Martha Jane King, one of the Democrats taken out when Republicans seized control of the Kentucky House of Representatives in the Trump landslide this month, is the granddaughter of Rayburn Smith, an old-time politician who taught me a lot about how the world used to work in Kentucky when I became the weekly editor at Russellville in Logan County nearly 60 years ago.
A lot of what I didn’t learn from Rayburn I picked up from Lawrence Forgy, the Logan Republican leader and father of Martha Jane’s friend, state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr now of Lexington. Alice of course is the sister of Larry Forgy, the Lexington attorney who lost two races for governor.
In Kentucky’s curious politics, Larry was once many Democrats’ favorite Republican, enjoying the shine from his mentor, U.S. Sen. John Sherman Cooper, as he and his father tried to run “ballot box” security against the dominant courthouse machine in what was known as “the Free State of Logan County.”
“Free State?” scoffed Rayburn Smith, a cog in the Democrat machine when I met him my first day in Kentucky. “That’s just slang talk from soreheads who think we make up the rules.”
Rayburn was lanky, soft spoken, slow to smile, with a head like a skull and the doleful countenance of a country undertaker. When friends of Emerson “Doc” Beauchamp, the county Democratic boss and a kingmaker of governors, were running state government in Frankfort, Rayburn was the highway district “contact man” to channel messages to the engineers at Bowling Green.
Every six months, he was also the bagman who collected money to cover election expenses from highway workers and other state employees.
Rayburn’s election skills were honed in his youth. “I started driving the old folks to the precincts when I was 13,” he once told me. “I guess I didn’t vote ’em until I was 15 or 16.”
A part-time farmer and a deacon in the First Baptist Church, Rayburn was also the best poker player in Logan County. When he passed the collection plate on Sundays, some folks wondered if it was the beginning or the end of his work week.
His granddaughter, Martha Jane King, heard all these courthouse stories when she was a child. While I’m sure she never finagled a vote, she inherited Rayburn’s people skills and was finishing her fourth term in Frankfort when what she calls “the dark money” swamped her.
Two months before the November election, a blizzard of negative ads about her descended on the county, she told me in a phone call last week. Verifying what other friends in Logan reported earlier, she said they appeared with pictures of her and Hillary Clinton side by side, asserting that Clinton was luring illegal Mexicans across the border and Martha Jane was buying them driver’s licenses.
Other door-knob messages proclaimed she favored abortion, same-sex marriages and had abandoned the Christian values of the people who elected her. Full color ads in my former paper and on Nashville TV’s Fox broadcasts continued the attacks, she said. Despite $40,000 in contributions from Democratic sources, she was outspent “a half-millon dollars,” she said.
Americans for Prosperity and other PACS linked to the Koch Brothers drowned out her defenses in the statewide campaign that took control of the House from Democrats for the first time since 1921. She lost by 2 to 1 to Jason Petrie, a lawyer in Todd County who changed his party affiliation before he filed against her. She had defeated him two years ago.
“I’m not whining and I’m not through with politics” she said. “But all the work I did for our county was forgotten when truth was overcome by perception. I never said one negative word about my opponent, but I think from Hillary to Martha Jane there is still resentment about women in politics — still to be dealt with another day.”
I came to Logan County, in western Kentucky when it was known as “the Gibraltar of Democracy.” From an early career ruined by booze in New Orleans, I found sobriety and many wonderful folks to cherish before I left Russellville for Washington 36 years ago. For two decades of Thanksgivings in the Free State I walked a path from despair to optimism.
Talking to Martha King whose sunny disposition remains unbroken, I recalled the strong Kentuckians who patched me up. I’m thankful others like them are still out there for the healing struggle.
Veteran journalist Al Smith, Lexington, former chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission, was founding host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky.” He is writing his third memoir.