Saturday, July 06, 2002

Wallace Wilkinson dead at 60


His legacy as governor includes lottery, schools

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — Former Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, under whom voters approved a state lottery and the General Assembly overhauled public schools, but whose business empire collapsed in bankruptcy years after he left office, died Friday. He was 60.

        Mr. Wilkinson had been recently battling a recurrence of lymphatic cancer first diagnosed when he was governor.

Wilkinson
Wilkinson
        Mr. Wilkinson had received life support for the last nine days and suffered a massive stroke on Thursday. He died at 4 p.m. at St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington, said Robert J. Brown, an attorney for Mr. Wilkinson.

        “The family met with him and decided to withdraw life support, and I was there with Martha and her sister and Andrew when the doctor had told us the governor had died,” Mr. Brown said.

        Funeral arrangements were pending. A service will be held in Lexington, Mr. Brown said.

        Mr. Wilkinson is survived by his wife, Martha, and two sons, Andrew and Glenn.

        A Democrat, Mr. Wilkinson was governor from 1987 to 1991. He ran as a fresh face, a self-made and audacious millionaire who started a used-book store as a teen-ager and built it into a national company, later starting an Internet textbook company, ecampus.com.

        Highlights of Mr. Wilkinson's administration were creation of the Kentucky Lottery, which he had pushed as an alternative to higher taxes, and enactment of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, which, ironically, was accompanied by a $1 billion tax increase.

        House Majority Caucus Leader Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, called the former governor “a very dynamic person.”

        “He was small in stature, but tough in authority,” Mr. Callahan said. “He got things done.”

        Mr. Callahan was one of a handful of state legislators who supported Mr. Wilkinson's somewhat dark-horse bid for governor in 1987, in large part because of his support for creating a state lottery as a revenue source.

        “Of the things he accomplished as governor, that was the big one,” Mr. Callahan said.

        Mr. Callahan gave Mr. Wilkinson credit for continuing funding for the AA Highway in Northern Kentucky.

        Mr. Wilkinson won the governor's race, Mr. Callahan said, “because he worked harder than anybody else.”

        “The day before the primary, he was out campaigning all over, stopping everywhere where there would be five people on a street corner,” Mr. Callahan said. His opponent, John Y. Brown Jr. “was out on the golf course,” Mr. Callahan said. The reform act included the setting of high performance standards and required that schools be held accountable for their results. It also greatly increased school funding.

        Mr. Wilkinson predicted that the act one day would be seen as “the watershed event in our history,” and he wanted it to be his legacy.

        “His courage and leadership, when faced with the inadequacies of funding for Kentucky schools, will be his legacy and has forever changed the future of Kentucky,” Gov. Paul Patton said Friday.

        Brereton Jones, who was lieutenant governor during Mr. Wilkinson's term and succeeded him as governor, often parted ways on political and policy topics.

        “Wallace was a fighter and it's sad when a fighter loses his last fight,” Mr. Jones said.

        Mr. Wilkinson was dogged throughout his administration and afterward by questions about whether his public position also was good business for himself.

        Once elected, Mr. Wilkinson allegedly got a state-regulated company, Kentucky Central Life Insurance, to pay an inflated price for a money-losing hotel he owned in Frankfort.

        Kentucky Central later went bankrupt, and the state insurance commissioner sued Mr. Wilkinson. The former governor paid $11 million to settle the case in 1999.

        There were other dark episodes. Mr. Wilkinson was stricken with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma while in office. He feuded incessantly with the General Assembly. His appointments secretary, who also was his nephew, went to prison in a bribery scandal. A federal grand jury investigated Mr. Wilkinson himself, but he was never charged and indignantly denied any wrongdoing.

        Out of office, Mr. Wilkinson plunged back into business.In February 2001 a group of creditors, some of them longtime business or political associates, filed suit to have his companies seized.

        The suit touched off a highly public bankruptcy in which Mr. Wilkinson acknowledged his debts exceeded assets by more than $300 million. His main companies were rapidly liquidated, and many of his holdings were auctioned. Mr. Wilkinson moved his residence from Lexington to Florida during the bankruptcy. His wife also filed for bankruptcy.

        Back in Lexington for a deposition, Mr. Wilkinson was hospitalized with chest pains on May 26. Doctors found a mss in his chest and removed it on June 4. He never left the hospital.

        Though prominent behind the scenes in Democratic politics, Mr. Wilkinson was largely unknown to the voting public when he plunged into the 1987 governor's race. His primary opponents were four veteran campaigners — former Govs. John Y. Brown Jr. and Julian Carroll; Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear, who later became a nemesis in other ways, and Grady Stumbo, who had made a strong run for governor four years earlier.

        Mr. Wilkinson made education his campaign centerpiece. He sneered at “assembly line education” and said nothing short of a total makeover of public schools would raise the state's near-bottom ranking. Part of his mantra was that Kentucky children “don't have a learning problem; they've got a schooling problem.”

        But it was a different issue — a call for a lottery instead of more taxes — that gave his candidacy wings. Mr. Wilkinson won the Democratic nomination with 35 percent of the vote. In the general election, he swamped the Republican nominee, state Rep. John Harper of Bullitt County. Mr. Wilkinson got 65 percent of the vote and carried all but five of the state's 120 counties.

        Once Mr. Wilkinson took office, the General Assembly proposed an amendment to repeal the 1891 constitution's ban on state lotteries, and voters approved it in 1988.

        Mr. Wilkinson also wanted a second amendment — one to allow himself and other constitutional officers to run for a second term. An amendment bill passed the House but died in the Senate.

        With her husband unable to succeed himself, Martha Wilkinson had a brief candidacy for governor herself. While Wallace said the decision to get into the campaign — and ultimately get out — was Martha's, her platform rested entirely on continuing his administration.

        The Martha candidacy, plus Mr. Wilkinson's appointment of himself to the University of Kentucky board of trustees, convinced many opponents that Mr. Wilkinson really wouldn't let loose of his political influence.

        But when his term was over, Mr. Wilkinson mostly retired into the business world. His last shots came in a book, You Can't Do That, Governor, after leaving office. His contempt for conventional and political wisdom is one of its themes.

        Noting that all but a handful of legislators had backed his opponents for governor, Mr. Wilkinson said he was deliberately confrontational with the General Assembly.

        “I came into office understanding that I would have to put up a fight for some of the things I wanted,” Mr. Wilkinson wrote. “All this talk about "working with the General Assembly' actually was nonsense. ... From a practical standpoint, I really had no other option than to enter into open political warfare with the legislature.”

        In 1989, the Kentucky Supreme Court declared the public school system unconstitutional because of funding inequities based on property taxes and property values.

        The reform act was crafted and passed a year later, along with an increase in the sales tax to generate $1.1 billion. Mr. Wilkinson went along, getting in return approval of a bond issue with which to launch road projects he had promised in his campaign.

        Economic development events during Mr. Wilkinson's administration included a major expansion of Delta Air Lines in northern Kentucky. In addition, Scott Paper Co. built a plant near Owensboro and a Spanish-owned steel company, North American Stainless, placed a plant near Carrollton.

        Mr. Wilkinson was diagnosed with cancer in 1991, his final year in office. He underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and radiation treatment at the University of Kentucky. Aside from some loss of hair, Mr. Wilkinson showed no visible effects of the disease, and his physician said he had an excellent chance of recovery.

        Associated Press Writer Charles Wolfe and Enquirer Reporter Howard Wilkinson contributed to this story.

       



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