Wendell Ford, Kentucky's longtime ex-senator and mentor, dies

Former US Senator and Kentucky Governor Wendell Ford, whose best known for his 25 years in the senate and for helping to define a generation of Kentucky Democrats, has died.

Roger Alford/AP/File
Former Kentucky Sen. Wendell Ford is seen in Lexington, Ky., on Sept. 27, 2012. Ford, a former governor and U.S. senator who was the dominant figure in Democratic politics in Kentucky, has died.

Former U.S. Sen. and Kentucky Gov. Wendell Ford, an unapologetic smoker whose unfiltered chats and speeches endeared him to voters in a state that once thrived on tobacco and coal, has died at age 90.

Ford's health had declined in the last two weeks, said Mike Ruehling, who had worked for him both as governor and senator. Ford revealed over the summer that he was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for lung cancer. He died around 3 a.m. Thursday at his home in Owensboro, Ruehling said.

Best known for his 25 years in the U.S. Senate and for helping to define a generation of Kentucky Democrats, Ford never identified with sweeping issues or great crusades. Instead, constituents knew he would always take time to stop by neighborhood corner stores to "buy a pack of cigarettes and chat a little."

Ford would sometimes ask photographers not to shoot until he could get a cigarette in his hand. A reception in his honor during the 1996 Democratic national Convention in Chicago was picketed by anti-tobacco protesters costumed as cigarette butts. And consumer activist Ralph Nader called him an "anti-consumer extremist."

"If they want to criticize me, that's fine," Ford replied. "But Kentucky is beautiful women, fast horses, bourbon whiskey, cigarettes and coal. I represent Kentucky, and that's what I represent."

Ford made a big impression on an 18-year-old Jack Conway, signing a picture of the two of them when they met in his Washington office. Conway is now the state's attorney general and Democratic candidate for governor.

"I keep (that picture) 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.

Ford reveled in the political game. In 1971, when his former mentor and boss Bert T. Combs sought a second term as governor, Ford challenged him in the primary and won. In 1974, he ousted incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Marlow Cook.

He spent six years as the chief fundraiser for Senate Democrats and headed the National Democratic Governors Caucus during his last year in Frankfort. He remained politically active until last summer, when he announced he was being treated for lung cancer. The diagnosis kept him from campaigning for Alison Lundergan Grimes' failed attempt to oust Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.

But Republicans paused to honor Ford on Thursday. James Comer interrupted his news conference at the Capitol, where he was filing to run for governor, for a moment of silence in Ford's memory. And McConnell, Ford's longtime foe, spoke about Ford on the Senate floor.

"Ford shaped the history of the Commonwealth in ways few others had before him," McConnell said. "He never forgot the lessons about hard work he learned while milking cows or tending to chores on the family farm."

Ford was the last governor who was able to dominate the General Assembly by effectively picking its leaders and dictating its agenda. He got the legislature to remove the sales tax on food but balanced it by placing a severance tax on coal and increasing the state tax on gasoline. Spending on education increased sharply during his administration, and he vetoed a bill to give collective bargaining to teachers.

Ford tried to break into Senate leadership in 1988 but failed to oust Sen. Alan Cranston of California as majority whip, the post just below majority leader. Two years later, after Cranston had been implicated in a savings-and-loan scandal, Ford was elected whip without opposition.

Ford's only political crisis happened in 1980 and 1981 when a special federal grand jury investigated his gubernatorial administration and that of his successor, Julian M. Carroll.

Ford was never charged, but his name glared from an indictment of Howard "Sonny" Hunt, a former state Democratic chairman who took kickbacks from state insurance contractors.

Ford retired in 1998 rather than run for a fifth term in the Senate, citing the high cost of re-election. He said a new Senate campaign would have cost $5 million and that candidates were in danger of becoming "bit players ... managed and manipulated by paid consultants and hired guns."

Ford always campaigned like a man possessed, though he never had a close race for re-election. Former Republican Gov. Louie B. Nunn, who was one of Ford's most bitter political foes, paid him a supreme compliment in 1991. Nunn announced that he had advised Larry Forgy, his protege at the time, against trying to run againstFord the next year.

"I don't think anybody in this state can beat Wendell Ford," Nunn said. "Ford, in my opinion, is one of the best Democratic politicians we've had in this state in my lifetime."


Associated Press writer Dylan Lovan in Louisville contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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