WASHINGTON – Former Senate Majority Whip Wendell Ford, D-Ky., has died. He was 90 years old.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced Ford’s death on the floor Thursday morning, calling him “a proud Kentuckian.” McConnell quoted Ford. who often called himself “'a dumb country boy with dirt between his toes.’”
McConnell said Ford’s work in the Senate “would prove he was anything but.”
A former governor of Kentucky and 24-year veteran of the Senate, Ford established himself as a kingmaker in his state’s politics. He also served as a key negotiator for Senate leadership as his party’s whip from 1991 to 1999.
Ford first reinvigorated the Kentucky Democratic political machine as the state’s lieutenant governor in 1967. Four years later, he defeated his mentor, Bert Combs, in the Democratic primary for governor. He served as governor until his election to the Senate in 1974.
He got a few weeks’ early start to his Senate tenure in late December 1974 when the incumbent Sen. Marlow Cook, R-Ky., resigned so that Ford would have greater seniority.
Ford focused much of his tenure on issues central to Kentucky, such as protecting the tobacco industry. He used his seat on the Senate Commerce Committee to exempt tobacco from the 1972 Consumer Product Safety Act, which established the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Fellow Kentucky Democratic Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston also used his position on the Senate Agriculture Committee on behalf of Kentucky tobacco farmers.
But Ford also set eyes on climbing the Senate leadership ladder. He first ran for majority whip in 1988, but lost to the 11-year incumbent whip Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif. Two years later, Ford launched another campaign for whip and won.
In 1994, Ford considered running for Senate minority leader to replace retiring Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, but ceded the race to endorse Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., ultimately won the post.
He retired in 1999 to return to his hometown of Owensboro, Ky. Ford and his wife, Jean Neal, had two children.