Thanks to the trust of the people of Kentucky, I’ve received the privilege of another term in the U.S. Senate. That’s an extraordinary gift from the voters, and I’m grateful to have the next six years to serve our Commonwealth and our country.
As a new Congress and a new presidential administration begin, I look for lessons from great Kentuckians who have served our state in public office in the past. One who stands out is Wendell Ford.
Wendell and I served together in the Senate, and I got to work alongside him and watch him up close for many years. In that time I learned why he is the first and only Kentuckian to be elected successively lieutenant governor, governor, and senator.
It’s because even while he attained high office, he never forgot the lessons he learned working alongside his parents on their Daviess County farm. Countless times he reminded voters he was “just a country boy from Yellow Creek.” And Kentuckians respected him for proving that a country boy could walk the corridors of power, dine with kings and presidents, and still come back to Yellow Creek and be right at home.
Wendell was viewed as the underdog in his races for state senator, lieutenant governor, and governor-but he won every one. After a term as governor where he successfully enacted every major point of his platform, Wendell decided he was not finished serving the people of Kentucky just yet. Winning election to the U.S. Senate in 1974, he began a tenure that would last 24 years.
After my election in 1984, I served alongside him for 14 of those years. Obviously, Wendell Ford and I didn’t stand on the same side of the aisle. But we always stood together for the people of Kentucky.
With Wendell, whether you agreed or disagreed, you always knew where you stood. And even if you disagreed with him-which we often did-Wendell knew how to disagree without being disagreeable.
With his sense of humor, a penchant for storytelling that rivaled his childhood hero Senator Alben Barkley, and his ability to establish friendship and trust, Wendell quickly became a leader amongst his Senate colleagues. He served a stint running the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and rose to become chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.
In 1990, Wendell’s fellow Democratic senators elected him to be their party’s whip, the number-two position in Senate leadership, and he held that slot until his retirement in 1999. He was elected by acclamation and without opposition.
That’s obviously a position of great responsibility and honor, and it speaks to the respect Wendell commanded from his fellow senators as well as all of official Washington.
After his election as whip, Wendell said, “In Kentucky we are known for our horses. I plan on being a work horse and not a show horse.” I think, knowing Wendell’s work ethic, no one doubted that he would give his all to the job.
In March 1998, Wendell became the longest-serving Senator in Kentucky history, a record he held for nearly 11 years. That’s just another accomplishment in a long list he has amassed over his extraordinarily successful tenure in both state and federal government.
How does a country boy from Yellow Creek achieve such success at the highest levels of American politics? I think it’s because no matter where he ended up, Wendell Ford never forgot where he started from.
And he never forgot the truly important things in his life: his wife Jean, their children and grandchildren, and the simple pleasures of the Bluegrass State.
As of January 10, 2009, I surpassed Wendell Ford as the longest-serving Senator to hail from Kentucky. Like him, I feel blessed to live in a country where a kid from any background can grow up to serve in such a meaningful way.
And like him, I feel honored to follow in the footsteps of such great senators past as Henry Clay, Alben Barkley, and John Sherman Cooper.
Wendell’s service will continue to remind me every day that with energy, determination, and principle, being the senator from Kentucky is the best job I could ever hope to have.
Over the next six years, as I work my hardest to better the lives of everyone in Kentucky and the country, I’m going to remember the lessons learned from his long career.
Mitch McConnell is the Republican Leader of the U.S. Senate.