By KATIE EUBANKS
Every step of the way
Jill Ford on faith, family, politics, and eating her pride
One of Jill Ford’s earliest memories is of riding a horse with her brother Reggie when she was 6 — and then realizing Reggie had jumped off, leaving her in control of the animal.
“That pretty much summed up living with (my four brothers),” Jill says.
It’s no wonder that today Jill is able to navigate the state Capitol, where she serves as one of disproportionately few female legislators. (The Legislature has been out of session since March 17 due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. At press time, legislators were tentatively expected to return to the Capitol on May 18.)
Jill’s family had 15 acres and the aforementioned horse when she was a child in Corinth, Mississippi. The tomboy and future state representative hated politics at the time because it took her father away from home: Thurston Little worked in Washington D.C. for Sen. James “Big Jim” Eastland.
“(Daddy) was gone all week long and would come home on the weekends. And on weekends it would be, ‘Don’t bother your daddy because he’s tired from the week,’” Jill recalls.
Her relationship with her daddy, with politics, and most of all with the Lord, would evolve over the years. As she looks back now, she can see how God prepared her at every turn, not only for her current position in the Legislature but for whatever comes next.
‘Why do I have a cyst on my ovary?’
Jill received a scholarship as a feature twirler to Northeast Mississippi Community College and got a two-year paralegal degree before transferring to Mississippi State University. The summer before her senior year, she underwent surgery to remove an ovarian cyst. She stayed home that fall semester to recover.
By October, she was physically healed — but mentally going stir crazy.
Her father got her a paralegal job at Butler Snow in Jackson. She planned to return to MSU in January — but then she “just loved being in the workplace” and decided not to go back, she says.
There also was another reason she wanted to stay at Butler Snow. That reason stood about 6 foot 2 and worked two floors below her.
She had met Mike Ford a couple of years earlier, when she and her roommate had come to Jackson for summer jobs. Jill and Mike had not dated. But nine months after seeing each other again in the elevator at the Deposit Guaranty building, they were married.
“What I thought was a curse — ‘Why do I have a cyst on my ovary?’ — wound up being the biggest blessing in my life,” she says, because it led to her working in Jackson and meeting Mike.
“Really, (Mike) needs to be the one who gets the interview, because he has to live with me,” she says of her husband, who is chief financial officer for a transportation company.
“My man is the one that — he lets me be me, which is a big fat hairy deal,” she says. “He’s that quiet, meek but not weak leader. … If I could bottle him up and sell him, I tell you, it’d be awesome.”
A lawsuit and the shelter of the Most High
The Fords settled in Madison County and had two sons, Patton and Crockett. Jill became a realtor.
At that time, Jill hadn’t fallen in love with Jesus yet, she says. At 9 years old, she’d felt prompted to be baptized, and she believes that prompting was God, who gave her His Holy Spirit then. But she says Satan also gave her something in the spiritual realm: a knife. If she was a vessel for the Holy Spirit, her sin was a knife cutting into that vessel over and over.
“If you were to look at my high school and college days … I would not have convinced you that I was a follower (of Jesus),” she says.
She was never convicted enough to turn around and really seek the Lord until October 1999 — when she was served a subpoena at her front door.
“That’s how I found out about it,” Jill says.
What she found out was that her father had laundered $6.5 million through a shell company and had named Mike and herself as president and vice president of said company, unbeknownst to them.
After receiving the subpoena, Jill went into her closet so that her boys, who were still young, wouldn’t see her crying. Over the next seven years, “my closet became Psalm 91, the shelter of the Most High … and the Lord would meet me there,” she says.
Jill and Mike became the defendants in a civil lawsuit, which ended in a settlement. Part of Jill’s deposition testimony led to her father serving two years in federal prison.
“It’s not something I’m proud of. But it’s something that my daddy ultimately forgave me (for), and he understood that the truth would set us all free,” she says. She forgave him as well.
“I love my daddy,” she says. “He had a good heart. Now he made unwise decisions that backfired on my husband and myself. But he was a good man. … And his unwise decisions (are) what actually drew me closer to the Lord.”
As she and Mike trudged through their legal journey, she started praying and reading the Bible more.
“(I’d say to God) ‘I don’t know. I don’t even feel You.’ And the more I would read scripture and the more I would pray, the fuller I would feel of His Spirit. … it would be like masking tape covering the holes I had inflicted on myself.”
During that same time, a group of 10th-grade girls from Jill’s Sunday school class at Broadmoor Baptist Church asked her to teach them the book of Revelation. She told them she knew nothing about it, but they challenged her to learn. So for a year, she studied Revelation and taught them.
“We learned about (the church as) the bride of Christ,” she says, an image used prominently in Revelation and throughout the Bible.
Over the course of that year, Jill fell in love with Jesus as her bridegroom — to the point where now she says, “Revelation is the sweetest book in the Bible.”
‘The meanest attorney I know’
The first lawyer Jill and Mike approached to represent them in the lawsuit had a conflict of interest. So he pointed them to another one: “the meanest attorney I know in town,” he said.
“We hired (that attorney), and he walked through this case with us for that seven years,” Jill says.
By the end of those seven years, the Fords had drained their savings. In early November 2006, their attorney said he’d cut their final payment in half if they’d get it to him by December 15. They quickly agreed.
“I asked the Lord, ‘Please let me be the one to pay (him). Mike has done so much,’” Jill says. “I had only sold four houses from January to October of that year. I had no clients at the time. November is the slowest month in real estate.”
But over the next month, Jill sold four more houses. Her commission was almost the full amount of that final legal bill. Mike only had to chip in $56.03.
On the day Jill wanted to take the money to the attorney, Mike said, “I don’t think today is the day. Don’t go yet.” She was itching, but she listened. Then on another day, Mike told her, “OK, he’s in his office. You can go by and give him (the money).”
In the lawyer’s office, Jill read him a letter she’d written, thanking him for the past seven years and explaining how she’d asked God to let her pay that last chunk of money, and how she’d only had to “borrow” $56 from Mike.
For seven years, this attorney had watched Jill read scripture and pray before every meeting, every deposition. “He probably looked at me like (I was a) quack for those seven years. ‘Oh, another prayer to Jesus.’”
But after she read him that letter, “he got up and shut his door and came back, and he looked at me and said, ‘The God that you have shown me over these last years of our life — I want that God.’ And I said, ‘You can have Him.’ And he prayed to receive Christ,” Jill says.
“His salvation was worth that seven years of my life.”
Eating her pride
After Jill and Mike’s younger son, Crockett, graduated high school, he went to Haiti for a few months to work with But God Ministries, founded by former First Baptist Jackson pastor Stan Buckley. Later, Crockett’s older brother, Patton, did the same thing after college.
“When (Patton) comes back, he tells us to sit down, he’s got something to tell us,” Jill recalls. She had a couple of guesses: He was entering the mission field full time. He’d fallen in love with a Haitian woman.
Nope. Instead, Patton — who’d graduated from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and then gotten a four-year degree from the University of Mississippi — said, “I want to be a plumber.”
“(I thought), ‘I cannot believe how much money I’ve spent on your education. And haven’t you just gone (on the mission field) to work with doctors and lawyers and the kind of people I wanted you to work with? And now you’re telling me you want to be a plumber?’” Jill recalls.
“My pride was so scarred. I had already been telling people he was going to be a lawyer.”
Patton got a two-year degree from Hinds Community College and started his own business, Ford Plumbing. He also talked his brother into the act: Crockett came home from Mississippi State to get his own two-year degree at Hinds, and now works with Patton.
Now Jill is a staunch advocate for trade schools. As a member of the Mississippi House’s Workforce Development committee, she is able to put her personal experience to good use.
“Because I had to eat my pride … I’ll be able to tell mommas that it’s OK. Not only is it OK, but try to convince your child to become an electrician, or a welder, or a draftsman, something that (will let them) go straight into work (after trade school) instead of into debt with a college degree.
“I didn’t really appreciate (what my sons did) at the time. But I do now, because they’re not on my payroll.”
Losing by 37 votes
Five years ago, Jill ran for the Madison County Board of Supervisors, lost by 37 votes, and was perfectly fine with it.
She ran because she didn’t like the way the supervisors were spending money, she says.
“I was running against a 16-year incumbent, and I knew it was pretty much a suicide mission. But I thought, what the heck? ‘Instead of complaining about (what’s happening), I’m just going to run for it myself.’”
“(During the campaign) I decided to pray my district. I took my Fitbit with me. The entire district, from the front door of my house all the way around, is 37 miles.”
She knew 3 was the number of the Trinity, and 7 was a number symbolizing perfection or completion in scripture.
So on election night, when she learned that 37 votes separated her from her opponent, “I said, ‘That’s my number. I’m going home. I’m not going to fight this.’”
Next, instead of regrouping for another political campaign, Jill embarked on a spiritual one.
“I decided I had built this influence with women, and I had prayed around my county and my district — ‘I think I want to pray around my state.’”
She formed the Inherit Movement, which stands for In, Her, It. “Inside every woman is something that wants to leave something better than she found it,” Jill says. From September 2015 to September 2016, she and a group of women spent weekends traveling and praying over every county seat in Mississippi.
Through the Inherit movement, Jill got to know what was on people’s hearts. The No. 1 topic that dominated the prayer requests of Mississippi parents? Drugs. No. 2 was small businesses. Jill also learned that Mississippi has a sex-trafficking problem.
She decided to take action. In 2019 she ran for the state House of Representatives. She with 70 percent of the vote, despite her opponent outspending her 5 to 1.
As House District 73 representative, Jill now can push for funding for sex-trafficking survivors. She’s also learning everything she can in her seven committee assignments: Drug Policy, Workforce Development, Corrections, Insurance, Transportation, Judiciary B, and Ethics.
Speaker of the House Philip Gunn doesn’t normally appoint rookies to the Ethics committee. When contacted by MCL, he said he tries to balance the committee by gender and political party, but also, “you want people who have good character and who you think are ethical people themselves,” he said. “I think she fit that qualification.”
What has Jill learned during her first legislative session? “Ninety-five percent of the time, the Republicans and Democrats vote the same,” she says. “It’s that 5 percent that we hear (about).”
She’s also learned — well, that she has a lot to learn.
“To your constituents, you’re supposed to know everything — but that’s not possible. Even those who have been there for years don’t know everything.”
What is her biggest goal for her time at the Capitol? “To usher in His kingdom purposes.”
She does name specifics. She wants to protect law enforcement, schools, and infrastructure, especially in her district. Of course most folks want safe neighborhoods, educated kids, and smooth roads, but not everyone agrees on how.
Jill tries to disagree with humility and respect, she says.
“Somebody said, ‘Every difference of opinion does not have to be a declaration of war.’ I love that. So if I will just be mindful that my attitude needs to be that of Christ … it’s not that I hate you, I just don’t agree with you.”
Back during her campaign for the House seat, Jill started daily asking God for His mind to think with, His mouth to speak with, His eyes to see with, His ears to hear with, and His heart — but most of all, for Him to help her be His hands and feet. That is still her prayer today.
She knows He’ll answer. After all, He gave her brothers who helped her develop thick skin; a father whose bad decisions helped her make hard ones; a husband who always has her back; and two boys who taught her that education comes in many forms. Even a failed election bid prepared her for her next campaign and led her to pray over Mississippi before she ever held a state office.
Yes, God will keep preparing Jill every step of the way. And she’ll keep seeking Him.
“When we seek His face, He gives us His hand.”