Politics
Wendell FordU.S. Congress

Wend

Update 1:32 p.m.: Ford Remembered

Wendell Ford, who started as a page in the Kentucky state Capitol and rose through the ranks in Frankfort and Washington, died Thursday in his Owensboro home.

He was 90.

A powerhouse of Kentucky Democratic politics, Ford held elected office for 33 years, including governor and U.S. senator.

Kentucky politicians in Frankfort and Washington swiftly reacted to Ford’s death Thursday morning.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Ford’s death on the U.S. Senate floor, noting that Ford called himself “a dumb country boy with dirt between his toes.”

“But, over a distinguished two-decade career, this workhorse of the Senate would prove he was anything but,” McConnell said. “A proud Kentuckian who rose from page in the Statehouse to governor of the state, Ford shaped the history of the commonwealth in ways few others had before him.”

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who holds the seat Ford left in 1999, also expressed his condolences and admiration, pointing out that he sits behind the same desk in Washington that Ford once occupied.

Later in his time in Washington, Ford was the Democratic whip. Bowling Green public radio station WKYU notes:

Ford is credited with helping shape several key pieces of historic legislation, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Tobacco Reform Act of 1985, and the 1993 motor-voter law that allowed people to register to vote when they got their driver’s license.

In a 2010 interview with WKYU, Ford said he liked his ability to be more “hands on” as governor.

“You had the ability to start a project, or stop it,” Ford told WKYU. “If people wouldn’t do what you wanted them to do, you could fire them and get someone that would. Not that I did that, but you had that opportunity and I guess people knew that.”

Kentucky Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen worked in Ford’s mailroom right out of college, and along with many other Democrats from the state, cited him as a mentor. Luallen said she last met him the day after New Year’s in his home in Owensboro, and he wanted to talk politics—the recently concluded U.S. Senate race, legislative races, the upcoming governor’s race.

“He had lots of thoughts and opinions on everything in the public arena,” Luallen. “I had just taken over my new position as lieutenant governor and I said, ‘Boss, I need your advice now—what do I need to be doing up there?’ and he was not short on advice.

“He was very helpful to me in our last meeting as he had been in my first meeting with him 40 years ago.”

Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, praised Ford as a politician who “never forgot that rural Kentucky needed a whole lot of help, you see his fingerprints all across this state from the time he served as governor to the time he rose to power in the United States Senate.”

“He never saw a hand he didn’t want to shake, he never saw a person he didn’t want to talk to,” Stumbo said. “In today’s world of media campaigns and Teflon candidates, Wendell Ford didn’t like that. He wasn’t that way. If I wanted to emulate someone in public life, it would be Wendell Ford.”

Ford had been undergoing treatment for lung cancer. Despite his health, Ford continued to be involved in politics. He endorsed Attorney General Jack Conway as the Democratic candidate for governor last summer.

Conway reacted to Ford’s death this morning in a statement, calling him “a lion of a public servant for Kentucky and the nation, but he had the heart and kindness of a lamb.”

Conway also says he keeps a signed picture of the senator, taken when Conway was 18 and they met in Washington. “I keep it because I recall how extraordinarily kind and attentive he was to a high school kid, and it serves as a reminder to me of how people should be treated,” Conway said.

Agricultural Commissioner James Comer, who officially filed to for the Republican gubernatorial primary on Thursday, held a moment of silence to honor Ford during a rally in the state Capitol. Comer had just filed to

Ford was governor from 1971 until 1974, when he entered the U.S. Senate. He was succeeded by the lieutenant governor, Julian Carroll. Carroll is now the Kentucky Senate’s minority whip, representing Frankfort. He released the following statement this morning:

My heart is heavy today at the loss of my fellow governor, Senator Wendell Ford. He was a true public servant, who always put the people first, and was a mentor to so many young politicians. I had known Wendell since he ran for the State Senate, having been elected to the House that same year, 1962. Later I managed his campaign in McCracken County for his race as lieutenant governor and secured a margin of victory for him equal to more than three times the amount he won by. In 1971, I ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket with former Governor Bert T. Combs and joined Wendell in the fall campaign at which time we were both elected as governor and lieutenant governor. Wendell encouraged me to run for the U.S. Senate, but after several weeks of discussion, he decided to run himself. My relationship with Wendell Ford has been long standing and his passing is indeed a powerful moment for me and for Kentucky, but he had a good life. I offer my deepest condolences to his wife Jean, all his family and his many, many friends. Today is a sad day for all Kentuckians. We truly lost one of our greatest sons.

Earlier

Longtime Kentucky politician Wendell Ford died Thursday morning, CN2 is reporting.

A force in Kentucky Democratic politics, Ford was a U.S. senator from 1974 to 1999, where he was the Democratic whip for the latter part of his tenure. He was also Kentucky governor from 1971 to 1974.

Ford, 90, was an Owensboro native.

We’ll have more on Ford’s life later today, plus reaction from Frankfort and Washington.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.