Gatewood Galbraith: Independent, unconventional candidate for governor

Audacious independent ignores polls, says he'll at least beat Williams

lblackford@herald-leader.comOctober 16, 2011 

  • Gatewood Galbraith

    Born: Jan. 23, 1947

    Party: Independent

    Occupation: Criminal defense attorney

    Education: bachelor's degree, University of Kentucky (1974); law degree, University of Kentucky School of Law (1977)

    Family: Divorced, three children

    Public office: None

    Web site:

Editor's note: This is the second story in a series about Kentucky's candidates for governor in the Nov. 8 election.

At 6-foot-4, Gatewood Galbraith stands out in a crowd, even at the annual Scarefest convention, where he weaves his way around Elvira impersonators, uniformed ghostbusters and a variety of aliens at the Lexington Civic Center on a recent Saturday.

He's wearing, as he always does, a coat, tie and wide-brimmed fedora. And he's campaigning, as he always does, too — this time as an independent candidate for governor.

He has lost seven political races but, as hope springs eternal, so, it seems, does Galbraith. At Scarefest, at least, he finds voters who appreciate his candor and unconventional platforms — which include favoring the licensing of medical marijuana and a ban on mountaintop-removal mining.

Beth Willinder of Stamping Ground voted for Galbraith four years ago, when he sought the Democratic nomination for governor.

"I think we need someone with original thinking," says Willinder, who is wearing a "Vampires from Hell" T-shirt. "We don't have that right now. He speaks out where everyone else would stay quiet."

Galbraith moves on amid the vampire contact lenses and blood-squirting machines, shaking hands and making easy chit-chat. He gets a lot of smiles, some of them fanged, when he pulls out one of his favorite lines: "If I was going to lie to you, I'd already be elected."

He explains the unconventional campaign stop by noting that the votes of Scarefest attendees will count the same as anyone else's.

"They're from all over the state. These are the people who will put us in, not corporate executives," he says.

With just a few weeks before the election, polls show Gov. Steve Beshear with a wide lead over Senate President David Williams. Galbraith and his running mate, Dea Riley, trail even further, getting support from less than 10 percent of respondents.

But as he has done at least seven times before, Galbraith dismisses the polls.

"It all happens in the last few weeks before the election," he said.

Certainly, Galbraith could benefit from electoral distaste. There are Republicans who object to some of the votes Williams has taken during his long tenure in the state Senate, but who couldn't vote for a Democrat. And there are Democrats who won't help a Republican into office, but who can't stomach Beshear's support of policies that benefit the coal industry.

"I certainly think it's possible he could pick up votes from both sides," said Joe Gershtenson, director of the Kentucky Institute of Public Governance and Civic Engagement at Eastern Kentucky University. "It's certainly possible he could get 10 percent but, when push comes to shove, I think it will be less than that."

Still, Galbraith's supporters point to his tireless campaigning, his born politician's trick of remembering people's faces and names, and his ability to spin a pretty good yarn, as evidenced by his autobiography, The Last Free Man in America Meets the Synthetic Subversion. Among many other things, he rants in the book against "petrochemical-pharmaceutical-military-industrial-transnational-corporate-fascist-elite-SOBs."

In short, backers say, he makes politics entertaining in these times of neatly packaged, on-message candidates.

"I've got a certain derring-do about me," he said with his radio voice, smoothed by his Carlisle accent and years of smoking, both therapeutic and not. "I'm an explorer for the truth in a jungle of political overgrowth."

Political platform

When pressed, Galbraith admits that he might not win, but he firmly asserts he will come in second ahead of Williams, something that he says would "put the Republican Party back a generation." While dismissive of both political parties, he has special ire for the Republicans, who he says have forsaken the beliefs of "true conservatives" such as Barry Goldwater.

"Newt (former House Speaker Gingrich) and Mitch (Senate Minority Leader McConnell) are aliens, not conservatives," he said. "They never met a bloated police state they didn't like."

But Galbraith says he can pull from both parties with a platform that embraces views on gun and property rights espoused by Tea Party movement conservatives, and views on medical marijuana and environmental issues espoused by liberals.

Galbraith is somewhat scarred by his longtime advocacy for hemp and medical marijuana, but he says politics is the only way to truly broadcast his views. He would like to see changes to federal drug laws, allowing states to license marijuana for private and medical consumption, and to tax it to help build up state coffers.

This year, with the help of Riley, he also is campaigning against mountaintop-removal mining, the controversial system of blowing up mountains to excavate coal. He says it fits into his stance on property rights because mountaintop removal so often affects private property.

Galbraith's proposals include a plan to curtail no-bid personal service contracts in state government, which he says would free up millions of dollars for education. He would buy every eighth-grader in Kentucky a laptop computer and give every high school graduate a $5,000 voucher for books, tuition and fees at any Kentucky school.

He also would take on tax reform by ending the state income tax and extending the sales tax to many services.

How he would implement all these proposals with a Democratic state House and a Republican state Senate remains unclear.

"There is no doubt I would have a great deal to learn about the inner workings of state government," he conceded, "but people who are getting things done don't have anything to fear. We rank so low in national rankings, we'd be hard-pressed to mess it up anymore."

Financial trouble

Born in Carlisle, Galbraith was one of seven children. He spent much of his childhood in Lexington and attended the University of Kentucky Law School. He has been married twice and has three adult daughters.

He said he was first inspired by seeing Gov. Bert Combs give a July 4 speech in Carlisle in 1954, then he got to shake John F. Kennedy's hand when Kennedy was out campaigning in 1960.

When asked why he puts himself through the rigors of another campaign, he says it's about having the right bullhorn: "My ego doesn't say you have to be governor; my ego says you're strong enough, you need to put these ideas out there."

But Galbraith's ego is still a bit of a mystery, even to his friends.

"I've always encouraged him to focus more than he does. He's always quick to go off the reservation," said Terry McBrayer, lawyer, lobbyist and political kingmaker, who breakfasts with Galbraith several times a week at Hanna's on Lime. "He's a kind, compassionate guy who has struggled with where he wants to be at the end of the day. I'm not certain if he wants to be a public servant, or a lawyer, or a guru. If he would ever slow down to focus on one of those, he'd be good at it."

Slowing down is not part of the Galbraith repertoire. He has an active criminal-defense practice, he campaigns all over the state and, in many ways, he has the heart of a guru who wants to lead people into the truth of all of marijuana's benefits.

He has long struggled with finances.

"Losing statewide elections doesn't pay worth a damn," he quipped.

Galbraith suffered through a bankruptcy in 1993 after a dispute with a business partner. He has stacks of state and federal tax liens, some of which have been released and some of which have not. He's now on a payment plan to pay them all off, he said, but he has no idea about the totals he owes right now.

On one federal tax lien, he owed more than $214,000 for taxes owed between 2002 and 2008.

He also was sued by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government for failing to pay occupational licensing fees, according to court documents, but he is now up to date.

In his most recent campaign finance report, filed last week, Galbraith's campaign had spent $163,303. The campaign reported having $2,515 in cash on hand and total debts of $179,181. His fund-raising numbers are dwarfed by the millions of dollars spent by his opponents.

"A lot of our contributions are $10 or $20," he said.

No matter what happens Nov. 8, Galbraith says, he'll keep shaking hands and spreading his political beliefs.

"Win or lose," he said, "I feel confident; I'm following my path."

Herald-Leader reporters Jack Brammer and Beth Musgrave contributed to this article.

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