Wendell H. Ford, Kentucky's most revered uppercase-D Democrat when he died Thursday at 90, was also a great lowercase-D democrat.
Ford championed equal rights and opportunities for working people and women during his 31 years as Kentucky's lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator. He is the only person to serve in all three offices consecutively.
His signal legislative accomplishment, the Motor Voter Act, made it easier for Americans to vote. He split with his party's president to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement because he knew it would cost the jobs of Kentucky factory workers. He helped pass the Family and Medical Leave Act.
As governor from 1971 to 1974, he got the legislature to enact the state's first severance tax on coal and to raise the gasoline tax to build roads, while exempting groceries, prescription drugs and farm equipment from the sales tax. He also got the legislature to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Even as Ford scaled the heights of power and became Senate majority whip in 1991, the self-professed "country boy from Yellow Creek" kept his feet planted on Kentucky soil. He was known for his down-home friendliness and work ethic.
Ford unapologetically defended the tobacco and coal industries, sometimes, in our view, to the long-term detriment of his constituents, such as when he put loopholes in the federal surface mining law that enabled the destruction of Kentucky mountains.
He once said he wasn't interested in national issues, he was interested in Kentucky issues. As chairman of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee he channeled money into the state's airports, including one in Hazard that bears his name.
When he decided not to seek a fifth Senate term, Ford cited his distaste for fund-raising. In 1997, he told the Washington Post, "Democracy as we know it will be lost if we continue to allow government to become one bought by the highest bidder, for the highest bidder. Candidates will simply become bit players and pawns in a campaign managed and manipulated by paid consultants and hired guns."
After retiring, he founded the Wendell H. Ford Government Education Center in his hometown of Owensboro, where students and others learn how to participate in democracy. He continued to campaign for Democrats up until his lung cancer diagnosis last summer.
The passing of the gravelly voiced Ford reminds us that not so long ago the Senate valued those who produce solutions above those who produce soundbites.