- Associated Press - Friday, February 27, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Former Mississippi House Speaker Tim Ford, whose ascent to leadership in 1988 brought a new era of openness to the legislative body, died Friday evening. He was 63.

Ben Stone, one of Ford’s partners at the Balch & Bingham law firm, confirmed Ford’s death of a heart attack in Oxford.

Ford was elected as a Democrat to the Mississippi House in 1979 from a district in the Tupelo area. His colleagues in the 122-member House elected him as speaker in January 1988, and he remained in that role until January 2004. After leaving the Legislature, Ford went into private law practice.

As presiding officer in the House, Ford let chairmen have control over bills in their committees. That was a change from his predecessor, Democrat C.B. “Buddie” Newman, who kept tight control over issues that were considered and even over who was recognized to speak during debates. Ford rose to power after a group of younger House members revolted against what many saw as Newman’s heavy-handed control.

Ford was a leader among the group of House members who were elected in November 1979 and took office in January 1980, said one member of that class, Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg.

“He was a leader of the group from day one,” Watson said.

Watson said he supported Ford for speaker because Ford was more committed than a rival candidate to breaking the iron rule of previous leaders.

“He brought more democracy to the working of the Legislature,” Watson said. “He got more people involved. Even now you can see the fruits of his labor.”

Watson said Ford embraced African-American members like no previous speaker. In 1992, Ford supported Democratic Rep. Robert Clark of Ebenezer to become the first African-American speaker pro tempore of the House, the second-ranking officer. Ford and Clark had a close and respectful working relationship.

“He was able to make the transition and work with African-American members,” Watson said of Ford.

Friends recall that Ford enjoyed social aspects of the Legislature along with the business of lawmaking: He was a man who liked to swap stories over steak after-hours. When debates became contentious in the House, Ford could be strict, but he could also break the tension by tapping his gavel and telling members, “Y’all be sweet.”

Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, who also was elected in 1979, recalled: “Before he became speaker, Tim was a jovial prankster. After he became speaker, he was still a light-hearted guy. He didn’t rule with an iron hand because that’s why we elected him.”

When Ford was first elected speaker, Democrats held a strong majority in the House. After 1991, when Mississippi elected Kirk Fordice as its first Republican governor since Reconstruction, the GOP started growing. Some Democrats switched parties, and other House seats flipped from Democrat to Republican in elections.

“He was able to work across party lines. He was able to build consensus,” said Eric Clark, current head of the state community college system. Clark was elected to the House in 1979, along with Ford.

“He was happy most of the time,” Clark said. “And he was able to persuade people to follow him.”

Longtime Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, was one of Ford’s political allies.

“The man knew how to lead and transform lives,” Holland said. “I’m greatly diminished at his passing.”

Holland cited work Ford did on education, teacher salaries, transportation, mental health and Medicaid.

“We made revolutionary changes under his leadership,” Holland said.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who served in the House while Ford was speaker, said in a statement: “Deborah and I are so sad to hear of the untimely passing of our dear friend Tim. … We lost a good man who loved his family and his state.”

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