The Politician’s Wife Claims No Baggage (Published 2010) (2024)



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By Laura M. Holson

SINCE early January, when Harold E. Ford Jr. announced he was considering a bid for a Senate seat from New York, his wife, Emily Ford, has been hounded. Her friends call almost daily to ask if she has read the latest gossip about the couple. Mr. Ford can’t seem to stop talking about his wife, either, recently telling a columnist that he walks her favorite Chihuahua, Fabby.

So it is no wonder that last week, the normally publicity-shy Ms. Ford tucked into a corner table of a cafe near Gramercy Park and expressed surprise that there is so much interest in her. “I have no skeletons in my closet,” Ms. Ford, 29, said while picking at a muffin.

She is keenly aware of how cruelly the political game can be played. What some people may best remember about her derives from an advertisem*nt directed at Mr. Ford during his failed Senate campaign in Tennessee in 2006, when he was derided for dating white women.


The N.A.A.C.P. and others immediately protested, saying the ad, featuring a seductive blonde asking Mr. Ford to call her, played to racist fears. “Everyone knew he had a white girlfriend,” said Ms. Ford, who was dating Mr. Ford at the time. Asked later if she thought Mr. Ford’s foes were taking aim at her (the ad was paid for by the Republican National Committee), she said, “Kind of.”

“People will say things that are untrue and harsh,” she added. “That’s part of it.”

Ms. Ford, dressed in a powder blue J. Crew sweater, jeans and a mottled Nina Ricci scarf, looked less like a possible senator’s wife than an eager legislative aide, someone she said she was once mistaken for at a political event with her husband. She supports Mr. Ford’s ambitions, but she has interests of her own. Now working at home as a marketing consultant, she recently held one of the fashion industry’s glamour jobs, dressing celebrities for the red carpet on behalf of the designer Carolina Herrera.

Despite gilded-class assumptions raised by Ms. Ford’s fashion pedigree and her mother’s wealthy third husband, Anson Beard Jr., a former Morgan Stanley senior executive, Ms. Ford quickly points out that she grew up in Naples, Fla., playing paddleball as a teenager and perfecting her tan.

“I am not an Upper East Side heiress,” she said emphatically.

She is circ*mspect about the role of political wife, knowing she will have to steel herself for the scrutiny to follow if Mr. Ford decides to challenge Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand in New York’s Democratic primary on Sept. 14. “I didn’t desire it, that’s for sure,” Ms. Ford said of the recent attention. “I’m going to have to define this as I go along. Everything is all coming so fast right now. There is this momentum. It’s press, press, press.”


Few can blame her wariness; the wives of politicians have had a rough go of it lately. Elizabeth Edwards, who split with Senator John Edwards from North Carolina, has been criticized harshly (and mostly anonymously) in the new book, “Game Change,” for badgering political aides. And Jenny Sanford released a book last week recounting the very public unraveling of her marriage to Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

Mr. Ford, 39, who represented Tennessee in the House for 10 years, comes with a well-documented history as a candidate and politician. Last month, he sparred with the White House after President Obama reaffirmed his support for Ms. Gillibrand. Mr. Ford’s flirtation with a New York bid has led him upstate on the proverbial listening tour to Buffalo and Albany, and into the Park Avenue trenches to fiercely battle Ms. Gillibrand for donations from Wall Street executives. To study his decision, he has taken a leave from a job as a vice chairman for Merrill Lynch, which he joined after moving to New York three years ago.

Already, some members of the Democratic establishment have accused him of reversing his opposition to same-sex marriage and to flipping from being against abortion to supporting abortion rights in a calculated appeal to New York voters. (Mr. Ford has denied this.)

On the marriage issue, Ms. Ford seems to have played a role in changing her husband’s mind. In an interview on “The Colbert Report,” Mr. Ford credited his wife with influencing his views, an acknowledgment that pleased her.

Ms. Ford said in her interview the other day that she had several conversations with her husband about gay marriage. She told him about a gay step-uncle who had died of AIDS and a gay aunt, both of whom were in loving, committed relationships. “Harold never met my uncle or my aunt, but he knows how important this is to me,” Ms. Ford said.

Ms. Ford was born Jan. 2, 1981, into an extended family so complicated that outsiders need a flow chart to guide them. Her mother, Deborah Beard, was married first to Tom Threlkeld, Ms. Ford’s father, a union that ended when Emily was 2. Soon after, Ms. Beard married Vin De Pasquale, a restaurant owner in Naples, Fla. They divorced in 2003 after nearly two decades of marriage.

The next year, Ms. Beard met her third husband, Anson Beard Jr., at a wedding. It was also a momentous occasion for her daughter, who met Mr. Ford the same weekend. The Fords were married in 2008.

Ms. Ford had hoped to be a clothes designer. Instead, she graduated from the University of Miami in 2003 with a degree in business and marketing and moved to an apartment above a fish store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She worked first as a publicist for the designer Nina Ricci and, later, as the assistant to Mario Grauso, who was president of the parent group that owns the Nina Ricci and Carolina Herrera labels. She ended up styling celebrities such as Renée Zellweger.


“I used to give her grief about Florida,” said Mr. Grauso, now president of Vera Wang. “There it’s tight jeans, Candies and a tube top.”

Ms. Ford adapted to New York’s more polished fashions, albeit with her own flair. For the Academy Awards in 2007, she dressed Jada Pinkett Smith in a tight-fitting Herrera gold gown. “That’s a little wow,” Mr. Grauso recalled telling Ms. Ford. “That is not a place I would go to.”

Yet, the dress was a hit.

“We might tease her about Florida, but she’s sophisticated,” Mr. Grauso said. “She’s not naïve. I just threw her in front of the fashion train and she figured it out. Politics is going to be easy for her.” Mr. Ford is already touting his wife as a political asset. He told a columnist recently that she was his director of research, although Ms. Ford said that’s not quite true — she helps her husband with research in her spare time.

The couple sees her mother often, dining at Il Gattopardo in Midtown when the Beards come to visit. Ms. Ford said her mother paid for the Manhattan condo where the Fords live, which they have put on the market for about $1.4 million.


Every Christmas Eve, Ms. Ford’s father gives a party for about 150 friends and extended family, who have eagerly welcomed Mr. Ford.

Mary Jacqueline Atkinson, who is married to a cousin of Ms. Ford’s, recalled guests asking Mr. Ford in December if he was going to run for the Senate. He was noncommittal. But the family clearly likes the idea of having Mr. Ford as a politician among them. At one point Ms. Ford’s mother slipped behind the bar “and started making jokes about collecting tips for Harold’s campaign,” Ms. Atkinson said. “Emily thought it was hilarious.”

Indeed, the Beards have been financially supportive of Mr. Ford in the past, contributing to his failed bid for the Senate in 2006. Mr. Beard also helped organize a fund-raiser at the time in New York, Ms. Beard said. Will the family do the same if Mr. Ford runs in New York? “Absolutely,” Ms. Beard said. “If he decides to run, we will be the army behind him.”

For the time being — and until Mr. Ford makes up his mind, which could come in the next few weeks — Ms. Ford can only hope she will be ready if he runs. “I will just have to be me,” she said. “And I will have to have a thick skin.” She paused, then offered knowingly, “That won’t happen overnight.”

A correction was made on

Feb. 18, 2010


An article last Thursday about Emily Ford, whose husband, Harold E. Ford Jr., is considering running for the United States Senate from New York, misspelled the surname of an actress for whom Ms. Ford was once a stylist. She is Renée Zellweger, not Zellwegger.

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