Wendell Ford: An enduring winner at hands-on politics
By Al Smith

Posted on January 24, 2015 9:30 PM

The buzz across the state that Wendell Ford had died found countless Kentuckians sharing stories about him with each other as well as with inquiring reporters.

The most enduring and endearing leader of an era when the Democratic party held a grassroots hold on most of the voters, he could claim he had shaken hands with nearly all of them in 34 years of elected service in the state Senate, as lieutenant governor and governor, and in the U.S. Senate.

Over breakfast a few years ago, remembering when he won nomination for lieutenant governor by less than 700 votes in his first statewide campaign, a heated primary in 1966, he told me that ever after friends in different counties claimed their support made the difference.

“And what did you tell them?” I asked.

“I said, ‘You sure did!”

Long after he retired, he was still loyal to his political party, showing up at the Fancy Farm political picnic in shirt sleeves to work the crowds fo Democrats  running that year. Age didn’t dim his wit as he scorched the other side. “That Republican fellow,” he would jest, “reminds me of a preacher under the tent with 100 empty chairs and a guitar.”

At the end, dying in the community where he came from as Owensboro’s hometown hero, Ford’s  legacy was a civics lesson about involvement, personal and extensive in a time, as a political scientist noted, before voters  became TV spectators, watching from their living rooms, rather than as organizers and participants.

For Ford it began in the local Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce), working up to national president and creating a network of buddies  who helped elect him from the  grassroots of Daviess County to seats of power in Frankfort and Washington

Ford’s dedication in Washington to Kentucky’s economic interests in coal, tobacco, whiskey and racing was that of a “constituent” Congressman, shunning the pose of “statesman.” His more than occasional disagreements with his fellow rural Democrat Bill Clinton did not prevent Clinton from coming to Owensboro to head a fund raiser for Owensboro’s Ford Center in 2013—one political master’s tribute to another.

Supremely grounded in the farms and coalfields, Ford probably understood the feelings of his people for their land, their history, the world beyond their borders, and the risks and change they would accept as well or better than anyone else in Kentucky’s public life.

Although a partisan conservative Democrat, a strong element  of fairness was in his core sensibility. A favor for the powerful was followed by a vote for those who   weren’t. His well-regarded service as governor easily won him the first of four Senate terms in 1974.

Born after the generation of politicians who boasted of birth in a log cabin, Ford still evoked his rural background, describing himself as “a boy from Yellow Creek.” The Courier-Journal, however, endorsing him for the Senate, acclaimed him as “our first governor for urban Kentucky.” He never lost the common touch, remaining to the end a winner with whom we could all identify. He was everybody’s guy.

-- Al Smith was the founding host of KET’s Comment on Kentucky, when Wendell Ford was governor. He is writing a third memoir. See an earlier article he wrote for The LoJo about Wendell Ford at http://www.theloganjournal.com/Stories.aspx?Article=guests128


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