I have respected Ashley Judd ever since I first saw her 25 years ago on the Capitol steps in a scene that could have come from a movie:
Then-Gov. Wallace Wilkinson lit up at the sight of her familiar face in a crowd of hostile protesters. Just four months earlier, her famous mother and sister, country music superstars from Ashland, had performed at his inauguration.
The 20-year-old University of Kentucky student gave the governor no quarter. She was there as a leader of a protest demanding the removal of former Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler from the UK board over his use of a racist epithet. I was there as a reporter.
I don't remember her exact words, and there's no record in our archives, but I remember she gave Wilkinson a talking-to that left him looking chastened.
If memory serves, she drove a champagne-colored BMW to the protest, which told me that even at that tender age she wasn't one to be typecast. (Anti-racism activists who speak truth to power are militant non-materialists who drive crummy cars, right?)
The Herald-Leader did report that during the rally Judd criticized Wilkinson for standing by Chandler, denouncing what she called the "white, male buddy system."
This principled young woman grew into an accomplished actress, international humanitarian and political activist. She earned a master's degree in public administration from Harvard in 2010.
She's a smart, committed, serious person, which is why she should think hard about what she wants to accomplish next year and also about the possible unintended consequences if she runs for U.S. Senate.
Judd is Sen. Mitch McConnell's dream opponent.
If she's the Democratic nominee, the race will be about her, by virtue of her star power and McConnell's strategy.
The race should be about McConnell.
After five terms in the Senate and six years as its Republican leader, McConnell — and Kentucky voters — need a challenger who will force him to run on his record and defend it.
It's disappointing that Judd, who would have to move from Tennessee, is the only Democrat who has even tentatively stepped up.
McConnell is vulnerable, unpopular nationally and in Kentucky. A recent Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll found that McConnell's opponents in Kentucky outnumber his supporters two to one. Just 17 percent said they would vote for him, compared with 34 percent who said they plan to vote against him.
Forty-four percent said they will wait to see his opponent before deciding and 6 percent said they are not sure. The poll has a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.
This is a test for Kentucky Democrats: Can the party offer a candidate and vision that connect with the many voters looking to send someone new to Washington?
It's understandable that potential candidates would shy from taking on McConnell because of his enormous fund-raising advantage. Plus, whoever challenges him will be dragged through the mud by a grandmaster looking to deliver a career-ending blow.
But, honestly, if the Democratic Party can't rise to this opportunity, you have to wonder if it has a future in Kentucky.
Before deciding, Judd should talk to a lot more Kentuckians, not just prominent Louisvillians who have impressive national credentials but whose view of the home state's plowed ground is blurred by her dazzle.
Judd's own grandmother has called her a "Hollywood liberal," which won't play well in a state that has been trending to the right.
If Judd talks to more Kentuckians, she'll hear that Democrats are terrified the whole ticket will be pulled down if she's at the top next year when the state House is up for grabs.
Judd's best shot at unseating McConnell may be to help recruit another challenger and put her considerable passion, intelligence and fund-raising heft behind that person.
Reach Jamie Lucke at email@example.com or (859) 231-3340.