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Wendell Ford, Longtime Kentucky Senator, Dies at 90

Ford, left, made sure to attend Grimes' election eve rally in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Ford, left, made sure to attend Grimes' election eve rally in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Kentucky political legend and purveyor of Southern wit Wendell H. Ford has died.  

Ford, 90, had been undergoing treatment for lung cancer.  

A Democrat, Ford served in the Senate for 24 years before retiring at the end of his fourth term in 1999. Prior to being elected to the Senate, Ford served as Kentucky governor, lieutenant governor and did a stint in the state Senate.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised Ford and his humble beginnings, which McConnell said served him well throughout his life, including his time in the military.  

“He never forgot the lessons about hard work he learned while milking cows or tending to chores on the family farm,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “And this World War II veteran never backed down from a fight either. We imagine he approached his final battle with the same spirit.”  

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Ford “a fine man.”  

“As a new senator I met with him,” Reid said. “He said ‘I am from Kentucky, I drink Kentucky bourbon, and I smoke Kentucky cigarettes all the time’ … He was a fine man, people in Kentucky love him, as they should.”  

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Reid succeeded Ford as Democratic whip.  

Ford came to Washington in 1975 calling himself “a dumb country boy with dirt between his toes,” despite having previously winning statewide elections. He served as governor between 1971 through 1974, according to his CQ member profile.  

He was a staunch defender of, and advocate for, his rural constituents. As a member of the conference committee that produced the Telecommunications Act of 1996, he helped shaped the compromises that require companies to provide the same basic services to all Americans, regardless of geography or income.  

He also won an amendment to the 1996 farm bill for the Fund for Rural America program, to help pay for rural development projects such as water and sewage grants.  

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., also paid tribute to Ford.  

“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.  

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said that while Ford’s accomplishments are impressive, the man was even more so.  

“As great of a leader as he was, he was an even better person, never losing his one-of-a-kind sense of humor and kindness throughout his life,” Yarmuth said.  

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said in a statement that Ford was an example to all public servants. “In every office in which he served, his methods were simple: Wendell Ford listened, he cared, and he got the job done,” Beshear said.  

Ford would be among the last senators to light up cigarettes in committee hearings and brag about his state as the “the home of good whiskey, fast horses and beautiful women.” And he would prove himself among the deftest practitioners of Senate rules and folkways in his generation.  

Late in his career he found himself at odds with his party and President Bill Clinton over efforts to regulate tobacco, a significant interest in his state.  

After the Food and Drug and Administration was allowed to regulate cigarettes, Ford noted that “No one is against efforts to stop teen smoking, but turning over the responsibility to the FDA is like asking one of the Hatfields to baby-sit over at the McCoys.”  

Ford also served as Democratic whip from 1991 until his retirement. Serving as the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat under then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine and then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.  

Ford was seen as something of a conservative counterweight to Mitchell and later Daschle.  

At a news conference announcing his retirement, Ford expressed disdain for the extent to which campaigns had become about accumulating large amounts of wealth in campaign coffers.  

“The job of being a U.S. senator unfortunately has become a job of raising money,” Ford said.  

Despite his failing health, Ford rescheduled an election eve chemotherapy appointment in order to attend a campaign event at a labor union hall with Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic challenger to McConnell in the last cycle.  

Ford was featured regularly in Grimes’ stump speeches and the two embraced after the Owensboro event.  

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