48. Being Black in Public Office: Challenges, Demands and Staying True (with Aaron D. Ford and Rep. Leslie Herod)

With Guests:

  • Attorney General Aaron D. Ford, Nevada’s 34th attorney general, who took office on January 7, 2019, making him the first African American to hold statewide constitutional office in Nevada. A former state senator, Ford previously served as both the majority leader and minority leader in the Nevada Legislature.  He started his career of public service as a public school math teacher, shaping hundreds of lives.
  • Colorado state Representative Leslie Herod was elected in 2016 as the first LGBTQ African American in the General Assembly, while receiving the highest number of votes of any candidate running in a contested election. She serves as the chair of the House Finance Committee, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee and Chair of the Committee on Legal Services. Herod also chairs the Colorado Black Democratic Legislative Caucus.

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In this Episode:

In this episode, we take our program to the community: We are on the ground with the American Constitution Society (ACS) for a show with Colorado state Representative Leslie Herod and Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford. Along with host Michele Goodwin, Herod and Ford discuss being Black in public office: namely, how they deal with the challenges and demands while staying true to themselves.
(This program is the final in a four-part series elevating Black lives in the wake of the tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.)

Have a topic you’d like us to delve into, a guest recommendationor just want to say hi? Drop us a line at ontheissues@msmagazine.com.

Background Reading:

Transcript:

0:00:00 Michele Goodwin:

Welcome to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. Magazine, a show where we report, rebel, and you know we tell it like it is. On this show, we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times. On our show, history matters. We examine the past as we think about the future. On today’s show, we take our programming to the community. In a way, we’re taking it to the virtual streets. 

We are on the ground with the American Constitution Society, otherwise known as ACS, for a program with Representative Leslie Herod of Colorado and Attorney General Aaron Ford of Nevada. This program is part of a four-part series. In fact, it’s the final installment of a four-part series that I launched with the organization in the wake of the tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. We began these conversations as a set of national town hall meetings, engaging judges, academics, law school deans—and now, the people who make policy. 

Today, we’re having a conversation about being Black in public office, challenges, demands and staying true to one’s self.

Now, helping us to do this is Attorney General Aaron Ford. He’s Nevada’s 34th attorney general. He took office in January of 2019, making him the first African American to hold statewide constitutional office in that state. He is a former state senator of Nevada. AG Ford previously served as both the majority leader and the minority leader in the Nevada State Legislature, but he started his career as a public school math teacher, shaping hundreds of lives.

And I’m also joined by Representative Leslie Herod, and let me just take a pause to say we fangirl her at Ms. magazine. She was elected in 2016 as the first LGBTQ African American in the General Assembly, while receiving the highest number of votes of any candidate running in a contested election. She serves as the chair of the House Finance Committee, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and chair of the Committee on Legal Services. Representative Herod also chairs the Colorado Black Democratic Legislative Caucus.

0:08:42 Michele Goodwin:

I’m going to start off the questions with just giving a bit of background for those who are listening who are wondering about career paths and how you get to where you are.

So, I want to start first with you, Representative Herod. What was the path that you took to becoming a member of the legislature in Colorado? Is that something that you had ever planned for, or is it something that just kind of happened?

0:09:08 Representative Leslie Herod:

Yeah. Well, thanks for that, that question. It’s really one that … it’s interesting, right, because I had always wanted to be in politics and do public policy, but without seeing anyone who looked like me, who was Black or gay, you know, it was really hard for me to imagine taking that seat, especially in the city I love, right here in Denver.

But I was mentored by an amazing Black woman who served as the only Black woman when she served, and I’m really happy that we are past that time, who really helped me to understand and see that I had what it took to win and to represent the district in a really strong way. And so, she is still my mentor to this day, and she’s really one of the folks that convinced me to run.

I’m not from Denver. I’m actually a military brat. My mom served as an ob-gyn in the Army. I was born in Germany. I went to school up in Boulder and then came down to Denver, and that’s where I found the community I love, which is in Northeast Denver, and so, it was a very untraditional path, but I will say that I did have an inkling for leadership and being an elected official because I ran in the fourth grade for student government.

Rep. Leslie Herod. (Instagram)

0:10:24 Michele Goodwin: 

Back in the day.

0:10:26 Representative Leslie Herod:
And really never stopped. So, I also did it at CU Boulder, and CU Boulder has the largest student government in the nation, and so, being able to see the impact that we could have on policy as students really did give me the fire and the understanding that you can actually shape people’s lives by passing good public policy, and so, that’s why I’m here.

0:10:47 Michele Goodwin:

You know it’s so funny that you mention the fourth grade because I remember becoming a cadet—for the rest of you, if you don’t know what cadets are, we were just the crossing guards. So, that was the fourth grade, and I was the youngest person that was made a cadet, and I remember, I wore so proudly that like orange vest thing that they gave us—and so, yes, sort of getting active and involved as a child actually really does matter.

0:11:12 Representative Leslie Herod:

Absolutely.

0:11:14 Michele Goodwin:

And I’m going to follow up with that, but AG Ford, what was your path, especially given that you were teaching, first, and in math, it was K-12. What was the age group that you were teaching math to, and what was that moment like, for you, where you decided, okay, I need to put this to the side, I enjoy working with my students, but I have this other calling?

AG Ford and Vice President Kamala Harris. (Instagram)

0:11:38 Attorney General Aaron Ford:

Yeah. Actually, it was…well, first off, let me say, thank you, so much, Professor, for having me. Thank you to ACS for doing this. Representative Herod, great to share the screen with you. My son is a Buff, Buffalo. He graduated from CU Boulder a few years back. He’s over at Georgetown, now, in the medical school program, and so…

0:11:55 Representative Leslie Herod:

Go Buffs.

0:11:57 Michele Goodwin:

Such a small world. Okay. We…look at this.

0:11:59 Attorney General Aaron Ford:

It is. It is. Actually, I have a law degree, but I have a Ph.D., as well, and right up to my Ph.D., I wanted to get a degree in international education, and CU Boulder had a program, and I actually applied, and right when I got admitted, they decided to discontinue the program. So, I might’ve been a Buff, too. I’m just saying, back in the day. You know that’s it. Let me get to your question, Professor. Again, thanks for having me here. 

Look, my route to politics wasn’t directly after being an educator, actually. There were a couple of things, and I can’t say that I’ve always, you know, wanted to be in politics, except that I did run in the fourth grade, too…maybe not fourth grade. I remember I was looking for a picture, actually, on my phone, that my grandmother sent me when I was standing behind a student government table in the seventh grade. 

So, I know at least by seventh grade, I was in office, so to speak, but again, not necessarily thinking that…I didn’t know what politics was. I mean this is not something that we paid much attention to, you know? In my house, my mom and dad were worried about just making sure we could get some fruits and vegetables on the table, but you know, I started as a schoolteacher, teaching middle school and high school, and I taught algebra I and algebra II, geometry, and I did that for about three years, but I was doing it while I was also working on my postgraduate degrees. 

I went to Texas A&M undergrad, went up to George Washington and got my first master’s degree, and I taught school both in Texas and Austin, that was middle school, but then when I got to D.C., was teaching at a high-school level, out at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia, right outside D.C., and then moved to Ohio, which is where I got my second master’s degree, my law degree, and my PhD.

Now, I went to Ohio State to get my PhD and learned about the law as an area of practice. I was an educator and wanted to open up charter schools. That was my plan. That’s what I thought I was going to do, an international system of charter schools—the Carter G. Woodson International school system.

0:13:57 Michele Goodwin:

Oh my god. You had it set.

0:13:58 Attorney General Aaron Ford:

I had it laid it, and it was going to be an international exchange program between schools in Latin America and inner-city schools in the United States because I speak Spanish fluently, and I just have always enjoyed, you know, intercultural exchange, but I got over there, and I learned about an area of law called education law, where I could actually combine two areas of interest that I had, which was education and the law, and I graduated law school, clerked on the district court in Detroit, clerked on the Ninth Circuit out here in Vegas, and then went to work for a law firm, practicing school law, before ultimately moving into litigation for what ended up being about 20 years. 

My first foray into actual political office happened in 2010, and that was because my son and I had just moved back, my son, my family and I had just moved back, and my oldest son, the one I was talking about, who went to Boulder, jokingly asked me why I moved him … if everything I did was for the benefit of the family, why’d I move them back to Nevada, which was ranked dead last in education?

0:14:57 Michele Goodwin:

Wow. Wow. You know the kids will drop those little pearls on you and make you have to say, huh, right?

0:15:02 Attorney General Aaron Ford: 

Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, so, he was joking, and I said, ha-ha-ha, but that ain’t funny, that’s a good question, and so, let me see what I can do about it, and being an educator, I decided instead of being on the outside, I wanted to get inside and try to help fix the educational system.

I ran the first time in 2010 and got smashed. Now, Michele, I think one of the questions that you were going to ask or maybe reference is what does it take to get there, and I’ll tell you, I think it takes resilience because I got beat real bad. I got beat like 62 to 28, or something like that, really got demolished in my first race.

0:15:32 Michele Goodwin:

Wow. How’d you feel about that?

0:15:36 Attorney General Aaron Ford:

You know it was … it took its toll, frankly. I mean I remember … because I go to church, and I was in church almost every Sunday, and toward the latter part of the election cycle, I was going to different churches, introducing myself, trying to get folks out to vote, right, and I remember one time, one church, one Sunday after the election I had lost, I was sitting in church, and the pastor asked will all the visitors to please stand, and I looked around, and people were standing, and I was like that used to be me standing at the churches, as a visitor, introducing myself. I mean it really took a toll on me, where I was like … it took about six months, honestly, for me to come to…

0:16:09 Michele Goodwin:

Well, you know, not every parent responds as you did. Like, you know, a kid says, well, how about this? Not every parent says, okay, then let me put my hat in, in an election where there hadn’t been much diversity beforehand in terms of the legislature.

0:16:23 Attorney General Aaron Ford:

Right. Yeah. Yeah. So, just, I decided that I wanted to try to help. So, I got in, in 2010, lost, ran again in 2012 and won, and Michele, as you’ve indicated, ultimately rose through the levels of minority leader then majority leader and ran for this office of attorney general three years ago.

0:16:43 Michele Goodwin:
And look at where you are now. So, Representative Herod, you had a different path. You were just a burning path to office, very different, but both are really important to know. I mean when you first started out, were there times in which there were defeats and where you had to figure out let me figure out the system because this just doesn’t seem to be working, because, otherwise, one might say you are really so extraordinary, and you are, like, does she ever lose at anything? Is there ever anything that is hard? 

And let me just take a moment to say before our time here together, on this program, and before your being on my Ms. magazine podcast, “On the Issues,” I came across you in a video where you were breaking it down about tampons to your fellow members of the Assembly, and you were, I think you may have even been holding up one, or a sanitary pad, and you’re just like, Let me tell you about what this is, and that seemed revolutionary. I mean that was as revolutionary as #MeToo is, like just standing there and saying let me break this all down for you.

0:17:52 Representative Leslie Herod:

Yeah.

0:17:53 Michele Goodwin:

So, along the way, were there times that were hard?

0:17:55 Representative Leslie Herod:

Absolutely, and there were definitely defeats and losses, and you know, what I’ll say is, you know, first, when I first graduated college, I was actually working at Macand 24 Hour Fitness, and so, I worked throughout college while being in student government, and I graduated in a recession, and I did not have a job in my field of political science and ethnic studies, couldn’t get an internship or a fellowship to save my life.

So, one day, I just literally walked down to the Capitol, with my resume, and said I’m Leslie Herod, I can start tomorrow, and so, I started as an unpaid intern in the building. Surprisingly, they said yes, and later, I found out that they thought I was someone else, but you know what, take the opportunities when you can get them, and then I just kept working in the building. 

Eventually, at first, I was nonpartisan staff and got my first paid gig doing that and then worked my way up to senior advisor to the governor, at the time, Governor Ritter, and also worked under President Obama for his 2012 reelection campaign, and so, when I was elected in 2016, you know, I did have a really good knowledge of what I was getting into. You know I knew the state capitol. I knew how to pass policy, but I knew it was also not going to be without defeat, and so, well, let me shelve that and just say when I ran, we ran in a caucus process in Colorado.

And so, I was running against an attorney, a white attorney who had much, much more wealth than I do, and much more folks who wanted to give money to him that were wealthy, as well, and so, we raised a lot of money. It was a head-to-head, heated competition, and you know, one thing that I thought I had to hide about myself, in order to win, was the fact that my sister was incarcerated, and so, I didn’t really talk about it until I realized that the fact that I wasn’t talking about probably made her feel like I was ashamed of her, and I never was. In fact, her experience is what led me to do the work that I do for criminal justice reform.

0:20:03 Michele Goodwin:

And part of that experience, even, with the tampon work that you were doing.

0:20:06 Representative Leslie Herod:
Yes.

0:20:07 Michele Goodwin:

Because of what women who were incarcerated had to go through and sometimes even doing sexual favors for guards just in order to get sanitary napkins and tampons.

0:20:15 Representative Leslie Herod:
Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely, and you know, the mass incarceration, right, and how much money she was making while she was working inside of prison and why she was there in the first place, which was substance misuse that was untreated, and you know, felony offenses for zero-tolerance policies, and so, you know, all that led to my work, and quite frankly, I tell her now that she has helped change the lives of so many people in Colorado just because of who she was, and so, as I ran, I actually lost my caucus. So, it was two of us, and I came in second, so I lost, and…

But at that point, I called up my staff and said we are going to run as real and as authentic as we possibly can because if I’m going to lose, I’m at least going to create and have a conversation about what needs to change for our communities to actually thrive, and I did that, and then, of course, I won, as you said, with the highest vote count in Colorado history and have been able to actually not only talk about that in the election but then change policy while elected.

But some bills took three years, some bills have taken longer than that, some bills have never got introduced, and so, it does come with ebbs and flows, but if you just keep fighting, you know, you can make real change, and right now, since the community is so behind, real change and real reform, now is really the opportunity to do it.

0:21:49 Michele Goodwin:
So, I want to get to your day-to-day lives—like what’s the real work that you do so that folks understand that—but you all have opened up a door, and I’m going to actually walk through that door because you’ve talked about family, and we are talking about elevating Black lives, and there was a January 6th insurrection. There have been the marches through Charlottesville. We have seen a reckoning taking place across the United States with regard to race—and so, family, how has that been, you know, sort of pulling together the lives that you have, the careers that you have, what has family meant? 

And not everybody is fortunate enough, sometimes, because families are fractured, but I do want to just at least put a question out there about how important has it been in terms of lessons that you had along the way, because you both mention, as kids, being invested and involved in what was happening around you.

So, who inspired that? How did that happen? Was that just you? You woke up one day, or was there something else that you saw or some lessons that you were getting? And so, AG Ford, I’ll turn to you and then turn back to you, Rep. Herod.

A July 7, 2016, protest in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the evening following the death of Philando Castile at the hands of police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Black people are 3.23 times more likely to die when encountering law enforcement. Tony Webster / Flickr)

0:23:10 Attorney General Aaron Ford:

Oh, that’s a great question, and you know, for me, the truth of the matter is, family is the priority. Like I said, what initially prompted me to run was a question from my son. You know you’ve mentioned January 6th, you’ve mentioned Charlottesville, you know, we’ve talked about the impetus of this being the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

I’m a Black man, married to a Black woman, raising three Black sons and a Black nephew, and you talk about Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, you talk about insurrections, you talk about attacks on people who look like us, it strikes a chord, and it strikes a very real chord. 

So, it’s at the front of my mind, you know, Rep Herod talked about running a really authentic campaign. That’s how I roll. The truth of the matter is: I am Aaron Ford, no one else. I don’t try to be nobody else because that’s already taken. I’m Aaron Ford, and the way that I speak, the way that I operate, what motivates me, I’m unafraid and unabashed when it comes to dealing with it. If you look at my Twitter feed, for example, my introduction says, Aaron Ford, husband, father, and you know Candidate Ford, because that’s the order of priority in my life. 

I’m the husband, I’m the father, and then everything else is just secondary, tertiary, whatever the case may be, and so, when confronted with challenges or debates that I just keep in mind that I’m here for a particular reason, with a particular voice, and if my voice, if I don’t speak up on an issue, then it’s a waste. I’m possibly, I’m disallowing an actual component of or a piece of the puzzle to go missing.

I’ll give you one example about how important my family is because it was in response to—I’m certain Leslie can associate with this—to a lobbyist coming to me, one time, with his client, sitting with me, when I was majority leader. I was at the head of my table, they were next to me, and my assistant leader was at the end of the table, and this was a controversial topic we were talking about. 

I was supporting a bill that they didn’t like, and the lobbyist said to me you remember what happened to former so-and-so and so-and-so, a former representative? And I said, yeah. He says, you have to remember, he lost when he took that particular industry on. I said, yeah, and it was a veiled threat, telling me that if I take this on, I might lose, and I said to him, I looked him dead in his face, and I said, Listen, I’m up here with you, right now, but I am a husband, I have a wife and children at home that I love, and if the worst you’re going to do is send me home to them, you’re doing me a favor.

0:25:45 Michele Goodwin:
I love that.

0:25:46 Attorney General Aaron Ford:

And then I proceeded to pass that bill, and that bill is helping millions of people in the state of Nevada, right now, because my focus, my primary focus is on what’s best for the Nevada family, recognizing that this job is temporary, whether it’s one term or two, I’m termed out after two terms, I might lose after one, so I’m going to do the best I can, for the most people I can, for the short amount of period that I have because family’s just that important.

0:26:10 Michele Goodwin:
I really, really appreciate hearing that, in so many different ways, because there’s so much that you’ve put in that, including the importance of one’s authentic voice, because coming into these spaces of education, of higher education, can impose certain kinds of pressures to become different than what you are, to distance yourself from your family, from your communities.

0:26:34 Attorney General Aaron Ford: 

Absolutely.

0:26:36 Michele Goodwin:

Rep Herod, what would be your response to that?

0:26:38 Representative Leslie Herod:
Oh, I mean, and I completely understand where Aaron’s coming from. You know we live in states where our positions are term limited, and I think that that comes with its advantages and disadvantages, but one of them is, is that I know I’m done in eight years, maybe six, maybe four, but you know, I know that that’s the fact, and so, I’m not here to hold a seat. I’m here to get the job done for my community, and thinking about the sacrifice of my family, you know, as I said, my mom joined the Army. She joined the Army because it was the only way she could get to college, you know? My brother is in the Navy and went through that same route to go to school to become an anesthesiologist, but my mom really taught me that, you know, one, our country matters. 

It matters so much that it’s worth sacrificing for, and these positions truly are sacrifices, and so, I always give a head nod to Aaron and folks like Aaron who are, you know, partners in raising their families and all of that because it is extremely difficult. The job is demanding, and I don’t want to sugar-coat that, and I’m single, I have no kids, and I feel like sometimes that makes it easier to be able to spend the time and dedicate the time to the job, but it’s challenging, and so, you know, my family is … I’m blessed to have a family that’s supportive. 

You know, like I said, I’m blessed to have my sister, who’s been in her circumstance, my brother, who also failed out of college, at a junior college in Southern Colorado, only to find that he was just, you know, basically talked down to all of his life, and no one realized that he was extremely good at science and is now an anesthesiologist, you know? So, just being able to learn from all of our experiences has really helped to craft the policies that I have today.

And then there’s also the chosen family that a lot of have, especially as queer Black folk, who have been so supportive, and one of those … you mentioned the insurrection of the Capitol. One of my chosen family members is Congressman Joe Neguse, who was leading the conversation at the time when the insurrection was happening, and I just remember seeing that go down on-screen, and we’ve often had conversation about, you know, why we do this job, why we sacrifice in the way that we do, and watching it happen, and watching him fight so earnestly and honestly for our democracy, while there was an insurrection happening, you know, just really reminded me how important it is that there are more people like us in these positions, doing the work, because, quite frankly, I am proud of our democracy. 

It needs some work, right, and so, we need to be there to fix it, to fight for it, and to make sure that it actually lifts up and supports folks who look like me and you. And so, you know, the question about family is one that I think as elected, we all have to really have a conversation about, you know, should we run? You know what is the toll it takes on our families, you know? Are we willing to put certain parts of our life on hold? And I’ll mention, because we’re being honest here.

0:29:35 Michele Goodwin:

Yes, we are.

0:29:36 Representative Leslie Herod:
When you are a state rep, Aaron knows this, you don’t make any money, hardly, you know? People think there’s money in this job, and there’s not, and so, you really do sacrifice in order to make a change, and I think that’s why folks like me and Aaron are very similar in that we are bold in our policy decisions because we don’t need to keep this job forever, you know? It’s not for the money, you know? It’s not because we really want to go to that Democratic barbecue on a Sunday morning or a Saturday morning at 10 a.m., but it’s because we know that policy has left us out for so long that our community, quite frankly, deserves the sacrifice and the attention that we need to make change happen.

0:30:14 Michele Goodwin:

Well, on that note, because you are doing the incredible work, and we can think about this over time, just what’s been left behind. So, just in terms of level setting, really, really quickly, slavery ends up being abolished by the 13th Amendment, but there’s the punishment clause, and Colorado was one of the first states, the first state to do a referendum within the last five years, or maybe now it’s five, six years to remove slavery and involuntary servitude from its state’s constitution, after that, Utah.

And also, Utah did it just very recently, which is terrific, and other states are thinking about that, but that legacy, from slavery to Jim Crow, as being very complicated, with hundreds and hundreds of laws all across the country that were unjust laws, some of them struck down by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and then that great 1965 Voting Rights Act—but we know, all around the country, with what’s happening in terms of voter suppression and other things that this is a time of urgency. So, it is a lead-up question, Rep. Herod, to the work that you’ve been doing in some of this legislation. 

So, can you give us some of your greatest hits, because I am just amazed by what you have been able to get through the Colorado legislature. Let’s just be clear. It’s been amazing.

So, give us some of your playlist. People like Barack Obama’s playlist, but you have a playlist that I think is actually far better. What’s some of what’s on your playlist?

0:31:43 Representative Leslie Herod:
Thank you. Oh, that’s a tough question to kind of do that and prioritize them in that way, but I will say that, you know, there were bills that I did not think were going to pass that I was surprised because that did pass because I kind of went across the aisle and said, you know, I know we share this value, I know you understand this is problematic, like, can we work together on this bill? And surprisingly, some folks said yes. Of course, drug defelonization was one of those bills that I realized we could make a real impact by changing policy, and what people say cannot be done, can be done, and so, we defelonized simple possession of drugs throughout Colorado in the first year that we attempted to do that, and it had bipartisan support. 

Elijah McClain. (Louisa Bertman)

I actually ran the bill with a former law enforcement officer, out of a very conservative county, El Paso County, in Colorado Springs, because he said it was a waste of his time to continue to, you know, put people, arrest folks for possession who needed help, not get them help, put them in prison, and then have them back on the streets 6 to 18 months later, and so, that was a huge win for me and again kind of centered my sister. You talked about tampons, of course, requiring tampons for all state and local detention facilities was also one that we passed, and that came from my sister’s experience but also from visiting women’s prisons, but more recently, I am extremely proud to lead Colorado in the effort for real, true police accountability. 

You mentioned the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In Colorado, we also have a very familiar name in Elijah McClain. Elijah McClain was murdered by law enforcement and paramedics. He was not suspected of committing any crime. He was simply a Black young man walking home and was injected with ketamine and then died in the hospital, later, and in working with his mom, Sheneen McClain, we passed, still, to this day, the nation’s strongest law-enforcement accountability bills that ended qualified immunity, that put real penalties on law-enforcement officers and their departments who harm in our communities, and since, we’ve had at least, I want to say around a dozen officers who have been released from their jobs and indicted for harm that they’ve done, and the bill is not even in full effect. It’s only been a year old, and we still have parts that need to be implemented

0:34:05 Michele Goodwin:
Amazing.

0:34:05 Representative Leslie Herod:

And so, I’m really proud of that work because it was really led by the community and the unfortunate pain of our community, but as an elected official, I was able to do something about it, and I’m just going to name two more things, real quick, and I know sometimes politicians think, well…

0:34:20 Michele Goodwin:
Oh, go. Go ahead, I’m tossing flowers at you for doing that.

0:34:25 Representative Leslie Herod:
Thank you.

0:34:27 Michele Goodwin:
Because with both, you know, AG Ford and with you, you’ve talked about being authentic and putting your full selves out there, like, look, this is what it is.

0:34:34 Representative Leslie Herod:
Yeah. Yeah.

0:34:35 Michele Goodwin:
And a lot of people don’t do that, and they think, well, you know, you are friendly, right, but they think, well, I must be friendly, and I’ll wait, and of course, it never comes.

0:34:45 Representative Leslie Herod:
Right.

0:34:46 Michele Goodwin:
But in your authentic self, you’ve put that forward, and you’ve achieved successes. So, yeah, name those additional two.

A July 7, 2016, protest in St. Paul, Minnesota, following the death of Philando Castile .(Tony Webster / Flickr)

0:34:53 Representative Leslie Herod:
So, the other one, of course, you mention, is the CROWN Act, and that is interesting because I ran this bill not knowing that there was also work to kind of build a national coalition because, a lot of times, when national coalitions come together around Black issues, they don’t include Colorado, at all, because folks don’t think Black people live in Colorado, and that is absolutely not the case, and so, but I saw a young cheerleader and who went to school in my district who was told that if she couldn’t get her ponytail straight and looking like her peers that she couldn’t compete, and I was a cheerleader, and I remember that feeling. It was very real.

I was a cheerleader and a swimmer. So, I remember always struggling with my hair, right, and you know, I reached out and you know told her I understood what she was going through and commended her for her bravery because her and her mom really did push back, and then it kind of clicked in me like, wait a minute, I could actually do something about this, you know? I could actually change the law. I don’t understand, you know, as a non-attorney, I don’t understand why hair discrimination is not considered race discrimination, but I know that that’s the facts, right? 

And so, we need to be explicit in breaking down the fact that it is discrimination, and working with the LGBTQ community and adding gender and sexual orientation nondiscrimination in our policies. I knew it could be done, and so, I actually called the first committee hearing of the Black Caucus and invited members from the Black community to come and talk about hair discrimination, and to my surprise, hundreds of folks showed up and talked about their experience, experiences, including judges, including attorneys, including reporters and media personalities, but also including a lot of kids and Black, brown, Indigenous and Asian folks showed up, as well.

And so, it became this issue that really was a community issue, and we got that bill passed, and it was literally the last bill the governor signed before we went into COVID, and so, and it’s in effect now, and people are using it because still, to this day, you know, principals and teachers and coaches are saying you have to change your hairstyle, especially if you have dreadlocks, especially if you have, you know, an afro or protective styles, twists, and that’s illegal now in Colorado, and there are remedies, and I’m really proud for that.

And then the work that I’m really focusing on, right now, is one that—I think because we have passed so many of those policies that, quite frankly, were not necessarily all my ideas but ones that we’ve talked about for a long time impacting our community, like mass incarceration, it’s really about, now, building intergenerational wealth, and what do we need to really create wealth for the Black community, for Black people, really true pathways to education and success.

And so, I’m really focusing on housing, on an educational pathway, and on entrepreneurs and business owners in our communities to make sure that they thrive—not only through COVID, but the COVID dollars help, but truly beyond that, so we have that intergenerational wealth in our communities to be able to take the risks and to innovate like other communities have and to make sure that we are contributing and as thriving as we know that we can be. So, that’s something that I’m really focusing on now, and I’m really excited for that work.

0:38:18 Michele Goodwin:

Well, it’s great to hear that. Here, in California, where I am, there’s a beach known as Manhattan Beach, but it used to be known as Bruce’s Beach, and Bruce’s Beach was a community of beachfront property right on the ocean that was owned by Black people, and it was burnt … they were chased out, burnt out, all of that, you know, tires slashed, so many things to get rid of the Black community that owned property right on that beach, and eventually, through eminent domain, their property was taken away from them. 

It’s estimated, conservatively, that that property is worth about 85 million dollars today. So, when you think about what it means in terms of intergenerational wealth and discrimination that has taken place over time, then we see how Black people have been left behind. 

AG Ford, I want to turn to you because states attorneys general have played such a crucial role in our democracy. They always have, but we have really seen that within the last 10 years. And so, I want to ask you how that is, why that is, what has been the role, what is the role of a state’s attorney general, and why do you think that it’s become such an important role to our democracy?

0:39:40 Attorney General Aaron Ford:

You know that’s a great question. Listen, we talked about getting started in fourth grade and you know middle school, or whatever, running for office. I can tell you this. I didn’t grow up aspiring to be an attorney general. I didn’t grow up and say I want to be an attorney general when I grow up, and who knew what an attorney general did, and frankly, wouldn’t have considered this position unless someone hadn’t presented it to me as an option to even think about, but it is the most important position that many people have never heard of. I took an oath, on January 7th, as you indicated, to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and of the state of Nevada. 

I knew what that meant, didn’t really know that it meant, however, that I’d be defending the existence, the very existence of our democratic republic, you know, through insurrections, through, you know, voter lawsuits and things of that sort. I knew that it would give me an opportunity, however, to utilize that position, this position, in a way to … I’m going to borrow Leslie’s words, to represent all people, all Nevadans, and that’s an important phrase because, so frequently, people in this position, as you’ve indicated, Michele, get there and they think they have to fly away from controversial topics. 

You know I’ve arrived here, I need to not rock the boat, I want to keep this position, you know, I better not take on those controversial topics—that’s never been my philosophy. As attorney general, we have the ability to effectuate real positive change in attacking issues from our perch. We have the law that we can utilize in so many different ways. You know I commend Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who I’m sure has worked with Leslie on some things in the past. We’ve borrowed a lot, in Nevada, from Colorado, both legislatively, when I was there, and from an AG perspective because Phil and I worked together, you know, quite a bit.

And what we ended up doing is coming together as a coalition of attorneys general to push for commonality, you know, common approaches across the nation, obviously making it fit in the state of Nevada, or in your respective jurisdiction, but I think the key component is being willing to utilize the position.

Again, I said earlier that I’m a Black man, married to a Black woman, raising three Black sons and a Black nephew, and so, when George Floyd was killed, I took to the media airwaves as that person sitting in the intersection between being a Black man and wearing a badge, right, and saying that, you know, I get what the dilemma is.

I remember seeing George Floyd being killed. I remember saying the exact same thing I’ve always said, which is, Oh no, another Black man being killed by a cop, and the next words I said were, And ain’t nothing going to happen.

George Floyd Memorial, South Minneapolis, May 2020. (Chad Davis / Flickr)

0:42:15 Michele Goodwin:
Right.

0:42:15 Attorney General Aaron Ford:
You know that was my sentiment. That’s what I thought was going to happen, and I said it, out loud, from my position of law enforcement, and I said but we can’t let that happen. Fortunately, we have another attorney general in Minnesota, in Keith Ellison, who likewise was willing to use his mantle, to use his platform to effectuate some justice. So, you know, I think it has become more apparent over the course of the last decade or so, maybe the last 15 or 20 years, that the attorney general can use this role to effectuate positive change and not just sit back and be passive, right? 

And I think that’s led to positive opportunities. I get to sponsor bills here in the state of Nevada as attorney general, which is not the case in many places. They have to go find sponsors in the legislature to run bills for them, but I get 20 bills of my own that I get to run, and so, I ran two that were directly responsive to Breonna Taylor’s killing. So, I passed a bill, unanimously, that says that no-knock warrants can very rarely be used in our state, now. I purposely didn’t ban it, but I did limit the use of no-knock warrants.

And then, in response to George Floyd, I ran a bill that passed unanimously, as well, that gives my office the ability to investigate police departments who are alleged to be engaging in patterns or practice of unlawful or discriminatory policing, and these are things that I was able to do with the help of members of my office, and you know, we held panels, we held forums, we had discussions, and we ran these bills, and they passed unanimously, and they got signed on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.

So, we’re proud of that, and again, that’s something that attorneys general can do and that they should consider doing.

0:43:59 Michele Goodwin:
That’s pretty impressive.

0:44:00 Representative Leslie Herod:

Yeah, can I…do you mind if I jump in, one second?

0:44:01 Michele Goodwin:
Yeah. Go right ahead. 

0:44:02 Representative Leslie Herod:
Because I know we have a lot of law students and prospective law students and maybe interns and aides, but the pattern and practice investigation piece is so important. Colorado was the first to pass it in the bill that we passed and worked with the AG to really investigate police departments who can’t police themselves, and won’t police themselves, and refuse to, and so, the reason why, now, Aurora is under a pattern and practice investigation, and we got a huge damning report saying that they have discriminated, which we know, against Black folks, which was no surprise to us.

But it was in clear writing, and when it happened, and how it happened, and now they are under threat of lawsuit if they don’t change, and so, these kind of small policies that might not catch the attention of the masses, always, can make a huge difference, but only if you elect good attorney generals and elect good people in every position, not going to say what party, but good folks who actually align with your values, you can make real change, and all of these positions really do matter.

0:45:04 Michele Goodwin:
Well, and building on that, I want us to turn to questions about our democracy in the last quarter of our program, and this has just been such a great program. You both are just fabulous. Yes, exactly. I wish we were together, in person. I’m looking for an opportunity for that—but our democracy, many have said that our democracy is in a crisis right now.

What’s your sense or concerns about our democracy, whether state or national—and I’ll start with you, Rep. Herod?

0:45:44 Representative Leslie Herod:
Yeah. Yeah. We are in a crisis within our democracy, and I believe that there are a few voices who are very loud who intend to divide us and intend to, I think, weaken our movements, especially the movement for Black lives and acknowledgement of Black people and our contribution to society, but also, progressive policies in general, and democracy, I mean, the goal is to keep the status quo or to go back to a time when we know wasn’t great for Black folks, you know? It wasn’t great for many folks except for the wealthy ruling class white men, to be honest with you, and that’s just not acceptable, but it’s working, right? 

And so, these like kind of subversive tactics, especially utilized through social media, are either keeping people out of political conversations altogether, where, you know, 2016, we had this really big growth of folks who were participating in politics and public policy, or discrediting those leaders who are making those changes through lies, right, through just making up things and throwing it out and seeing what could stick, and quite frankly, that has created huge cracks, or I guess illustrated huge cracks within our democracy that could lead to an insurrection at the Capitol where the Confederate flag was flown in the US Capitol, where that’s never happened before in our country’s history.

And so, it is really time, and it’s critical that people really do dig in and engage and talk about what our American values are and should be and what that looks like represented through our democracy, because it is at stake, right now. And we have this great American experiment. That’s what we are, and it’s important that we continue to make changes that strengthen our democracy but don’t weaken the voice of the people, especially the people who have been marginalized, consistently, over time.

0:47:46 Michele Goodwin:
Thank you very much for that. AG Ford, same question to you about concerns about our democracy, right now?

0:47:54 Attorney General Aaron Ford:
Look, a couple thoughts. Yes, I likewise am concerned about the state of democracy, but I remain optimistic, however, and it’s going to sound naïve, but the reason why I remain optimistic is because we have, in fact, experienced times over the course of our history where, you know, we’ve had to overcome instances of horrifying incidents like this, right? The Civil Rights Movement was my mom’s generation, right? It was my mom’s generation. 

It was my grandparents go right before that, and so, I’m confident that as long as we stay in this fight, we can continue to move the ball forward, but I’m also not ignorant to the facts of true history, and that’s a whole other issue, right, and the legislature, I’m sure, Leslie is dealing with these questions about the proper role of education in teaching true history, and I know true history, right? I mean I know true history.

I’ve used a phrase, talking about voting, I’ve used the phrase of “open and notorious.” It is a real estate phrase. It’s a legal phrase they’ve used in real estate law—but I borrow it to talk about voting rights, you know, because in my estimation, our government, our country has always been open and notorious in the way that it’s deprived Black Americans of or undermined their right to vote, and not just to vote, but to even exist, you know, coexist peacefully in this country. You know it wasn’t, you know, it was the Supreme Court in 1856 that said that Blacks were, and I quote, “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was even bound to respect.”

0:49:32 Michele Goodwin:
Yeah, Dred Scott.

0:49:34 Attorney General Aaron Ford:

It was that same dreadful, you know, pun intended, dreadful decision, because it was the Dred Scott case, it was that same dreadful decision where the court also said, and I’ll quote again, that Blacks were “altogether unfit to associate with the white race in either social or political relations,” right? So, I mean, this, that’s true history. That’s black and white. That’s in our history books. That’s in our legal books. That’s what was said, right?

0:49:59 Michele Goodwin:
Yeah.

0:49:59 Attorney General Aaron Ford:
And then through our educational systems, we’ve always known. I’m a former educator. You’re an educator, Professor. It’s always been used to indoctrinate. Education has always been used to indoctrinate. It’s to inculcate in folks things you want them to know and it’s to extricate from them things we don’t want them to know.

I’ll give you an example, right? Here’s the truth. If you want to minimize the role that race played in the Civil War, you say that it was states’ rights that was the cause of the Civil War and not slavery, right, and that’s what I was taught down in Texas, right? 

And it’s a matter of how we are able to phrase history in a way to tell the truth about things, and I’ll be quiet after this. I don’t care how much someone tries to minimize the original sin of our country. Here’s what I know. I know that William Berry, who was my fourth great-grandfather … I know the history, the oral history of my family. I know he was sitting on a slave plantation in Arkansas, in Fordyce, Arkansas, getting ready to be sold. He was on the auction block, and he refused, spoke up for his humanity and said, I will not be separated from my wife and my children. 

This is what the oral history of my family tells me. So, they didn’t sell them. They killed them right up there on the auction block, and then they sold three of his sons to a slaver in Texas, and one of those sons was my third great-grandfather, and I’m the progeny of William Berry, and here we are, four generations later, and we’re still fighting for our humanity, but I will continue to do that because I know that it’s his blood that’s in me, and true history tells me that if the worst I got to do is to be called a bad name or … because I’ve been called everything but a child of God, you understand what I’m saying?

0:51:41 Michele Goodwin:
Yes. I do.

0:51:42 Attorney General Aaron Ford:
If the worst I got to do is to have to face angry mobs every once in a while, then I’m standing in tall cotton because William Berry lost his life, you understand.

0:51:50 Michele Goodwin:
Wow.

0:51:49 Attorney General Aaron Ford:

Now, to be sure, sitting here today, we can still lose our lives, but I do reflect on the fact that it was…we’ve come a long way from William Berry, and so, I remain optimistic that even as we continue to defend the existence of our Democratic Republic against these attacks, we can still prevail.

0:52:10 Michele Goodwin:

Well, it’s interesting that you should mention that because something that’s been on my mind for a while, over the last few years, but really, I mean, there’s the length of time, you know, depending upon how you’re raised and what your grandmother told you, these things are stories that date way back, but in the space of seeing children separated from their parents and being put in cages—of course, that was part of a Black legacy. 

So, I think a lot of Black Americans could resonate with that and hence a lot of Black people and a lot of Black women being very outspoken about what it was that they saw. But something that comes to mind, especially given what you just said, is that, as I’m with audiences, sometimes, you know, I ask them, you know, what do you think that a mom says the night before the auction to convey to her child who’s going to be sold off the next day something that keeps that child strong, whole, knowing their humanity, that no matter someone saying that they are chattel, no matter someone—even the Supreme Court, stating exactly what Chief Justice Roger Taney said in Dred Scott—but that that child matters, knowing that that parent will never see that child, very likely, ever again. But something to your point about hopefulness and resilience because something was conveyed in those moments that lasted for generations. 

So, this brings me to the end of our program with a last question, and this last question is about a silver lining. What do you see as hope, going forward, generally, for our democracy, or the work that you’re in? And so, I’ll start with you, Rep Herod, and then I’ll end with you, AG Ford.

0:54:06 Representative Leslie Herod:
Well, I will say that what you just said was really powerful, and I’m just going to sit with that for a while after this call, as well, and I want to thank Aaron for telling his family story and for serving in the way that you do. I admire both of you so much, and it just makes me think, wow, I’m not a parent, I am thinking that it might be very similar to the conversation that parents have with their Black children on a regular basis in dealing with law-enforcement interactions, and you know, just the weight that we still have in our communities because of, you know, the moments of dehumanization that we experience, to this day, you know, and so, when I think about positivity and hope and what is to come, we are making those changes, you know? 

We stand on the shoulders of giants who have done this work, who have fought for our rights, and who said that they will not stop, including, you know, of course, Congressman John Lewis and so many others, and so, you know, I am hopeful, and I find hope in the fact that there are so many of us, now, in these elected positions, supporting elected officials, activists, and so many others who are saying we are going to make change. We are not going to take discrimination anymore, and the change that we make, while it might be a sacrifice, it will be lasting, and so, I see so much hope in that because we are making change, and it will be lasting.

And we are creating a better future for all of us, and that’s exciting, even though we’re in times where it’s hard to be excited and hopeful and optimistic about things, I know that we’re going to look back on this time and say we made a real impact for people’s lives, and in the future, our kids, the next generation, their lives will be better because of the sacrifices that we all are making. So, thank you, so much, for having me. It’s just been a really great conversation, and I appreciate it. Thank you.

0:56:06 Michele Goodwin:
I appreciate you so much. I admire you so much. Thank you for being with us at ACS today.

AG Ford, silver linings, what’s the hope going forward?

0:56:17 Attorney General Aaron Ford:
Yeah. Yeah. Listen, I’m going to try to get this in because I view it as a continuum of progress, right? I didn’t have to go back to the fourth generation, my fourth great-grandfather, to talk about why I’m optimistic, right?

When I was inaugurated on February 2, 2013, as a state senator, my father-in-law, who was in his late 70s then, was so happy. He was happy not only because I was inaugurated but because he noticed that as we walked throughout the building, they called me sir, doctor, senator, opened up my doors. 

They were very respectful of me, and he said to me, I’m so happy because they called me boy until I was 40. That’s what my father-in-law told me, and I get chills as I think about it, right, and this is … you know this is my father-in-law, right? They called me boy until I was 40, and he saw some progress just in this short amount of time now to where he sees that I’m getting doors opened for me, and they’re calling me sir and doctor, right? 

And the reason why I call it a continuum is because I tell my three Black sons and my Black nephew, the reason why I was going to name my school the Carter G. Woodson International School is because Carter G. Woodson wrote this book called The Mis-Education of the Negro. I’m going to paraphrase something in there, and he says that if you control the way … he says if you control the way a man thinks, you don’t have to worry about the way he acts, man or woman. If you control someone’s thought process, you don’t have to worry about the way they act.

And back then, he was talking about Black men and women being told to go to the back of the bus, and he says if you tell them they got to go to the back of the building and come through a back door, they will always go to the back of the building and look for a back door, and if there’s not one there, they will dig a hole through the wall to walk through the back way.

0:57:48 Michele Goodwin:

And make one.

0:57:48 Attorney General Aaron Ford:
And so, I told my sons, I’ve been in the business of mind control since you were born, because I’m not making you go through a back door. I’m telling you you’re brilliant, you’re great, you’re honest, you’re not trifling, you’re not lazy, you are the one who can do whatever you want to do. I’ve been in the business of mind control for a long time, and so, I’m excited about the fact that this continuum continues through my son, through my sons, through my progeny, and so, now I have a second-year medical student who’s president of his class at Georgetown, right? You know I have a junior in college who’s brilliant and who’s entrepreneurial. I have a junior in high school who is going to continue going forward. 

So, that’s why I remain optimistic. That’s the silver lining for me is that we are the descendants of survivors, at some level, and we will continue to survive as long as we keep this mindset about us, and so, thank you, again, for having me, Michele, and good to see you, Leslie, and thank you, ACS. This has been a great conversation.

0:00:00 Michele Goodwin:

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin.” I want to thank my guests, Representative Leslie Herod and state Attorney General Aaron Ford, for joining us and being part of this critical and insightful conversation, and to you, our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope you join us, again, for our next episode, where we will be reporting, rebelling, and telling it like it is with special guests. 

It will be an episode you will not want to miss, and for more information about what we discussed today, head to msmagazine.com, and if you believe, as we do, that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed, and that rebuilding America, being unbought and unbossed and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to rate, review, and subscribe to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, wherever you get your podcast. We are ad-free and reader-supported. Help us reach new listeners and bring the hard-hitting content you’ve come to expect by rating, reviewing, and subscribing. Let us know what you think about our show, and please, support independent feminist media. 

Look for us at msmagazine.com for new content and special episode updates, and if you want to reach us to recommend guests for our show or topics that you want to hear about, then write to us at ontheissues@msmagazine.com. 

This has been your host, Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling, and telling it like it is. “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” is a Ms. Magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal and Oliver Haug. Our creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Kyle Goode, social media by Lillian LaSalle, and music by Chris J. Lee, and of course, Stephanie Wilner provides brilliant executive assistance.