.

“But the people who named him need to explain his comment, whether they picked him with knowledge of (him making) those comments,” he said. “There’s a place for a racial provocateur, but not at the top of the masthead.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender