Along the Elkhorn Vale … Wendell H. Ford

Bust of Wendell H. Ford – Owensboro, Ky.

Although it would have been fitting to place this bust of Wendell H. Ford anywhere in the Commonwealth, it appropriately sits on the courthouse lawn in Owensboro. Wendell H. Ford served as Kentucky’s Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky from 1967-71 alongside Gov. Louie Nunn, then as Governor from 1971-1974. From the Governor’s Mansion, Ford ran for and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974. Ford, a Democrat, served Kentucky in Washington from 1974 until 1999. His service was marked with stints as both minority and majority whip.

Ford was born in Daviess County in 1924. After serving in the Army, he went to school and entered the insurance business with his father. Ford then entered politics by serving as an executive assistant for Governor Bert T. Combs. Elected to the state senate in 1965, Ford was elected Lieutenant Governor two years later. Interestingly enough, Ford (a Democrat) served as second-in-command for Republican Louie Nunn at a time when the two office holders did not run as a slate. During his time as lieutenant governor, Ford essentially rebuilt the organization of the Democratic party in the Commonwealth.

The 1971 Democratic primary for governor was an eight-way race decisively won by Wendell Ford, impressive particularly given that former Governor Combs was among the challengers. The fall election was a four-way race with Ford winning again, beating an independent challenge by another former governor A. B. “Happy” Chandler.  By defeating two former, popular Democratic governors, Ford was able to cement his stronghold on his political party and end some of the sectionalism that had traditionally plagued state Democrats.

The Wendell Ford administration was marked by efforts of efficient government consolidation and certain higher taxes. Among them, the coal severance tax was imposed and both the corporate tax and the gasoline tax were raised. Offsetting these tax increases was the elimination of the sales tax on food items, something which Ford had previously sought the exemption of during the Combs administration. During his administration, Kentucky passed the Equal Rights Amendment and the University of Louisville was transferred from municipal to state control.  

Then, the Kentucky governor could not run for re-election to a consecutive term. Ford opted to run for the U.S. Senate in 1974 and was elected and re-elected until he retired in 1998. While in the U.S. Senate, Ford was involved in a number of issues and was decisively pro-Kentucky, pro-coal, and pro-tobacco. Among his accomplishments, the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act reduced aircraft noise and required airlines to better inform consumers. He supported the increase in the federal minimum wage, welfare reform, research of clean coal technology, and increased retirement benefits for coal miners. A final accomplishment which would have saved the government millions of dollars by using recycled paper and printing in volume through a centralized printing operation was never realized; although favorably reported out of committee, progress on the legislation was stymied by the Clinton removal trial following the President’s 1998 impeachment.
Ford’s seat was taken by Republican Hall-of-Famer Jim Bunning in 1998 and is now occupied by another western Kentuckian, Rand Paul. Today, Ford lives in Owensboro. His public papers are at the Owensboro Museum of Science and History along with a replica of his Senate office.