Jenny Ford takes on Capitol Hill – and wins

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For more than 15 years, Jenny Ford has walked the halls where legislation is made in Tennessee and Alabama. She has advised lawmakers on just about any topic you can imagine. She even worked for former Senator John Ford, where she spent a year on his staff as a research analyst.

But when she started her own company in October 2003, Jenny Ford Government Strategies (JFGS), Ford had no idea that she would soon take on a client that no one else wanted, with issues that are complicated and challenging.

Ford started her career in government in Montgomery , Ala. , where she was the assistant director of judicial education for the Alabama Supreme Court. She moved to Tennessee in 1990 where she worked for some of the most powerful names in Tennessee government. She then embarked on her lobbying career.

One of Tennessee Equality Project’s goals when it formed was to hire a top tier lobbyist, one with at least 15 years experience, to work actively issues that affect the GLBT community.

With a list of 15 of the top lobbyists in hand, TEP members set out to narrow that list down to their top five candidates. While TEP wouldn’t share the names of the final candidates, one thing TEP will is share is that those candidates were not about to lobby for a group on GLBT rights and equality.

“Most didn’t want to take on a controversial client like TEP,” Ford said. “One of the lobbyists they approached said he didn’t want the job because he didn’t want to start out losing.”

Ford had been helping TEP form, providing advice and guidance on how to select the best person for the job. She has offered advice to the ACLU of Tennessee this seemed to be a natural extension of that work. She even joined the board of directors for TEP because she admired the work the group was doing on behalf of Tennesseans.

Little did she know that she would soon be taking on one of the biggest challenges of her career.

“TEP couldn’t find any top tier lobbyist to take on their issues,” she said. “So that left the group with few options. One of the lobbyists we had talked to suggested that I take them on as a client.”

And that’s exactly what she did. She was appointed by the board of directors to become their official lobbyist in January 2005. She then resigned her position on the board, and offered to the group what she described “as her best gift.”

“It (my lobbying efforts) was the best skill set and gift I could offer the members of TEP,” she said.

Ford had little, if any time to prepare for the issues. The legislative session was moving forward and there were no fewer than 15 – yes, 15 – bills that had already been filed that could dramatically affect the GLBT community.

“The issues were moving fast,” she said. “We had no time.”

She quickly identified issues that had the biggest impact on the community, and started working those pieces of legislation. TEP organized an “advancing equality day on Capitol Hill” where its members personally met with lawmakers to discuss a litany of issues, and to begin to build personal bonds with them.

“Also TEP members were very responsive in making phone calls, e-mails, and writing letters,” she added.

Christopher Sanders, public relations chair for TEP, praised Ford’s work and professionalism as setting a standard for other equality projects to follow throughout the nation.

“Jenny Ford has changed the magnitude of the GLBT community’s engagement with politics in Tennessee through her work as TEP’s lobbyist,” Sanders said. “Her success has drawn national attention from other statewide equality groups, and rightly so. Her professionalism, passion, and experience have been instrumental in our victories in the General Assembly.”

In the end, legislation was derailed that would have prevented gay men or women from adopting children. Legislation was passed that will allow Tennessee voters to vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage or allowing gay marriages from other states to be recognized.

But Ford said next year would prove just as, if not more, challenging.

“We’ll see a reintroduction of the anti-adoption laws and foster care bills,” she said. “And we’ll be working to try and get a bill introduced that will allow transgendered persons to have their birth certificates changed to properly represent their sexual identity.”