When Tim Ford gets impatient with debate on the floor of the Mississippi House of Representatives, he begins to tap his fingers lightly on the podium. Hidden by the slant of the dais, the gesture is invisible to most of the legislators sitting in front of him, and Ford likes to keep it that way; usually he betrays nothing more of what he's feeling. But sometimes he can't help himself. He peers over his reading glasses at a legislator waiting to interrogate a bill sponsor and drawls, "We're beginning to cover some of the same material in these questions. Gentleman from Hinds [County], do you have a question that covers something new?" Or he leans over, arches his eyebrows, and remarks dryly to an amendment sponsor who's just finished a long explanation of his proposal, "Remind me not to believe you the next time you assure me, `This won't take long.'"

It's not that Ford doesn't like floor debate. As speaker of the Mississippi House, he obviously relishes the thrust and parry of lawmaking. He'll watch benignly as members mix it up over the implications of some measure. When some lawmaker gets carried away by his own rhetoric, voice rising and picking up the cadences of a country preacher, Ford will sport a broad grin as he gavels the responding buzz and shouts of "Hear! Hear!" to silence. "By and large," he explains, "members who have an opportunity to express themselves on a bill are much more likely to compromise when the time comes."

But there have to be limits to self-expression, even in a legislature. Once members start voting on bills on the floor, they may have hundreds to go through in a week. And Ford is not a believer in nighttime legislating; to his mind, it's impossible to do a good job once dinner-time rolls around--too many legislators are hungry, tired or ready to slip down the street for a drink.

So Ford likes to move things along. He expects the hard work on legislation--the brokering and compromising and hashing out of details--to have been handled in committee. He expects questions and comments to be to the point. He expects members to vote without delay once a bill has been called. And above all, if a measure is going to be controversial, he expects to know about it in advance, and if possible, to know what maneuvers each faction intends to try; he may not care about the eventual outcome, but at least that way he can keep his 121 members focused on reaching it.

It is a delicate balance, this tension between keeping the House on track and allowing legislators to have their say. But to someone looking for clues to why Tim Ford is widely considered one of the most influential House speakers in the country today, it is worth paying attention to how he does it, because it lies at the heart of Ford's ability to operate as a strong House speaker in an age when it's no longer quite clear what that means.

We used to know who the strong legislative leaders were. They were people such as Vern Riffe, who for decades ruled over the Ohio House, or Sheldon Silver, who even now keeps a tight hold over the New York State Assembly. A strong leader was an absolute ruler who called every shot, silenced his members and could deliver or stifle whatever legislation he chose.

But with just a few exceptions, the days of the speaker as autocrat are pretty much over, in Mississippi and elsewhere. In some states, term limits have played a part, but there have been broader forces at work as well. In many states, legislators can raise their own money for elections, and aren't so much beholden to the leadership. In others, the growing ability of even the most junior member to get hold of reams of data on the budget and any other legislative issue has eroded the leadership's once crucial monopoly on information. And perhaps most important, the whole culture of legislating has changed: As Rutgers University political scientist Alan Rosenthal puts it, "Independence is more highly regarded and loyalty is less highly regarded." The result of all this, says Rosenthal, is that "leaders these days are no stronger than the members want them to be."

But there's a small irony in this, which is that for the most part, legislators do want strong leadership. The political costs of an unruly, let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom institution are too high, counted in battles lost to the other house or to the governor; in media scrutiny of endless squabbles; in public disdain for a "do-nothing" legislature. And so members cast about for some sort of equilibrium, a point at which individuals feel they can be heard and have an impact on issues that matter to them, while the legislative body as a whole is capable of responding decisively to the needs that confront it. "The legislature is a democratic institution," says Steve Lakis, president of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, "but the leadership has to exercise a certain amount of authority that is something less than democratic." If you want to see a chamber where the equilibrium actually exists, at least for now, the best one to visit may be the Mississippi House under Tim Ford.

It took a while, however. In 1991, as Ford was coming to the end of his first four-year term as speaker--he had replaced C.B. "Buddie" Newman at the beginning of the 1988 session--the Memphis Commercial Appeal summed up the general feeling when it wrote, "Newman was often called the most powerful man in Mississippi, controlling the ebb and flow of legislation as governors came and went. No one says that about Ford. Many wonder if Ford will be the first speaker since World War II to serve only four years and then be forced back into the sea of 121 other representatives." There was good reason for the skepticism.

Mississippi had a history of iron-fisted house speakers. The most notable was Walter Sillers, who served from 1944 to 1966 and brooked not even a peep of doubt about a bill he favored. Newman, although not as heavy-handed, was still a speaker in the old style; by the mid- 1980s, there were growing numbers of House members who felt sidelined by his rule. "If you were not part of the Newman club, you'd be about just as effective to stay at home and write letters to the editor," says Steve Holland, current chairman of the Agriculture Committee and a member of Ford's inner circle.

But in 1987, a collection of dissidents frustrated under Newman's thumb pushed through a series of rules changes that reduced the speaker's power. Newman announced his retirement not long after that, and in the leadership tussle that ensued, Ford, then 36 and a relatively junior member, emerged as the one contender capable of getting a majority. "He hadn't been here a long time, had not done a lot and hadn't made a lot of enemies," is how Charlie Capps, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a House veteran, puts it.

But Ford inherited a highly fractured House over which he had very little control. The largest single bloc was formed by Newman's former loyalists, but a majority made up of several different factions followed the lead not of Ford but of the new speaker pro tem, Cecil Simmons. Sessions deteriorated into constant bickering. On one occasion Ford couldn't even get majority permission to adjourn. Finally, when the chamber seemed on the verge of utter chaos, the Newmanite old guard decided that uniting behind the fragile new speaker was better than descending into disorder. "We told him," one recalls, "that he could count on us to help maintain order and decorum." By the time Ford ran for his second term, the House had realigned: The old guard was on his side, and Ford sealed his victory by choosing the first African-American representative since Reconstruction to serve as speaker pro tem. Since then, Ford's position has been secure.

As it turned out, Ford and the old guard discovered something in each other: a deeply felt respect for the House as an institution.

In the speaker's case, this has come out most noticeably on the issue of term limits. In 1995, and again in 1999, Ford took the lead in campaigning against a statewide term-limits referendum; the measure's two defeats were widely seen as signaling the issue's waning national appeal. "What he did was rather remarkable," says Steve Lakis. "He was able to marshal a constituency of civic and business interests to fight off this drive. He exposed the people who were behind the term- limits drive, and showed the kinds of influences trying to undermine the democratic process there. He did all the things I hold most dear in what a legislative leader does, which is to protect the institution--he kept that legislature from putting itself in the position where so many other legislatures now find themselves."

This year, Ford's concern about the impact on the legislature of a debate over the Mississippi flag led him to push for a statewide referendum on the emotionally excruciating question. Faced on the one hand with a governor, business leaders and a black caucus intent on jettisoning the Confederate "Stars and Bars" that adorn the flag, and on the other hand with a majority of white legislators who wanted nothing of the sort, Ford decided that trying to handle the issue in the legislature threatened the entire agenda of legislative business. "If it had come to a vote in the legislature, it wouldn't have been a dog's chance to change [the flag]," says Steve Holland. "I said, `It don't matter how we feel inside, but we cannot stand up and risk political suicide to handle it.' All the good people who worked to make this happen would suddenly be faced with a far-right nut-head with the Mississippi flag wrapped around him. A lot of people in this House would have been sent home. It was total institutional protection."

So Ford convinced supporters of the old flag that, if they were certain a majority of Mississippians wanted to keep it, they had nothing to lose in a referendum, and persuaded those supporting change that their only chance lay in taking it to the people. The measure to hold the referendum passed the House 121-1 with barely a ripple; in the Senate, it got bogged down in debate, and eventually the entire African-American caucus voted against it. Ultimately, however, the referendum was scheduled for mid-April.

There are legislatures in which a concern with "preserving the integrity" of the institution translates into stifled debate and members who complain that their only importance is to add one more vote to the leadership's majority. This is not the case in Jackson. Ford will, occasionally, let members know how he feels about bills, but rarely does he take the next step and try to impose his will. A few years ago, for instance, Steve Holland decided to earmark $2 million in the state health budget to help people with AIDS buy drugs. "To be blunt about it," he recalls, "people said, `You want $2 million to help queers?' and they went to the speaker about it. He said, `I'd rather you didn't do this,' and I said, `Well, it's the right thing to do, just as spending money on tuberculosis in the '30s and '40s was.'" Holland went ahead with his bill, and it passed overwhelmingly.

That same sense of restraint often applies on procedural matters. "Before he was speaker," says Speaker Pro Tem Robert Clark, "when I had a piece of legislation, the Rules Committee would meet, and if there were five bills on the calendar, mine would get moved back to number six, and it would stay there, so when there got to be 100 bills on the calendar, it was number 100. Since Tim Ford became speaker, we do not rework the calendar." Nor does Ford insist very often that members adhere to his views. "On an issue he wants," says Bobby Moak, a former Ford critic, "he never says, `I want you to vote like this and if you don't I won't support you on your issue.' He's smarter than that. I don't think the membership would stand for it."

The successful adjustment of the Mississippi House to 21st-century politics is built not on substance but on process. The things that matter in the Mississippi House are hard work, using the committee system to air your issues, taking concerns and disagreements to Ford himself, treating chairmen and other members with respect, and voting for Ford as speaker at the beginning of the session. If you do all this, Ford has made clear, it doesn't matter whether you're white or black, Democrat or Republican, from the rural Delta or the Gulf Coast. Your issues will get a hearing and, eventually, you'll get a measure of influence yourself.

Ford takes a remarkably plastic attitude toward his critics. "If you're fair and consistent in your rulings," he says, "people come around. Or they lose interest and run for the Senate or just don't run again." There are plenty of current committee or subcommittee chairmen who at one time were not among his loyalists. "My attitude is, you're never locked out forever," Ford says.

And he does not hoard power. Instead of using formal floor leaders or whips, Ford gives his committee chairmen great leeway in steering the course of legislation. As he puts it, "for this to work, you've got to put your best folks as chairmen, regardless of whether you like them or not." This has produced a fairly eclectic group of chairs: rural moderates, fiscal conservatives, African-American progressives; even Tommy Horne, a cantankerous populist independent who chairs the Rules Committee and whose prickly attitude toward his colleagues makes him, in Holland's words, "the perfect Rules chairman: He's authoritarian, and he has no trouble saying `No.'" In short, what Ford has done, says Hob Bryan, a state senator, "is to let enough of the best and the brightest from the various factions in the House have a piece of the action that there is a huge percentage of the House--and of potential leaders of the House--who feel that they have something at stake."

This extends beyond the leadership. To begin with, committee chairs serve as mentors to their more junior members--developing loyalists of their own, and so, by extension, of the system as a whole. When Wanda Jennings, a Republican former schoolteacher from a district along the Tennessee border, set about to cut the state's tax on goods stored and shipped from warehouses, a move that would help warehouses trying to break into the Memphis-area distribution system, Ways and Means Chairman Billy McCoy encouraged her to develop a comprehensive analysis of its impact, then brought in the state's assistant revenue commissioner to help her find a way to do as little damage to the state's coffers as possible; ultimately, the bill passed, and was signed into law by Democratic Governor Ronnie Musgrove. "It's the most fun I've had since I was a kid," says Jennings.

For his part, Ford works hard to keep his members happy. Any one of them can see him at pretty much any time, and for any reason, including personal crises. When conflict arises on legislation, Ford's response is not to mute it, but to try to resolve it in a way that lets the protagonists feel as though they got their best shot at the matter. In March, for instance, a young African-American representative from Jackson, Eric Fleming, infuriated other members by calling for bills to be read in their entirety--an unblockable move that can tie up the entire House--on a Friday morning when members were anxious to adjourn.

Fleming was trying to fight a floor amendment setting up a special police booking process for teachers accused of abusing their students. He considered it racially tinged legislation, and felt he had no other way of slowing it down. The measure was favored by some of Ford's closest advisers, but the speaker's response was simply to tell Fleming that if he'd jumped on the issue earlier in the debate, he probably could have stopped it on a point of order. It was essentially a question of timing.

"The speaker doesn't like to have a lot of nasty fights," says Fleming. "His priority is to keep everything going. He feels it's not his place to engage one side or the other--instead, he'll talk you through your concern so you can determine whether it's worth bringing to the floor or not." As Billy McCoy puts it, "We work hard at controlling dissension. We ask people, `What's bothering you today, sir?' You can stop the process here by reading a bill, so Speaker Ford works to find out the problems. We're a collective bunch of ego-filled individuals and a collection of special interests here. He puts them all together."

Looking at all this, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that Ford is all process, no product. This is, actually, not true. Ford grew up in the area around Tupelo, which has for decades been perhaps the most progressive part of the state when it comes to race relations, economic development and education. In the 13 years he has been speaker, while governors and lieutenant governors--who preside over the Senate--have come and gone, the House itself has become far more diverse and Mississippi has moved steadily to spend more on education and economic development. In other words, it has moved significantly in Ford's direction. But it remains true that Ford doesn't like to come down squarely on any particular side of an issue; his strength lies in his ability to build consensus, and in others' reliance on that ability.

It is a formidable talent. "He's able to relate to almost any person easily," says Joe Rutherford, editorial page editor of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. "I think he enjoys people having confidence in him and liking him, and once he has built an alliance or partnership with an individual, that tends to endure through thick and thin."

It is a talent Ford has been nurturing for a long time. "You have to understand," says Steve Holland: "He came out of the womb of Ole Miss. He went to the right fraternity, he had the right background, he was president of the law school student body. In this state, things like that mean everything." In particular, it means that Ford's contacts outside the legislature are as extensive as they are inside it, and so the information and ideas flowing to him give him a good sense of where to steer the House so that it does not run afoul of the public.

This is not to say that Ford doesn't make mistakes. Last year, he quietly allowed a pension increase for legislators to go through; it was signed by Musgrove. Then the press got hold of the issue, and the resulting public outcry grew so intense that Musgrove called a special session of the legislature, during which Ford pushed to repeal the measure. "If he had wanted to," says Hob Bryan, "he could have gotten the votes in the House not to repeal. Had that happened, the speaker would have been a hero in the House in the short term, but long-term, this would not have gone away: He understood it was going to do enormous damage to the institution of the legislature, and it was going to get an awful lot of legislators in trouble."

In Mississippi, at least, this flexibility is seen as a sign of strength, not weakness. "A lot of people would prefer that Tim be more aggressive on whatever issue is their cause," says Joe Rutherford, "but I don't think it's his nature to do that. Generally speaking, in the Mississippi Legislature, people who are crusaders on a white horse don't do very well. Instead, Tim networks, he keeps commitments, he's loyal, and above all, he knows how to bring people under a big tent. In the end, he makes everyone who participates feel good about what they've done."

Of course, this approach has been good to him. Last year, the capitol press corps--which includes many of the same reporters who at the end of his first term doubted he would last much longer--gave him a t- shirt. "Power Corrupts," it read, "But Absolute Power Is Kinda Neat."