Wendell Ford, the patriarch of Kentucky Democratic politics in the latter part of the 20th Century, died Thursday morning in Owensboro, his hometown. He was 90.
Ford served 24 years in the U.S. Senate and was governor from 1971 to 1974. He was the first person in Kentucky history to be elected lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator.
A heavy smoker and a strong defender of the tobacco industry for most of his political life, Ford announced in July that he was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for lung cancer. He said he was going to follow his doctors’ orders “and leave the rest with the good Lord.”
He expressed disappointment that he was too ill to campaign for a number of state and local Democratic candidates on the November ballot, including U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes in her bid to oust Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell.
Since his retirement in 1999, Ford frequently advised Democratic politicians and stumped on the campaign trail for them.
He was the longest-serving senator in Kentucky’s history at the time of his retirement, a mark that was surpassed by McConnell in 2009.
At the time, McConnell called Ford one of the great U.S. senators in Kentucky’s history.
Even as Ford attained high office, McConnell said, “he never forgot the lessons he learned working alongside his parents on the farm.”
“Kentuckians respected him for proving that a country boy could walk the corridors of power, dine with kings and presidents, and still come back to Yellow Creek and be right at home,” McConnell said.
Ford’s political career spanned several decades. He served four terms in the U.S. Senate, where he was first elected tin November 1974. He was the Senate Democratic whip from 1991 until his retirement.
Ford’s leadership in the U.S. Senate paid off for the state. He secured much money for building projects and sometimes held up national legislation to cut a better deal for Kentucky.
In the 1980s, unemployed Kentuckians ended up with 13 weeks of benefits, rather than six, after Ford held out for more.
Ford was governor of Kentucky from Dec. 7, 1971, to Dec. 28, 1974.
His overhaul of state agencies was the hallmark of his tenure as governor, said Kentucky’s late historian laureate, Thomas D. Clark.
Kentucky Democratic Party chairman Dan Logsdon said Ford “has been everything to us. He always fought for Kentucky interests. He never backed down on that.”
Logsdon said Ford was “a wonderful stump speaker. He would always give the best speech at political events.”
The Kentucky Democratic Party headquarters off Interstate 64 in Frankfort bears Ford’s name.
As a politician, Ford was known more for making deals than authoring legislation. Still, he helped shape several pieces of historic legislation, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, National Energy Security Act of 1992, Age Discrimination Act Amendments of 1986, Tobacco Reform Act of 1985 and the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977.
He also was a key player in passing the 1993 motor-voter law, which allows people to register to vote when they get their driver’s license.
His reputation was one of an effective, shrewd politician who, despite an easy smile and a quick, folksy wit, played hardball behind the scenes.
His intense support for home-state interests — coal, tobacco and alcohol — at times incurred the wrath of health and consumer advocates. He fought hard against warning labels on cigarette packs and alcoholic beverages and was often photographed with an ever-present cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.
But Ford was beloved by most Kentuckians.
“Ford was a champion of Kentucky’s so-called sin products — tobacco, whiskey, coal,” veteran journalist Al Smith said. “He was always proud to be from Kentucky and never forgot where he came from.”
Wendell Ford was born Sept. 8, 1924, in Owensboro. His father, Ernest, was a state senator and an ally of Kentucky Gov. Earle C. Clements.
Ford graduated from Daviess County High School in 1942. He attended the University of Kentucky for a semester, then returned to work on the family farm. He married Ruby Jean Neel of Daviess County on Sept. 19, 1943. The couple had two children, Steven and Shirley.
After serving in the Army from 1944 to 1946, Ford graduated from the Maryland School of Insurance and entered the insurance business with his father.
Ford didn’t set out to follow his father into public office.
“One of the things I had been turned off about politics by was watching my Dad, and how many people were coming in asking for things, pushing for things,” Ford said in 1999.
He didn’t become interested in politics until he was the national president of the Jaycees in 1956-57.
He became youth chairman of Bert Combs’ gubernatorial campaign and then an aide to Gov. Combs, from 1959 to 1961. He beat his former boss in the 1971 Democratic primary for governor.
Ford always said he ran every race scared and as if it were his last.
His first two were cliffhangers. In 1965, he won a state Senate seat by a mere 305 votes. Two years later, he was barely elected lieutenant governor, winning by 13,652 votes.
At that time, lieutenant governors ran independently of the governor. Ford was elected lieutenant governor on a split ticket with Republican Louie B. Nunn.
They often were at loggerheads.
Ford unsuccessfully opposed Nunn’s request to the legislature to increase the state sales tax in 1968 from 3 percent to 5 percent.
As governor,Ford had such a tight control over the Democrat-dominated legislature that nearly all of his programs were enacted.
During his tenure the five percent sales tax on food was removed, state government was reorganized and Kentucky’s first coal severance tax was levied.
As governor, he also asked for a two-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax, a corporate tax increase and a major increase in funding for education. He requested money for the newest higher education institutions, the University of Louisville and Northern Kentucky State College, and proposed strengthening the Council on Higher Education.
Funding for the Kentucky Horse Park, financing of the Lexington Civic Center and the development of Boonesborough State Park were among other accomplishments of the Ford administration.
A back injury that Ford suffered in June 1972 might have saved him from an early death.
He was at a boat regatta in Owensboro when he grabbed two people boarding a docked boat, apparently preventing them from falling into the Ohio River. The action left him with back problems.
An abdominal aortic aneurysm, unrelated to the accident, was discovered after he sought treatment for his back. Dr. Michael DeBakey, a renowned heart and vascular surgeon, removed the aneurysm at a Houston hospital.
Change of pace
Ford left the governor’s chair a year early in 1974 to run for the Senate. In that race, he upset Republican incumbent Marlow Cook.
Julian Carroll, who was lieutenant governor under Ford and succeeded him as governor, said he had been a backer of Bert Combs for governor.
“Wendell and I got along fairly well until he was elected governor,” Carroll said. “Things got cool between us for a while, but that was due more to our staffs. I was never a thorn in his side, and I had no frays with the governor.”
Carroll, who is now a state senator, said Ford initially wanted him to run for the U.S. Senate against Cook.
“We spent about six months talking about it at the home of Frankfort businessman Jim Gray, who became the secretary of my cabinet,” Carroll said.
Eventually, political strategist Bill Cox persuaded Carroll to call Bob Strauss, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, about the U.S. Senate race, Carroll said.
“I called Strauss and told him that if I ran, only the Carroll people would be excited about me. But if Wendell Ford ran, every one would be for him — his people and my people — because the Carroll people knew I would be governor.”
Carroll said Strauss called Ford and persuaded him to run for the U.S. Senate.
“I always deeply admired Wendell’s political abilities,” Carroll said.
Despite winning election to the U.S. Senate, Ford never really left the governor’s chair. He took the chair he used in his Frankfort office to Washington. He also found the desk used by the late Alben W. Barkley, who was Senate majority leader and later vice president, and paid a Senate committee $350 for it. The desk that Ford used in the Senate chamber was the former desk of 19th-century statesman Henry Clay of Kentucky.
He found the U.S. Senate was much slower than life in the Kentucky governor’s mansion.
“As governor, you could pick up the phone, make a couple of calls and get something accomplished,” he said. “Up here, it’s a different ballgame.”
His favorite saying as a senator was: “There are no victories in Washington, only varying degrees of defeat.”
Ford also was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 1976 to 1982.
Ford thought about running for governor again in 1983 and 1991, but he decided against it both times.
In 1991, he said he preferred to run for Democratic Senate whip. In 1983, he would have faced sitting Lt. Gov. Martha Layne Collins, a strong Ford ally, in the primary.
A federal grand jury investigation of state government corruption also was a factor in his decision.
Ford’s name had arisen in connection with an alleged insurance fee-splitting scheme on state insurance contracts while he was governor.
In 1981, federal prosecutors in Lexington recommended that Ford be indicted on charges that he participated in a conspiracy to share commissions with members of the state Democratic Party and their families. Justice Department officials in Washington said the case was too old.
Ford refused to say whether he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination before the grand jury.
Later in the 1980s, there was a Senate Ethics Committee inquiry into Ford’s association with E.M. Ford & Co. insurance agency in Owensboro. Ford had been a partner in E.M. Ford & Co. and Southern Financial Insurance in Owensboro.
Then-Rep. Carroll Hubbard, D-1st District, first raised the issue in questioning E.M. Ford & Co.’s dealings with the financially troubled Big Rivers Electric Corp. E.M. Ford handled the property and liability coverage for Big Rivers, which had benefited from a federal bailout.
Ford maintained that he had no involvement in both insurance firms’ operations and said that he had sold his interest in them to his son, Steven Ford, and brother, Reyburn Ford. The Ethics Committee agreed that Ford’s ties had violated no Senate ethics rules, but welcomed his decision to sever his relationship with the two companies.
His popularity was not diminished.
In his 1986 U.S. Senate race, Ford won all 120 counties and captured nearly three-fourths of the vote.
Of his career in the Senate, Ford said, “I wasn’t interested in national issues. I was interested in Kentucky issues.”
After Ford retired, he enjoyed teaching politics to youth at the Owensboro Museum of Science and History. It housed a replica of his Senate office in the Wendell H. Ford Government Education Center.
The Western Kentucky Parkway was renamed in his honor during the administration of Gov. Paul Patton.
Ford is survived by his wife, Jean. They had been married 71 years. They have two children: a son, Steven, and a daughter, Shirley Dexter.
Jennifer Hewlett contributed to this story. Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.
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