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Wendell H. Ford

In office
December 28, 1974 – January 3, 1999
Preceded by Marlow Cook
Succeeded by Jim Bunning

In office
December 7, 1971 – December 28, 1974
Lieutenant Julian M. Carroll
Preceded by Louie B. Nunn
Succeeded by Julian M. Carroll

In office
December 12, 1967 – December 7, 1971
Governor Louie B. Nunn
Preceded by Harry Lee Waterfield
Succeeded by Julian M. Carroll

Born September 8, 1924 (1924-09-08) (age 85)
Owensboro, Kentucky
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Jean Neal
Alma mater University of Kentucky
Religion Baptist
Military service
Service/branch United States National Guard
United States Army
Years of service 1944-1962
Rank Sergeant
Battles/wars World War II

Wendell Hampton Ford (born September 8, 1924) is a retired politician from the U.S. state of Kentucky. He was the first person to be successively elected lieutenant governor, the 53rd Governor of Kentucky, and U.S. senator in Kentucky history.[1] He was considered to be the leader of the state's Democratic Party from his election to governor in 1971 until his retirement from the Senate in 1999.[2]


Early life

Wendell Ford was born near Owensboro in Daviess County, Kentucky on September 8, 1924.[3] He was the son of Ernest M. and Irene Woolfork (Schenk) Ford.[4] His father was a state senator and ally of Kentucky Governor Earle C. Clements.[2]

Ford obtained his early education in the public schools of Daviess County and graduated from Daviess County High School.[5] From 1942 to 1943, he attended the University of Kentucky.[3] While there, he was a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. On September 18, 1943, Ford married Jean Neal of Owensboro.[4] The couple had two children.[5]

Ford left the University of Kentucky to join the army.[5] In 1944, he enlisted for service in World War II.[3] He was discharged in 1946 with the rank of sergeant.[4] He also served in the Kentucky National Guard for twenty years, beginning in 1942.[3] Following the war, Ford returned home to work with his father in the family insurance business.[4] He graduated from the Maryland School of Insurance in 1947.[3] Ford was very active in civic affairs, becoming the first Kentuckian to serve as president of the Jaycees.[4]

Political career

Ford served as executive assistant to Governor Bert T. Combs from 1959 to 1963.[3] In 1963 Ford returned to Owensboro after his mother's death to help his father in the family insurance agency. Although it was speculated he would run for Lieutenant Governor in 1963, Ford insisted he had decided not to re-enter politics until Governor Edward Breathitt asked him in 1965 to run against Casper "Cap" Gardner, the state senate's majority leader and a major obstacle to Breathitt's program of progressive legislation.[2] Ford won the election by only 305 votes but quickly became a key player in the state senate. Representing the Eighth District, including Daviess and Hancock counties, Ford introduced 22 major pieces of legislation that became law during his single term in the senate.[4]

In 1967, Ford ran for lieutenant governor, this time against the wishes of Breathitt and Bert Combs, whose pick was Attorney General Robert Matthews. Again it was an extremely close election as Ford defeated Matthews by 631 votes, just 0.2% of the total vote count in the primary.[2] Ford ran an independent campaign and was able to win in the general election even as Combs-Breathitt pick Henry Ward lost the race for governor to Republican Louie B. Nunn. In all, Republicans and Democrats split the state offices, with five going to Republicans and four going to Democrats.[4]

During his time as Lieutenant Governor Ford rebuilt the state's Democratic machine, which would help elect himself and others to statewide office, including Senator Walter Huddleston and Governor Martha Layne Collins.[2] From 1970 to 1971, he was a member of the Executive Committee of the National Conference of Lieutenant Governors.[6]


Governor of Kentucky

At the expiration of his term as lieutenant governor, Ford was one of eight candidates to enter the 1971 Democratic gubernatorial primary.[4] The favorite of the field was Ford's mentor, former governor Bert Combs.[4] During the campaign, Ford attacked the sales tax enacted during Combs' administration and Combs' age.[7] He also questioned why Combs would leave his better-paying federal judgeship to run for a second term as governor.[7] Ford garnered more votes than Combs and the other six candidates combined.[4] He attributed his unlikely win over Combs in the primary to superior strategy and Combs' underestimation of Ford's chances. Following the election, Combs correctly predicted "This is the end of the road for me politically."[7]

Ford went on to win the governorship in a four-way general election that included another former governor, A. B. "Happy" Chandler, who ran as an Independent.[4] Ford's closest rival, Republican Tom Emberton, fell more than 58,000 votes short of defeating him.[4] With both Combs and Chandler out of the picture, factionalism in the Kentucky Democratic Party subsided for the only time in the 20th century during Ford's administration.[7]

As governor, Ford raised revenue from a severance tax on coal, a two-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline, and an increased corporate tax.[5] He balanced these increases by exempting food from the state sales tax.[5] The large budget surplus allowed him to propose several construction projects.[5] Ford's primary success was largely due to carrying Jefferson County, and he returned the favor by approving funds to build the Commonwealth Convention Center and expand the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center.

Ford also oversaw the transition of the University of Louisville from municipal to state funding. He pushed for various reforms to the state's education system, giving up his own chairmanship of the University of Kentucky board of trustees, and extending voting rights to student and faculty members of university boards. These changes generally shifted administration positions in the state's colleges from political rewards to professional appointments.[2] He increased funding to the state's education budget and gave expanded powers to the Council on Higher Education.[5] He vetoed a measure that provided for collective bargaining for teachers.[5]

Ford drew praise for giving attention to the mundane task of improving the efficiency and organization of executive departments, creating several "super cabinets" under which many departments were consolidated.[5][8] During the 1972 legislative session, he created the Department of Finance and Administration, combining the functions of the Kentucky Program Development Office and the Department of Finance.[8] Constitutional limits sometimes prevented him from combining like functions, but Ford made the reorganization a top priority and realized some savings to the state.[8]

A Supreme Court ruling that changed the state residency requirements for voting prompted Ford to call a special legislative session.[9] In addition to the needed changes to residency laws, Ford added to the agenda the creation of a state environmental protection agency, a refinement of congressional districts in line with the latest census figures, and ratification of the recently-passed Equal Rights Amendment.[10] All of these measures passed in the special session.[11]

Despite surgery for a brain aneurysm in June 1972, Ford attended the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida.[11] Ford supported the nomination of Edmund Muskie for president, but later greeted nominee George McGovern when he visited Kentucky.[11] Ford united the state's Democratic Party, allowing them to capture the seat a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1972 for the first time since 1956.[4] The seat was vacated by the retirement of Republican John Sherman Cooper and won by Ford's campaign manager, Walter "Dee" Huddleston.[7]

During the 1974 legislative session, Ford proposed a six-year study of coal liquefaction and gasification in response to the 1973 oil crisis.[5] He also increased funding to human resources and continued his reorganization of the executive department, creating cabinets for transportation, development, education and the arts, human resources, consumer protection and regulation, safety, and justice.[8] He was considered less ruthless than previous governors in firing state officials who had been hired by the previous administration.[11] He expanded the state merit system to cover some state workers that were previously exempted.[11] Despite the expansion, he was criticized for the replacements he made, particularly that of the state personnel commissioner appointed during the Nunn administration.[11] Critics also cited the fact that employees found qualified by the merit examination were still required to obtain political clearance before they were hired.[11]

Among Ford's other accomplishments was passage of reforms to the state's criminal justice system. He continued to be active in national Democratic politics, being elected chair of the Democratic Governors' Conference from 1973 to 1974.[6] He also served as vice-chair of the Conference's Natural Resources and Environmental Management Committee.[8] Immediately following the 1974 legislative session, he announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Marlow Cook.[12]

A primary issue during the election was the construction of a dam on the Red River.[12] Cook opposed damming the river, but Ford supported it and allocated some of the state's budget surplus to its construction.[12] In the election, Ford defeated Cook by a vote of 399,406 to 328,982, personally completing his revitalization of the state's Democratic party by ousting the last Republican from major office.[2] Cook resigned his seat in December so that Ford would have a higher standing in seniority in the Senate.[12] Ford resigned as governor to accept the seat, leaving the governorship to Lieutenant Governor Julian M. Carroll.[4]

Corruption probe

In the wake of the rapid ascent of Ford and members of his faction to the major political offices of the state, he and his successor as Governor, Julian Carroll, were investigated for corruption for their actions as governor. The 4-year probe began in 1977 and focused on an alleged state insurance kickback scheme that operated during Ford's tenure as governor. In June 1972, Ford had purchased insurance policies for state workers from some of his political backers without competitive bidding.[11] State law did not require competitive bidding, and earlier governors had engaged in similar practices.[11] Investigators believed there was an arrangement in which insurance companies getting government contracts split commissions with party officials, although Ford was suspected of conspiring to allow the practice for political benefits rather than personally profiting financially from it.[13]

In 1981, prosecutors asked for indictments against Ford and Carroll on racketeering charges but a grand jury refused. Because grand jury proceedings are secret, what exactly occurred has never been publicly revealed. However, state Republicans charged over the years that Ford took the Fifth Amendment while on the stand, invoking his right against self-incrimination. Ford refused to confirm or deny this report.[2]

United States Senate

Ford entered the Senate in 1974 and was reelected in 1980, 1986 and 1992. During the Ninety-fifth Congress (1977–1979), Ford was chairman of the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences.[3] From 1977 to 1983, he was a member of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.[3] During the Ninety-eighth Congress (1983–1985), he served on the Select Committee to Study the Committee System, and he was a member of the Committee on Rules and Administration in the One Hundredth through One Hundred Third Congresses (1987–1995). During the One Hundred First and One Hundred Third Congresses, he also served on the Joint Committee on Printing.[3] From 1991 to 1999, he served as Democratic Senate whip.[6] In 1999, he became the longest-serving senator ever from the state of Kentucky.[12]

Ford was content to be a back-room dealer in the Senate, moderating differences between various factions in the party and securing legislation that would benefit his state.[12] His role brokering compromises between Democrats was bolstered by positions as party whip and chairman of the Rules Committee. While serving on various aviation subcommittees, he secured funds to improve the airports in Louisville and northern Kentucky.[12] As he had done in Kentucky, he saved the government millions of dollars in printing costs while serving on the Joint Committee on Printing.[12] He was a key player in securing passage of the motor voter law in 1993.[12] He voted against the Panama Canal Treaty, as he perceived it to be unpopular with Kentucky voters.[12] In 1996, he was chairman of Bill Clinton's inaugural committee.[14]

Ford was known nationally for his support of tobacco growers as he advocated for tobacco price-support and against higher tobacco taxes. Kentucky's largest newspaper, the Courier-Journal, called Ford "tobacco's strongest champion in Washington" and said his departure from the Senate marked the end of an era of government protection for tobacco.[15] In the Senate Ford also found funding to expand both large and small Kentucky airports and secured health benefits for coal miners. Near the time of his retirement he said of his career: "I wasn't interested in national issues, I was interested in Kentucky issues." He listed his successful sponsorship of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 as one of his favorite accomplishments of his senate career.[2]

His overall voting record was moderate to conservative. Early in his career he supported a constitutional amendment against busing for school desegregation and he voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.[2] Ford chose to retire in 1998; his open seat was won by Republican Jim Bunning.

His senate legacy was praised by Al Gore among others, including Robert Schwarz Strauss, who said "No state was better represented in the United States Senate than Kentucky was when it had Wendell Ford there." Others, such as John Stempel, a professor at the University of Kentucky, said Ford "could have taken a more active role in foreign affairs".[2]


Ford didn't run for a fifth term in 1998, electing instead to retire to Owensboro, although he worked for a time as a consultant to Washington lobbying and law firm Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky.[16] At the time of his retirement, Ford was the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history.[17] In January 2009, Mitch McConnell surpassed Ford's mark of 24 years in the Senate.[17]

In August 1978, the U.S. 60 Bypass around Owensboro was renamed the Wendell H. Ford Expressway.[18] The Western Kentucky Parkway was also renamed the Wendell H. Ford Western Kentucky Parkway during the administration of Governor Paul Patton.[19] In 2009, Ford was inducted into the Kentucky Transportation Hall of Fame.[20]

Ford currently teaches politics to the youth of the Owensboro, Kentucky community from the Owensboro Museum of Science and History, which houses a replica of Ford's Senate office.


  1. ^ Jones in Kentucky's Governors, p. 211
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Cross, 1A
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Ford, Wendell Hampton". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Powell, p. 110
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Harrison in The Kentucky Encyclopedia, p. 342
  6. ^ a b c "Kentucky Governor Wendell Hampton Ford". National Governors Association
  7. ^ a b c d e Harrison in A New History of Kentucky, p. 415
  8. ^ a b c d e Jones, p. 214
  9. ^ Jones, p. 212
  10. ^ Jones, pp. 212–213
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i Jones, p. 213
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Jones, p. 215
  13. ^ Babcock, A4
  14. ^ Jones, p. 216
  15. ^ Ward, 1A
  16. ^ Cross, p. 1B
  17. ^ a b "Milestone: McConnell's long tenure marked with distinction"
  18. ^ Lawrence, "Bypass at 40"
  19. ^ Kocher, p. A1
  20. ^ Covington, "Ford inducted into Transportation Hall of Fame"


External links

Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by
Hugh McKenna
President of the United States Jaycees
Succeeded by
Chuck Shearer
Party political offices
Preceded by
Harry Lee Waterfield
Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky
Succeeded by
Julian M. Carroll
Preceded by
Henry Ward
Democratic nominee for Governor of Kentucky
Succeeded by
Julian M. Carroll
Preceded by
Katherine Peden
Democratic Nominee for the United States Senate (Class 3) from Kentucky
1974, 1980, 1986, 1992
Succeeded by
Scotty Baesler
Preceded by
Alan Cranston
Senate Democratic Whip
Succeeded by
Harry Reid
Political offices
Preceded by
Harry Lee Waterfield
Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky
Succeeded by
Julian M. Carroll
Preceded by
Louie B. Nunn
Governor of Kentucky
Succeeded by
Julian M. Carroll
Preceded by
Alan K. Simpson
Senate Minority Whip
Succeeded by
Harry Reid
Preceded by
Alan Cranston
Senate Majority Whip
Succeeded by
Trent Lott
United States Senate
Preceded by
Marlow W. Cook
United States Senator (Class 3) from Kentucky
Served alongside: Walter Huddleston, Mitch McConnell
Succeeded by
Jim Bunning


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