Wendell Ford: Governor, Senator, and Kentucky Legend

By John Gregory | 6/11/17 7:00 PM

He billed himself as a country boy from Yellow Creek, but this insurance salesman turned politician rose to become an accomplished governor and one of the most powerful men in Washington, D.C.

Wendell Hampton Ford represented politics of a different era, when campaigns could be waged with a firm handshake and a keen mind, interparty political fights could be brutal, and deals could still be struck across partisan divides. He was a man known to fight doggedly at the state capitol and in the U.S. Senate to improve the lives of his fellow Kentuckians.

Current U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell honored his former Senate colleague with a speech at Owensboro’s RiverPark Center in April 2017. The Senate Majority Leader spoke at an event presented by the Wendell H. Ford Government Education Center.

 

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Ford was born in Owensboro in 1924 and grew up on a farm along Yellow Creek in Daviess County. The second of four children, Ford got his compassionate nature from his mother, Irene, and his love for people and hard work from his father, Ernest. McConnell says E.M. Ford, as friends called him, was a farmer and insurance salesman who had a lifelong interest in Democratic Party politics.

E.M. would go on to serve in the Kentucky House of Representatives and Senate, and become close friends with another western Kentucky Democrat, Earle Clements. As a young boy, Wendell Ford worked as a page in the state legislature, where he too got to know Clements. McConnell says over time Clements grew into a political father to the young Wendell.

“Clements would go on to become became governor, U.S. senator, and U.S. Senate Majority Whip in the 1940s and 1950s,” McConnell says. “Wendell followed in Clements’ footsteps in each regard.”

When he wasn’t in Frankfort with his father, Wendell was back at home working on the family farm, where he milked 30 cows twice a day. The politician would latter attribute his firm handshake and proclivity to rise early to that daily chore.

After graduating high school, Wendell worked at a downtown Owensboro department store, where he met his future wife Jean Neel. McConnell says Ford sold a cow and calf to raise the money for the wedding ring. They were married in 1943 and had two children.

A stint in the Army near the end of World War II took Wendell and Jean to Fort Hood, Texas, for two years. To help the young couple along, E.M. Ford sent his son five dollars every week. One time, Wendell decided to splurge and spend the weekly allowance on steaks for him and his wife. The silver dollar he got as change for the purchase would stay with Ford for the rest of his life.

“Wendell periodically took the coin out of his pocket to rub it or to tell people of its origin,” McConnell says. “In time the surface of the dollar coin became completely smooth, but it would always remain a cherished keepsake.”

A Leader in Civic and Political Life
Following his discharge, the Fords returned to Owensboro. Wendell worked at his father’s insurance business and became active in the Jaycees, or Junior Chamber of Commerce. Wendell swiftly rose through the local and state ranks, and eventually became national chairman of the Jaycees.

McConnell says Ford’s work with the group helped catapult the young insurance salesman into politics. Ford was youth director for Bert Combs during his 1959 gubernatorial campaign and served on the Democrat’s staff after Combs took office. In 1963, Ford managed the campaign of Combs’ successor, Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt.

Ford was 41 years old when he finally decided to make his own run for office. He ran for the state Senate from Owensboro and wound up challenging the sitting majority leader in the Democratic primary. Nervously awaiting votes on that Election Day in 1965, Ford decided to visit his barber.

“That was the beginning of two Election Day traditions that marked Ford’s political career: Getting his haircut and winning his campaign,” McConnell says.

Ford won the primary by 305 votes and later took the general election. During his two years in the state Senate, Ford got 22 of his bills passed, says McConnell.

Next, Ford decided to run for Lieutenant Governor in 1967. He won, but the Democrat at the top of the ticket, Henry Ward of Louisville, lost. So Ford served as lieutenant to Republican Gov. Louie B. Nunn.

McConnell says Ford sought his own turn in the governor’s office in 1971, but to get there, he had to defeat his former boss, Bert Combs. Ford would not be outworked on the campaign trail, often spending 20 hours a day politicking. He won his primary and then beat Republican Tom Emberton of Metcalfe Count in the general election. His key campaign issue was his opposition to a sales tax instituted by Gov. Nunn, which Ford derisively called “Nunn’s Nickel.”

During his time as governor, McConnell says Ford got the sales tax repealed on food, medicine, and farm equipment. He also reduced state bureaucracy from 40 government agencies down to nine, and pushed through insurance reforms, aid for coal miners with black lung disease, and funding for legal counsel to represent impoverished criminal defendants. McConnell says the Democrat drew on five key skills to help him succeed in office: an unfailing commitment to his small-town roots, a love of people, a keen political mind, tenacity, and superb negotiating skills.

“The late Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas said opposing Ford on an issue reminded him of fighting with his wife: those arguments I win just ain’t over yet,” McConnell says.

Ford had one more office to seek, that of United States Senator, which he ran for in 1974. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Ford easily defeated Republican incumbent Marlow Cook. The Democrat began the first of his four terms in the Senate in late 1974, thanks to Cook’s early resignation from the seat.

Mr. Ford Goes to Washington
“On Capitol Hill there are two types of members: show horses and work horses,” says McConnell. “The former strive for the headlines, the latter strive for results, and Wendell Ford was every bit the work horse.”

McConnell describes Ford as a constituent senator who doggedly fought for Kentucky’s interests even when they weren’t popular with his colleagues (such as his support for tobacco farmers and cigarette makers). He also worked his way up the party ranks, serving three terms as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, as chair of the Senate Rules Committee from 1986 to 1994, and as Democratic Whip from 1991 to 1995.

“The primary functions of the whip are to try to persuade party members to support the party’s legislative agenda, to try to count noses, and to try to ensure good member attendance at votes,” says McConnell, who has served as his party’s whip in the Senate.

“Senators are very protective of their own independence and are often not easy to persuade,” McConnell says of the whip’s job. “And in Senate leadership you have few carrots and even fewer sticks to aid you in your efforts.”

In the Senate, Ford championed motor-voter legislation, energy and aviation issues, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and reforms to the Congressional budgeting process.

Congressional Quarterly observed about Wendell that he does not get everything he goes after but almost always comes away with something,” McConnell says.

Still, Ford would later say that he preferred being governor than being senator. At the state capitol, he said he could get things done quickly and go out and see the results.

In 1998, the Democrat announced he would step down from the Senate at the end of his term. Ford had never lost a Kentucky race, and he had been the state’s longest serving senator until McConnell himself surpassed that record.

Even in his retirement, Ford remained active. He spent time with his family and developed the government education center in Owensboro that bears his name. McConnell says Ford considered a vacation as time when he didn’t have to shave or wear a suit, and he could go fishing with his grandchildren.

Ford died on January 22, 2015 at the age of 90. In his eulogy for Ford, former President Bill Clinton said the senator’s approach to public life was to fight as hard as he could until he couldn’t win. Then he would work together with his opponents to achieve a goal.

“Such a lesson not only captures the spirit of Wendell Ford, but I would submit it is a good lesson for individuals in any walk of life,” McConnell says.