Kentucky lost a political icon and a patriarch of the Democratic Party with the passing of former Sen. Wendell Ford today at age 90, following a battle with lung cancer.
Ford was a native of Daviess County, a World War II veteran, and a student at the University of Kentucky. In more than three decades in politics, the Democrat served the commonwealth as a state senator, lieutenant governor, governor, and U. S. Senator, where he was elected to four terms. Ford concluded his political career as Senate Minority Whip, a post he held from 1995 until his retirement in 1998.
KET will broadcast a several tributes to Ford in the coming days, including rebroadcasts of the documentary, Wendell Ford: From Yellow Creek to the Potomac. That biography airs Friday at 9 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. on KET. Then at 3 p.m. on Sunday, KET will air live coverage of Ford’s memorial service at the state Capitol Rotunda.
In 2006, Bill Goodman interviewed Ford for KET’s “One to One” program. They discussed how political campaigns changed during Ford’s years in office. “There’s been a sea change since I first got into politics. It was more door to door, person to person, handshake to handshake when I first started,” Ford said. “The need for money was not as evident as it is today.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell, who served with Ford for 13 years, took to the Senate floor this morning to remember his fellow colleague:
“Wendell Ford first came to the Senate in the 1970s, calling himself just ‘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. I had the opportunity to watch my Senate colleague up close as he ascended to leadership in his party and established himself as a leader on issues of importance to my state. A proud Kentuckian who rose from page in the State House to governor of the state, Ford shaped the history of the Commonwealth in ways few others had before him. He never forgot the lessons about hard work he learned while milking cows or tending to chores on the family farm. And this World War II veteran never backed down from a fight either. We imagine he approached his final battle with the same spirit.”
Sen. Rand Paul notes that he sits at the same Senate desk as Ford once did. Paul calls Ford a man dedicated to his party, state, and country, who “served the commonwealth and its people for decades with honor and purpose.”
Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat who represents Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District calls Ford a legend:
“For decades, he served our Commonwealth and nation with a level of dignity, respect, and common sense not commonly found in so many in politics. As great of a leader as he was, he was an even better person, never losing his one-of-a-kind sense of humor and kindness throughout his life. My thoughts and prayers are with Mrs. Ford and their entire family.”
Fellow Congressman Hal Rogers, a Republican from Somerset, says Ford was one of the state’s greatest defenders:
“Although he was a staunch Democrat, Sen. Ford never hesitated to reach across the aisle for issues that benefited Kentucky the most, from promoting the development of coal-based synthetic fuels to protecting tobacco farmers. He shed a new light on Kentucky country boys in Frankfort and Washington, proving that we always keep our word, we never back down from a challenge, and showing a little kindness goes a long way.”
Gov. Steve Beshear says Ford was the epitome of “principled leadership” and “a true voice for the people of Kentucky.” Beshear continues, “In every office in which he served, his methods were simple: Wendell Ford listened, he cared, and he got the job done.”
Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, who got her first job in politics working for Ford, calls him a mentor. Luallen says “so many Kentuckians are better off today because of his leadership and willingness to always put Kentucky first.”
Ford endorsed Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in her U.S. Senate campaign against Sen. McConnell last year. She calls Ford a “true statesman. On every stage, he represented Kentucky with dignity and honor, embracing compromise to achieve results that benefited the Commonwealth.”
On social media former Secretary of State Trey Grayson describes Ford as “one of the greatest Kentucky political leaders,” while Republican gubernatorial candidate Hal Heiner calls Ford one of the state’s “most influential and colorful statesmen.”
Ford’s U.S. Senate career spanned five presidential administrations, and he oversaw the inauguration ceremonies of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In his statement about Ford’s passing, Clinton expressed gratitude for Ford accompanying him to his second inauguration.
“I relied heavily on his advice and support, especially when the outcome was unclear, the stakes were high, and the vote was close,” Clinton says. “He was a devout believer in the power of good government to bring opportunity and prosperity to everyone. He had just the right balance of toughness and compassion, good humor, and serious purpose.”
President Barack Obama calls Ford a formidable political strategist who left an extraordinary legacy of service. “He fought to make sure all Americans had equal access to the polls, championed paying workers a decent wage, and extending a helping hand to those looking for work, and mentored scores of young people who entered public service with Wendell’s advice and support. Few in politics were as admired as he,” Obama says.
In his final floor speech in 1998, Ford honored other Senate colleagues retiring that year, reflected on several issues he thought future politicians would face, and bemoaned the lack of compromise and the rise of partisanship in Congress.