Wednesday, October 02, 2002

Judi shows grit, grace


'Women and children have benefited from her work as first lady and we are eternally grateful.'

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The murder of her father and the philandering of her husband frame the bookends of Judi Patton's life.

[photo] Judi Patton listens as her husband denies his relationship with Tina Connor Sept. 18.
(AP photo)
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        Fifty-two years ago, as a young girl she watched her father — an eastern Kentucky sheriff trying to run gamblers and bootleggers out of Pike County — die from a gunshot wound in front of the family's home.

        A little more than two weeks ago Mrs. Patton — the wife of Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton — watched as her husband tearfully confessed on TV to a two-year affair with a woman who claims he traded favors for sex.

        “What Judi Patton has been through, earlier in her life and now is a real tragedy,” said state Rep. Kathy Stein, a Lexington Democrat close to the first lady of Kentucky.

        But it would be wrong to portray Mrs. Patton, 62, as a woman victimized by the events of her life. She's East Kentucky wise, full of compassion and tough as a 9-pound hammer.

        Supporters say the first lady is a fighter, the daughter of a social worker who filled out her murdered husband's term as sheriff.

        Mrs. Patton has used the bully pulpit as first lady to work as a dedicated advocate for women and children on issues including domestic violence, crimes against children and women's health care.

        “I believe strongly that, along with the honor of this role of first lady, there comes a great responsibility to give something back to the citizens of the commonwealth,” Mrs. Patton is quoted as saying in the program published for the Gov. Patton's second-term inauguration..

        She has participated in the more ceremonial duties as the governor's wife — hosting the Kentucky Derby breakfast, handing out Halloween candy at the Governor's Mansion, reading to school children in public service announcements. Mrs. Patton has also taken the role of first lady to a higher political plane, her supporters say.

        “She has taken on issues that aren't traditional for first ladies,” said Ms. Stein, who has often worked with Mrs. Patton on legislation related to women and children. “And she has done so with a work ethic that has made it an absolute treasure to work with her.”

[photo] Judi Patton joins first ladies Judy O'Bannon of Indiana (left) and Hope Taft of Ohio on a public service announcement for reading,
(Enquirer photo)
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        Until Tuesday, when she participated in a private ceremony in the Governor's Mansion dealing with domestic violence, Mrs. Patton has not been seen or heard from since the Sept. 18 press conference in which her husband denied any relationship with Tina Conner, a western Kentucky nursing home operator.

        Mrs. Conner has accused the governor of using his office to grant her favors during their affair, which lasted from 1997 to 1999, but then retaliating against her and her nursing home after she ended the relationship.

        During the press conference, Mr. Patton, with his wife at his side, denied the abuse of power charge and claimed he had no relationship with Mrs. Conner, who has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit.

        Three days later, Mr. Patton wept almost uncontrollably as he admitted the affair. He continued to deny favoring or targeting Mrs. Conner's Clinton, Ky., nursing home.

        The governor's voice broke as he pronounced his wife's name, telling the state he had asked “Judi” for her forgiveness.

        Everyone knew who he meant, but she was not there.

        Mrs. Patton was not at that second news conference and was not seen in Frankfort or heard from for the next 10 days.

        She had left Frankfort for Pikeville, the couple's hometown, and had been staying with a sister in self-imposed exile until Tuesday's event, which the governor did not attend.

        “She needed to be away from everything happening in Frankfort,” Ms. Stein said.

        But at Tuesday's luncheon — an awards ceremony for people who have worked to reduce domestic violence — Ms. Stein said Mrs. Patton was “upbeat, charming and articulate, the Judi Patton we all know and love.”

        The first lady did not mention her husband's infidelity or legal problems during the luncheon.

        But when she was presented an award, the crowd of more than 100 rose to their feet and cheered.

        “There wasn't a dry eye in the place,” Ms. Stein said.

        Tina Conner was across town, being given immunity from prosecution in a four-hour meeting with the FBI and the Kentucky attorney general.

        Mrs. Patton is not giving interviews, according to the governor's press office.

        Her absence from Frankfort says much about the hurt and anger Mrs. Patton is feeling, but even her closest friends will not say if she has contemplated separation or divorce. It's not clear if she'll remain in Frankfort for the remainder of the governor's 14 months in office or return to the mountains where she was raised.

        Mrs. Patton and her four sisters were raised around the rough and tumble world of eastern Kentucky politics, which can often turn violently tragic.

        Her father, Roy Conway had been elected Pike County sheriff on a platform of cleaning up illegal bootlegging, gambling and other crime. But in 1950, after just six months in office, he was shot and killed by bootleggers in front of his home, dying in the arms of his family.

        Mrs. Patton's mother, Esta, by all accounts a strong and determined woman, served out her husband's term and raised her children alone, working as a social worker in the early days of the Appalachian War on Poverty.

        “You can see why Judi Patton is so concerned about social issues today,” Ms. Stein said. “It's almost instinctive from the way she was raised.”

        In 1965 Judi Conway Johnson, who had married a coal operator named Bill Harvey Johnson, was working in the coal business. She was secretary at Kentucky Elkhorn, a mine owned by Paul Patton.

        She divorced Mr. Johnson in 1973.Two years later, he was murdered, shot 14 times in what police described as an organized-crime-style hit.

        In 1977 she married Mr. Patton, who had divorced his first wife seven months earlier.

        The couple has raised their children from each first marriage together, but had none of their own.

        Throughout Mr. Patton's 10 years as Pike County judge-executive, his term as lieutenant governor from 1991 to 1995 and his two terms as governor, Mrs. Patton has been more than a fixture at events.

        Her activism and accomplishments include:

        Helping create the Governor's Task Force on Sexual Assault, which proposed legislation creating and funding Rape Crisis Centers around the state, removing legal restrictions on marital rape victims, toughening sexual offender laws and creating victim protections.

        Backing legislation that created Family Courts in Kentucky.

        Promoting legislation that forced insurance companies to cover the cost of breast reconstruction and equalization for cancer patients.

        Becoming the first governor's wife to serve on the Kentucky Commission on Women.

        Hosting an annual reception for survivors of breast cancer and helping create the Kentucky Breast Cancer Coalition.

        Lobbying lawmakers to pass legislation addressing child abuse, rape, domestic violence and child support.

        Being presented with the highest federal award for victim advocacy by Attorney General John Ashcroft. Mrs. Patton received the Crime Victim Service Award for her leadership.

        Mary Jo Davis, executive director of the Women's Crisis Center in Covington, called Mrs. Patton “an amazing woman” and a strong advocate “for women and children throughout the state.”

        Mrs. Patton helped convince her husband to provide more funding to centers that provide counseling and assistance to women and children who are victims of violence, which enabled the Women's Crisis Center to expand in 1999, Ms. Davis said.

        “It has been Judi Patton that has come forward to speak about our issues and who is more than willing to travel the state, talking to legislators, police officers and members of the judicial system to promote prevention and assistance to victims of these crimes,” Ms. Davis said.

        “Women and children havebenefited from her work as first lady and we are eternally grateful.”

        Stat Rep. Jim Callahan, a Wilder Democrat close to the Pattons, said in private Mrs. Patton occasionally talks policy and politics but also wants to chat about her grandchildren.

        In a highly publicized 1997 court battle, the Pattons won permanent custody of their three young grandchildren — then ages 6 to 12 — from Mrs. Patton's former daughter-in-law, who had been charged with drunken driving and being under the influence of prescription drugs with her 6-year-old daughter in the car.

        At a Sept. 7 University of Kentucky football game, Mr. Callahan's wife, Diane, sat with Mrs. Patton in the stands at Commonwealth Stadium.

        “All Mrs. Patton wanted to do was talk about spending time with her grandkids,” Mr. Callahan said. “She loves getting back to Pikeville on the weekends so she can be with them. They are as important to her as anything in her life.”

        E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com

       



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