Tom Eblen: Come election time, we'll all miss Gatewood Galbraith

Wide-brimmed firebrand won a niche, if not an office, as independent

Herald-Leader columnistJanuary 5, 2012 

You could say a lot of things about Gatewood Galbraith, except that he was "just another politician."

Galbraith, who died Wednesday at age 64, was a Kentucky original.

Everyone knew him as Gatewood — as with Elvis, the last name eventually became superfluous. In fact, I'll bet if you showed most adult Kentuckians a tall, lanky silhouette of a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat, they would know immediately who it was.

Galbraith managed to become one of Kentucky's best-known politicians without ever being elected to anything. It wasn't for lack of trying. He ran for everything but the county line: attorney general, agriculture commissioner, congressman (twice) and governor (five times).

Criticized as a "perennial candidate," he responded that Kentucky had "perennial problems" that needed solving.

The Lexington criminal defense lawyer began in politics as a Democrat, talked like a libertarian and finally ran as an independent. Galbraith was nothing if not independent. He criticized both the New Deal's legacy and "greedy" corporations.

His best-selling 2004 autobiography was titled, The Last Free Man in America: Meets the Synthetic Subversion. The book's cover shows a smiling Galbraith holding a large machine gun, a bandoleer of bullets over each shoulder.

Perhaps the highlight of Galbraith's political career came last fall, when he ran as an independent against incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and the Republican nominee, state Senate President David Williams.

Galbraith got 9 percent of the vote, compared to Beshear's 56 percent and Williams' 28 percent. But he outpolled Williams in four counties: Bourbon, Woodford, his home county of Nicholas, and Franklin, where the county seat is also the state capital. Not bad for the low-budget campaign of an anti-politician politician.

A friendly man and a tireless campaigner, Galbraith could be a funny and effective stump speaker. He personified an independent streak that Kentuckians have admired since the days of Daniel Boone. Freed from any illusion of electoral victory, Galbraith spoke the truth as he saw it to anyone who would listen.

His most famous stand was for legalizing hemp and marijuana, which earned him the nickname "Gateweed." He was a strong supporter of gun-ownership rights.

He attracted many liberals' votes in his last campaign by calling for mountaintop- removal coal mining to be outlawed. That put him in sharp contrast to the major-party candidates, who embraced Kentucky's powerful coal industry.

Still, while many people admired and agreed with Galbraith's frank talk, they just couldn't bring themselves to vote for him. He looked and acted just a little too goofy to elect to public office, which, in Kentucky, is saying something.

"We need a credible Gatewood Galbraith," conservative columnist John David Dyche observed during a media and politics panel at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce's meeting last year in Louisville. I saw many in the audience nod in agreement.

After Galbraith delivered a withering takedown of Beshear at last summer's Fancy Farm picnic, I wrote that his remarks were "over the top."

Galbraith's response, in a letter to the editor, was this: "In reply to Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen's assertion that I 'went over the top' in my Fancy Farm speech, I note that those who never go 'over the top' always stay in the same rut."

As was often the case, Galbraith had a good point.

Kentucky will be a poorer state now that he no longer will be around at election time.

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800- 950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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