Thursday, October 16, 2003

Breathitt recalled as bold governor

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - Former Gov. Edward T. "Ned" Breathitt was remembered Wednesday as a man whose incessant amiability belied a shrewd and tough politician.

Breathitt, who was 78, died late Tuesday at the University of Kentucky Hospital in Lexington. He had been in a coma since Friday night, when he collapsed during a dinner speech on the campus. Doctors said his heartbeat went suddenly out of rhythm.

A memorial service was planned Friday in the Capitol Rotunda at Frankfort, a short stroll from the governor's office, which he occupied from 1963 to 1967.

During his administration, Kentucky enacted the first state civil-rights law in the South, as well as laws for the reclamation of strip-mined land. In both cases, Breathitt roiled the waters.

"It took a lot of courage and character to do both," said former Gov. Wendell Ford, elected to the Kentucky Senate during Breathitt's administration with his support. "Breathitt had to fight a lot of his colleagues" in the General Assembly and in the Kentucky Democratic Party, Ford said.

"I don't think he was ever mean to anyone," Ford said. But when a battle was on, "the smile would come off, and he would still have a pleasant look, but he would tell you what he was going to do."

Breathitt was a liberal Democrat like his predecessor as governor, Bert T. Combs, who had acted by executive order - not by statute - to forbid racial discrimination in public accommodations.

Combs could not run for re-election under term limits of the time. But his much-disputed order became one of the hottest issues of the campaign between Breathitt, his chosen successor, and Republican Louie B. Nunn.

Breathitt supported the order but promised to submit the issue to the General Assembly and abide by its decision. It was a bold stand for a Southern candidate in the period before Congress enacted the federal Civil Rights Act.

Breathitt won the election by 13,000 votes out of 886,000 cast. Racial harmony was a theme of his inaugural speech on Dec. 10, 1963. He called on Kentuckians to be "first in nobility of spirit, first in their determination to cast away hate, bigotry and prejudice."

In his first State of the Commonwealth address, he said many Kentuckians were still "denied service in places of public accommodation, solely for reasons of race or color.

"This presents a challenge, and a serious challenge, to the conscience of Kentucky," Breathitt said. "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, I intend to meet that challenge."

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson, who had broken the color barrier in baseball, led 10,000 demonstrators in a march on Frankfort to press the issue. With Congress debating a civil-rights bill at the time, the 1964 General Assembly was unwilling to take the lead. Breathitt's state civil-rights bill was killed in a state House committee.

"As I look back, Gov. Breathitt had just gotten to Frankfort. He had really not become entrenched," said Georgia Davis Powers, one of the march organizers, who had worked in Breathitt's campaign and later became the only black woman ever elected to the Kentucky Senate. "This was a lot of pressure on him. But we felt that Gov. Breathitt wanted to do the right thing."

In legislative elections that followed, Breathitt backed 10 candidates opposing General Assembly incumbents, some from his own party.

But seven of the challengers, including Ford, were elected. And in 1966, at the General Assembly's next session, Kentucky became the first Southern state to enact a civil-rights law. It went farther than the federal law in prohibiting racial discrimination in hiring.

Breathitt also had ambitious plans for highways, public education, parks and social services. To finance them without breaking a no-new-taxes pledge, voters were persuaded to approve a $176 million bond issue that received federal matching funds.

A state vocational training program was established, as was the Kentucky Educational Television network, and the state's community colleges were placed under the University of Kentucky.

As governor, Breathitt was chairman of the UK board of trustees under Kentucky law at the time. Later governors appointed him to higher education posts, and he spent seven more years as chairman of the University of Kentucky board.

It was in that position that Breathitt found himself in 1999 at the center of another storm when trustees gave former UK President Charles Wethington a two-year contract extension.

Newspapers sued, alleging the extension was approved in an illegally closed meeting. The board rescinded the extension but kept Wethington on salary for two years as a fund-raiser. Patton replaced Breathitt on the board in 2001.

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