Ex-lawmaker known for social advocacy

jbrammer@herald-leader.comSeptember 12, 2009 

FRANKFORT — The son of a Republican governor, Steve Nunn forged a political career as a state lawmaker and health official who advocated for the poor and disabled.

On Friday, another picture of Nunn emerged as police found the 56-year-old with slit wrists near his parents' grave site in Hart County. Hours earlier, his former fiancée, Amanda Ross, was found shot to death in Lexington. Police said they want to question Nunn in relation to Ross's death.

"Steve has always been known as a very compassionate fellow, not a violent bone in his body," said Lexington attorney Larry Forgy, who has known Nunn for more than 40 years.

"What has transpired here is totally out of character for him," Forgy said.

Nunn served in the House of Representatives from 1991 to 2006 and was known as a champion of the little guy — the poor, those with mental illness, the disabled, and kids in foster care. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2003.

"Steve Nunn was a very caring and compassionate legislator," said Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, who had worked with Nunn on several key pieces of legislation.

Lee said he had not spoken to Nunn since Nunn resigned as deputy secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services in March after he was ordered by a judge to stay away from Ross following a domestic violence incident.

"I know that he had some personal problems," Lee said.

Many of the state's more progressive social programs have Nunn's fingerprints on them, said Sheila Schuster, an advocate for the mentally disabled and mentally ill.

"I can't think of a time that we ever went to him for help and he turned us down," Schuster said. "I can't think of a single issue involving people with mental illness or mental disabilities that Steve wasn't involved with."

In 2001, Nunn successfully pushed a bill that allowed foster-care children and former foster-care children to go to state universities for free. Cabinet for Health and Family services data show that more than 2,500 kids have taken advantage of the college program.

Nunn was born into politics. He noted in a 2003 interview that on his birthday — Nov. 4, 1952 — Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president and Republican John Sherman Cooper from Somerset was elected to the U.S. Senate.

At age 15, Nunn moved with his parents, Louie and Beula Nunn, and sister, Jennie Lou Penn, from Glasgow to the Governor's Mansion. His father was the state's chief executive from 1967 to 1971.

After graduating from Frankfort High School in 1970, Nunn received a bachelor's of arts degree in political science and history from Transylvania University in 1975. He attended the University of Louisville law school for one year.

In 1987, Nunn bought half of an insurance business in Glasgow. Three years later, he decided to run for the state House seat vacated by Democrat Bobby Richardson.

Nunn, who later got a job as a physician recruiter and consultant to the T.J. Samson Community Hospital in Glasgow, served in the state House until 2006, when he lost a re-election bid to Democrat Johnny Bell.

In 2004, while accepting an award for his late father from the University of Kentucky Center for Research on Violence Against Women, Nunn was praised for his commitment to combat abuse and violence during his tenure in the General Assembly. Nunn, twice divorced, has three grown children from his first marriage.

Glasgow attorney Walter Baker was a state senator during part of Nunn's tenure in the state House.

"I considered him very able, a committed legislator," Baker said. "He had a lot of compassion for people in distress economically and medically and devoted most of his political career to that area."

Baker called Friday's news "a profound tragedy for everyone involved."

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