Wendell H. Ford, a former Kentucky governor and longtime Democratic U.S. senator, died Thursday at his Kentucky home. He was 90.
Ford had publicly acknowledged last year that he was battling lung cancer, and his family and state officials confirmed his death.
“Wendell Ford first came to the Senate in the 1970s, calling himself just ‘a dumb country boy with dirt between his toes,’” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor. “But, over a distinguished two-decade career, this workhorse of the Senate would prove he was anything but. I had the opportunity to watch my Senate colleague up close as he ascended to leadership in his party and established himself as a leader on issues of importance to my state.”
He served four terms in the Senate from 1974 until 1999, spending eight years in Democratic leadership. After he left office, Ford was often a consultant for Democratic candidates in Kentucky.
Prior to his time in Washington, Ford served as governor for a single term from 1971 until 1974. He also served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and helped work across the country to get Democrats elected.
A champion of populist causes, Ford, among other things, supported increases to the federal minimum wage.
Gratitude for the man some called the patriarch for Kentucky Democratic politics began to flood in from both sides of the aisle on Thursday.
In a statement released by the White House, President Obama lauded Ford as a “formidable political strategist.”
“He fought to make sure all Americans had equal access to the polls, championed paying workers a decent wage and extending a helping hand to those looking for work, and mentored scores of young people who entered public service with Wendell’s advice and support. Few in politics were as admired as he, and few have had as great an impact on his beloved Kentucky,” Obama said in a statement.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Ford served the state with “honor and purpose.”
“I am honored to sit behind the same desk and serve in the same seat as Sen. Ford, a man so dedicated to his party, our state and this country,” Paul said in a statement.
Former President Clinton called Ford a “fine man” and a great senator.
“I relied heavily on his advice and support, especially when the outcome was unclear, the stakes were high, and the vote was close. I’ll always be grateful that Wendell walked me out to my second inauguration,” Clinton said in a statement. “He was a devout believer in the power of good government to bring opportunity and prosperity to everyone. He had just the right balance of toughness and compassion, good humor and serious purpose.”
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat who lost to McConnell in last year’s midterm election, called Ford a close friend.
“He was a true statesman and deeply loved KY and its people,” she wrote on Twitter.
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