Politics & Government

Iconic Kentucky political figure Gatewood Galbraith dead at 64

Gatewood Galbraith
Gatewood Galbraith

Gatewood Galbraith, an iconic Kentucky political figure and perennial candidate who won many hearts but never enough votes, died early Wednesday, just two months after running his fifth campaign for governor.

He was 64. Mr. Galbraith died at home in his sleep after developing pneumonia that was complicated by chronic emphysema.

Although widely popular for his wit and unconventional stances, Mr. Galbraith's political life was led outside of Democratic and Republican party machinery, which meant he nearly always trailed in fund-raising totals. In addition to his five unsuccessful runs for governor, Mr. Galbraith also made failed bids for agriculture commissioner, U.S. representative and attorney general.

Between campaigns, Mr. Galbraith worked independently as a criminal defense attorney, and he often quipped that "losing statewide elections doesn't pay worth a damn."

Known universally by his first name, Gatewood was a recognizable figure around Lexington and the state, partly because of his imposing height and signature fedora, and partly because of his outspoken proposals to legalize marijuana and outlaw mountaintop-removal coal mining.

For a brief time Wednesday morning, news of his death was one of the top trending topics nationally on Twitter.

"He's the most colorful individual I've known in Kentucky politics in my life," said Terry McBrayer, a lawyer, lobbyist and longtime friend of Mr. Galbraith who ate breakfast with him frequently at Hanna's on Lime. "He didn't have a harmful bone in his body. He was a genuinely good person."

Mr. Galbraith was found at home in his bed by family members Wednesday morning, according to a report by Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn. The Lexington Division of Fire was called at 8:42 a.m., and Mr. Galbraith was pronounced dead at 9:19 a.m.

"I think he died sometime early this morning in his bed," Ginn said.

He said a family member told him that Mr. Galbraith had been sick for about a week. Mr. Galbraith's coldlike symptoms were complicated by chronic asthma and emphysema, Ginn said.

Dea Riley, Mr. Galbraith's running mate in the 2011 gubernatorial campaign, said she last talked to him Monday: "He had a terrible cold," she said. "He said it was the sickest he had ever been in his life."

Mr. Galbraith was best known for advocating the legalization of hemp and marijuana, which he insisted would help Kentucky's economic development, in addition to what he thought were the health benefits of smoking cannabis. He became friends with another advocate, country singer Willie Nelson, who campaigned with Mr. Galbraith in 1999.

His autobiography, The Last Free Man in America: Meets the Synthetic Subversion, described a bucolic childhood in Carlisle, where he caught the political bug as a boy when he saw a July 4 speech by Gov. Bert Combs.

Despite his win-loss record, Mr. Galbraith earned the respect of his foes, including Gov. Steve Beshear, who trounced him in the 2011 election.

"Jane and I were shocked and saddened to learn of Gatewood's passing," Beshear said Wednesday in a statement. "He was a gutsy, articulate and passionate advocate who never shied away from a challenge or potential controversy. His runs for office prove he was willing to do more than just argue about the best direction for the state — he was willing to serve and was keenly interested in discussing issues directly with our citizens. He will be missed."

Mr. Galbraith spent the latter part of his childhood in Lexington, where he attended the University of Kentucky and the UK School of Law. He was married twice and is survived by three adult daughters.

State Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, a former prosecutor, said Mr. Galbraith was one of the best trial attorneys she ever saw, and he often handled cases for the indigent without being paid.

"He had a kind heart," Stein said. "Lexington and Kentucky will not be nearly as interesting without Gatewood."

He filed for bankruptcy in 1993 and died still in debt for unpaid state and federal taxes.


Despite his financial woes, Mr. Galbraith spent long hours on the campaign trail around Kentucky. His political philosophy melded a smorgasbord of views, including ardent support for personal freedoms such as gun rights and medical marijuana alongside unbridled contempt for the big-money politics of Republicans and Democrats as practiced in Kentucky and around the United States.

He reserved special ire for Republicans, most recently calling former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell "aliens, not conservatives. They never met a bloated police state they didn't like."

But his political foes never seemed to hold a grudge. On Wednesday, McConnell said he was saddened to hear of Mr. Galbraith's death.

"He was a truly memorable character who loved our state and its people," McConnell said in a statement.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said: "Gatewood gave us political passion and conviction in a colorful and unforgettable character. He gave us his point of view, unvarnished, unfiltered, with the best wit and humor we could ever imagine."

During the 2011 election against Beshear and Senate President David Williams, Mr. Galbraith touted a plan to give every high school graduate a $5,000 voucher for books, tuition and fees at any Kentucky college. He also campaigned to modernize Kentucky's antiquated tax system and put an end to no-bid personal service contracts.

As politics became more packaged and homogenized, Mr. Galbraith often attracted supporters with his bold stances and the entertaining ways he described them. For example, he often ranted against the "petrochemical-pharmaceutical-military-industrial-transnational-corporate-fascist-elite SOBs."

During his 1995 campaign for governor, he was arrested after disrupting the Fourth of July parade in Lexington, which was honoring the anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. The parade theme, he said, "demeans the sacrifices of generations of American patriots who risked everything they had to create this free nation."

During the 2011 campaign, he called himself an "explorer for the truth in a jungle of political overgrowth."

In that campaign, Mr. Galbraith was able to pull disenchanted voters from both sides, beating Williams in more than half the precincts in Fayette County and winning 9 percent of the statewide vote.

McBrayer said he urged Mr. Galbraith to run for lesser office and get elected instead of shooting for major offices that required massive fund-raising.

"He was either real far ahead of his time or behind, but he was never on time," McBrayer said. "He didn't care so much about winning; he enjoyed running, he enjoyed discussing the issues. He always laughed to me, 'When I get elected governor, you're going to have to run it for me.'"

Beth Hanna, owner of Hanna's on Lime, said Mr. Galbraith took a walk through downtown neighborhoods as part of his fitness routine and would come to the restaurant for breakfast, wearing a fedora and talking to other regulars. In earlier years, Mr. Galbraith was an avid runner as well.

"He always had a great story to tell. He always had great ideas," Hanna said. "It was a nice banter. Nobody ever got upset. The views were right, left, middle."

For about the past 10 years, Wood Simpson played chess with Mr. Galbraith two or three times a week.

"Despite the fact that he never had much money, he used to go downtown on Sunday mornings and hand out dollar bills to the homeless and leave them with a few words of encouragement," Simpson said. "So he taught me to be more compassionate and to help the less fortunate. Gate's enormous heart and his beautiful soul are now everywhere in Kentucky, in the great mountains, in the small towns and in all the good people, everywhere."

'Thrilled to be a father'

While there were many public faces of Mr. Galbraith, his status as a devoted father and grandfather was less well known. Galbraith is survived by three daughters, Summer Sears Galbraith, Abby Sears Galbraith and Molly Galbraith; grandson Connor Gatewood Moldt; and granddaughter Ella Sears.

"I would get ... either phone calls or messages just telling me he was thinking about the people in his life who were most important to him and that he loved me more than anything," said Molly Galbraith. "He did the most amazing job of telling us how much he loved us and how proud he was of us and that he couldn't be more thrilled to be our father."

His ex-wife, Susan Sears, said "there is nothing that brought Gatewood more joy ... more contentment, more peace, more love or more pride than these three daughters and ... two grandbabies."

His family said in a statement that details would be forthcoming about "arrangements for celebrating Gatewood's life, and a way for everyone to honor his passion, his gifts and his legacy."

"The family greatly appreciates the outpouring of love and support for Gatewood," the statement said.

The Kentucky House of Representatives and Senate held moments of silence Wednesday in Mr. Galbraith's honor.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo ran against the Lexington lawyer twice during the past decade — once in a race for attorney general and in the 2007 governor's race.

Mr. Galbraith and he would spar in debates but would always walk out as friends, Stumbo said in a rare speech on the floor of the House.

"One of the most admirable things that could ever be said about someone is that they had the courage to stand up for what they believe," Stumbo said. "Whether you agreed with Gatewood or you didn't agree with him, I think we can all say we admire the courage that he had advocating his convictions."

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Wednesday at Milward Funeral Directors on North Broadway.

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