Robert Ford has been running for one election or another for more than 30 years, but he never showed up at a debate or candidate forum until last week.

And he wasn't shy about explaining why.

"I ain't got no money," he said minutes before the forum began. "The reason I came tonight is because I really need to reach the public."

Five months ago, the veteran Democratic state senator was hit with a fiscal double whammy: a hotly contested primary in which he spent more than $176,000 and a May 4 house fire that he estimated destroyed about $183,000 worth of furniture, clothing and other personal property. His insurance covered only $60,000.

Ford's most recent disclosure report, filed in July, shows his campaign is more than $26,000 in debt, a figure he said has climbed to more than $30,000.

Meanwhile, Ford's friends and supporters are rallying to raise money to help him out. State Rep.-elect Wendell Gilliard has sent out a letter on Ford's behalf, and others are organizing a separate fundraising event for him Thursday.

Ford, 59, had a job selling cars years ago but currently serves as a full-time senator. His $26,540 income as a senator is the sole item listed on his Statement of Economic Interest.

Ford's finances didn't come up during the recent League of Women Voters-Chamber of Commerce forum, but his Republican opponent, Scotty Sheriff, said it's relevant to their Nov. 4 contest for the District 42 Senate seat.

"If he can't handle his own finances, how does he handle the finances of the district? How does he handle finances in the Statehouse?" Sheriff asked. "If he can't properly insure himself and what he has, he can't insure the public and the district. We need to have leadership, and part of leadership is leading by example."

But Ford's supporters say that's exactly what he has done. Gilliard was with Ford at Morris Brown Baptist Church when the fire began and drove over to Ford's house once he learned it was on fire. Gilliard volunteered to help raise money to get the senator back on his feet.

Ford said few people responded to Wendell's letter, "but the thought was brilliant." He said he received the most support from four of his Senate colleagues who are Republicans: Sens. Hugh Leatherman of Florence, Randy Scott of Summerville, Paul Campbell of Berkeley County and Ronnie Cromer of Prosperity. Each sent him $1,000, he said.

State ethics laws govern only political contributions to candidates, which have a maximum of $1,000, not donations to help them rebuild their personal lives, said State Ethics Commission director Herbert Hayden. "It's totally silent with regard to that type of fundraising," he said.

Thursday's event, which begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Resurrected Life Ministry on Reynolds Avenue in North Charleston, is designed to honor Ford and raise money to help him with his uninsured losses. Ford said the house —which he does not own but is in the process of purchasing — is being repaired, and he may move back in by the end of this month.

Ford said his biggest loss was his irreplaceable collection of Civil Rights era memorabilia, but he also estimated he lost about 100 custom-made suits that originally cost about $1,000 each.

The fire also prompted him to change his shopping habits. "After the fire, it was my first time I ever was in Wal-Mart."