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. He was 90.
Ford revealed last summer that he had lung cancer. He died early Thursday at his home in Owensboro, Ky., according to Mike Ruehling, who worked for him when he was governor and senator.
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.”
His public appearances were sometimes picketed by anti-tobacco protesters, 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.”
Born Sept. 8, 1924, Ford grew up in Owensboro. He attended the University of Kentucky before serving in the Army during World War II. He sold insurance before entering politics.
Elected governor in 1971, Ford dominated 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.
In 1974, he ousted incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Marlow Cook. Ford tried to break into Senate leadership in 1988 but failed to oust California Sen. Alan Cranston 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 retired in 1998 rather than run for a fifth term in the Senate, citing the high cost of reelection.
After he left office, Ford became a political consultant to Democratic candidates.