After taking risks in business, Joel Ford is taking one in politics

Joel Ford has always been a risk-taker. Now he’s betting that Democratic primary voters will nominate a self-described moderate for Charlotte mayor.
Joel Ford has always been a risk-taker. Now he’s betting that Democratic primary voters will nominate a self-described moderate for Charlotte mayor. jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com

Joel Ford has always been a risk-taker.

As a businessman he started a series of companies, even if they didn’t always succeed.

As a Democratic senator facing a tough primary, he voted for a Republican state budget.

As a voter, he backed a constitutional amendment opposed by many in his party.

Now Ford, 48, is a leading contender in a five-way Democratic primary for mayor that includes incumbent Jennifer Roberts and Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles. Against more progressive rivals, he takes pride in bi-partisan moderation.

“I’m the one candidate running for mayor that has a healthy relationship (with the General Assembly),” he told a forum this month. “We can do everything right locally … then the state of North Carolina can undo all of it.”

But now the self-described moderate is poised to face his party’s most partisan voters.

One party activist started a Facebook page called “Joel Ford – Not Right for Charlotte.” And the man who once chaired the Mecklenburg Democratic Party has encouraged non-Democrats to change their registration so they can vote for him in the primary.

Among Ford’s donors are seven GOP lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon and House Rules Chair David Lewis.

Roberts has said his record, particularly his support for this year’s GOP budget, “shows that his values are contrary to what we’re working on in Charlotte.”

But supporters consider his willingness to reach across party lines an asset.

“If Joel has the ability to talk to Republican leadership in Raleigh, that’s a good thing,” says Democrat Michael Barnes, a former council member. “We need a mayor who can talk to all sides. It’s hard to do that if you’re a mayor stuck on the far left or the far right.”

‘Recovering entrepreneur’

Ford’s politics make him stand out in the Democratic field as much as his 6-foot-3 frame, stocky build and shaved head. Born in Charlotte, he grew up in the Gaston County town of Belmont where he and his mother lived in public housing. He went to South Point High School and later graduated from N.C. A&T with a degree in business.

In 1994, at 25, he moved to Atlanta for a job as an account executive with Waste Management. He returned five years later and started his own waste business, Ford Container, with the help of a $37,000 city loan.

When the business later became unprofitable, he sold it. By then he’d gotten involved in a series of other ventures. In 2002 he helped start Premier Barber Shop and Salon in the old Eastland Mall. Three years later he became a managing partner in a University City restaurant called Junior’s Chicken and Waffles. Both were sold.

In 2011 he started The Network Group, a nonprofit designed to connect aspiring business men and women. And in 2012 he created Sacco Street Consulting, which has since dissolved. Then Ford went to work for his friend Stoney Sellars at StoneLaurel, a management consulting firm.

Last year he became a vice president of Charlotte-based Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, North Carolina’s largest state-funded mental health managed care organization. In May the state auditor ripped Cardinal for lavish spending that threatened to “erode public trust.” Neither Ford nor his salary were mentioned in the audit report.

Ford calls himself a “recovering entrepreneur” after a career that has had its bumps.

In 2007 the city won a judgment for repayment of the 1999 loan to Ford Container. The city recovered its money from a 2006 foreclosure on Ford-owned property in Belmont.

“The lesson in there is I took a risk and and tried to start my own business,” he says. “I learned a lot of lessons that can’t be learned in a classroom.”

LGBT issues

In Raleigh, Ford has veered into controversy.

In June he was one of four Democrats who joined Senate Republicans in voting for the final state budget, which Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper went on to veto. He says there were parts he liked such as raising the age at which juveniles are subject to prosecution as adults, raises for teachers and retirees and money for a Charlotte housing project he championed when he chaired the Housing Authority.

But Democrats blasted the budget for, among other things, cutting the office of Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein by $10 million. Ford said the cuts were offset by money to the agency that oversees county prosecutors. “I’m not justifying it, but there’s a benefit to Mecklenburg County,” he says.

But courts spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell says while some counties got additional prosecutors, Mecklenburg was not one of them.

Perhaps more controversial has been Ford’s stand on LGBT issues.

Ford says in 2012 he cast a ballot as a voter for Amendment 1, a constitutional amendment that, until it was superseded by the U.S. Supreme Court, made marriage between a man and woman the state’s only legally recognized union. In 2015 he was one of two Senate Democrats who voted for SB 2, a Republican bill that allowed civil magistrates to recuse themselves from performing same-sex marriages.

“The LGBT community distrusts Joel Ford for a number of reasons,” says Chris Sgro, former executive director of Equality NC. “It’s not that he voted consistently against the civil rights of our community, it goes to the way he talks about our issues. …. lecturing LGBT people about what the best policy is for them.”

Ford says he cares “deeply about the rights and protections of the LGBTQ community.”

“The biggest difference between me and some of the activists,” he said, “is how I would go about solving some of the issues and challenges.”

Ford calls himself “a Democrat and a team player.”

“What I’m betting on in this election is that the voters in the city of Charlotte will look at my record of service and effectiveness,” he says. “This is still a moderate city. I believe that my politics will align with the voters.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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