FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Former U.S. Sen. and Kentucky Gov. Wendell Ford, an unapologetic smoker whose unfiltered chats and speeches endeared him to voters in a state that once thrived on tobacco and coal, has died at age 90.
Ford's health had declined in the last two weeks, said Mike Ruehling, who had worked for him both as governor and senator. Ford revealed over the summer that he was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for lung cancer. He died about 3 a.m. Thursday at his home in Owensboro, Ruehling said.
Ford will lie in state at the Kentucky Capitol on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a public memorial service scheduled for 3 p.m. His funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday in Owensboro.
Best known for his 25 years in the U.S. Senate and for helping to define a generation of Kentucky Democrats, Ford never identified with sweeping issues or great crusades. Instead, constituents knew he would always take time to stop by neighborhood corner stores to "buy a pack of cigarettes and chat a little."
But he also was the primary sponsor of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, known as the "motor-voter" bill, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It allowed eligible citizens to register to vote when they applied for or renewed a driver's license.
"He believed deeply in fairness - everyone doing their part, everyone getting a fair shot," President Barack Obama said.
Ford would sometimes ask photographers not to shoot until he could get a cigarette in his hand. A reception in his honor during the 1996 Democratic national Convention in Chicago was picketed by anti-tobacco protesters costumed as cigarette butts. And consumer activist Ralph Nader called him an "anti-consumer extremist."
"If they want to criticize me, that's fine," Ford replied. "But Kentucky is beautiful women, fast horses, bourbon whiskey, cigarettes and coal. I represent Kentucky, and that's what I represent."
Ford made a big impression on an 18-year-old Jack Conway, signing a picture of the two of them when they met in his Washington office. Conway is now the state's attorney general and Democratic candidate for governor.
"I keep (that picture) because I recall how extraordinarily kind and attentive he was to a high school kid, and it serves as a reminder to me of how people should be treated," Conway said.
Ford reveled in the political game. In 1971, when his former mentor and boss Bert T. Combs sought a second term as governor, Ford challenged him in the primary and won. In 1974, he ousted incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Marlow Cook.
He spent six years as the chief fundraiser for Senate Democrats and headed the National Democratic Governors Caucus during his last year in Frankfort. He remained politically active until last summer, when he announced he was being treated for lung cancer. The diagnosis kept him from campaigning for Alison Lundergan Grimes' failed attempt to oust Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.
But Republicans paused to honor Ford on Thursday. James Comer interrupted his news conference at the Capitol, where he was filing to run for governor, for a moment of silence in Ford's memory. And McConnell, Ford's longtime foe, spoke about Ford on the Senate floor.
"Ford shaped the history of the Commonwealth in ways few others had before him," McConnell said. "He never forgot the lessons about hard work he learned while milking cows or tending to chores on the family farm."
Ford was the last governor who was able to dominate the General Assembly by effectively picking its leaders and dictating its agenda. He got the legislature to remove the sales tax on food but balanced it by placing a severance tax on coal and increasing the state tax on gasoline. Spending on education increased sharply during his administration, and he vetoed a bill to give collective bargaining to teachers.
Ford tried to break into Senate leadership in 1988 but failed to oust Sen. Alan Cranston of California as majority whip, the post just below majority leader. Two years later, after Cranston had been implicated in a savings-and-loan scandal, Ford was elected whip without opposition.
"I relied heavily on his advice and support, especially when the outcome was unclear, the stakes were high, and the vote was close," Clinton said. "He had just the right balance of toughness and compassion, good humor and serious purpose."
Ford's only political crisis happened in 1980 and 1981 when a special federal grand jury investigated his gubernatorial administration and that of his successor, Julian M. Carroll.
Ford was never charged, but his name glared from an indictment of Howard "Sonny" Hunt, a former state Democratic chairman who took kickbacks from state insurance contractors.
Ford retired in 1998 rather than run for a fifth term in the Senate, citing the high cost of re-election. He said a new Senate campaign would have cost $5 million and that candidates were in danger of becoming "bit players ... managed and manipulated by paid consultants and hired guns."
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear got emotional when talking about Ford with reporters in his office Thursday afternoon. Beshear showed off a photo of him and Clinton in 1996, when Clinton was running for re-election and Beshear was running for the U.S. Senate.
"But if you look carefully, the face in the background is Sen. Wendell Ford," Beshear said pointing out the senator. "That's the role he relished. He was behind the scenes ... . And I really value this picture for that reason. It says so much, not about President Clinton or me, but it really says so much about Wendell Ford."
Associated Press Writer Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.