When I first sat in a helicopter and first covered a race for governor, I first met John Y. Brown Jr.
It was the Monday after the 1979 Kentucky Derby, and Brown used a helicopter to make up for his belated candidacy, hopping from town to town, often accompanied by his new wife, sportscaster and Miss America Phyllis George. Her fame and money were key to his election, but the helicopter was a subtle metaphor for his campaign: there was a strong, fresh wind blowing.
Brown, who died Monday at the age of 88, made just two promises: to run state government like a business, and to use his marketing skills and business experience — from selling encyclopedias to making Kentucky Fried Chicken an international brand — to do it to bring jobs to our poor state.
For Brown, “government like a corporation” meant reform. I doubt he ever used that venerable word to describe his platform, but it was: government decisions would be based on business principles, not political alignments, and to do this he brought fresh blood to government, including taunting ones businessmen with politicians.
Brown didn’t have to be specific; Voters knew what he meant because of the state’s history of corruption, compounded by investigations by the then governor. Julian Carroll’s government, and they knew that Brown was running his own money, not contributions from those who would win or lose from the state.
Among the fresh blood were developer Frank Metts, who shook up the Transportation Cabinet and its Highway Department, which from their inception had been a den of political intrigue; another Louisville businessman, George Fischer, who served as cabinet secretary and hustled bureaucrats trying to hide fat in their budgets; Grady Stumbo, an eastern Kentucky physician who headed the vast cabinet of human resources on behalf of the poor; Danny Briscoe of Louisville, who brought a political pedigree to the policy-ruined insurance department, but cleaned it up and published the first rate comparisons of companies.
That’s not to say political patronage ended or that friends didn’t do friends favors, but Brown wanted none of that and set the tone for the executive branch. Outside of that, he gave the legislature the independence it demanded and deserved. He often gets more credit for this than he deserves, as any attempt to dictate the selection of legislative leaders would likely have failed, but he deserves credit for a fight unfought.
Brown’s critics are fond of saying that he didn’t accomplish much as governor and missed an opportunity to put Kentucky on the road to school reform, but the state’s economy was mired in a deep national recession, and school reform followed in the next two administrations. He should be remembered as a reformer in general, one who made it clear to the people of Kentucky that their state did not have to put up with politics as usual.
In that sense, Brown was a legate of Louisville’s Wilson Wyatt and Governor Edward “Ned” Breathitt, whose 1966 legislature remains the most reformist on record; and his legacy includes at least two other governors.
After another multimillionaire businessman, Wallace Wilkinson, played politics as usual as governor from 1987 to 1991, Democrats, in partial reaction, nominated then-Lt. Governor Brereton Jones, who ran the most overtly reformist campaign of any modern governor, pushing through fundamental reforms in campaign finance, elections, government contracts and more. (Jones, 83, is being treated for Alzheimer’s in the care of the University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center; his wife, Libby Jones, tells me, “Our family feels he is receiving excellent care and it is forever for ours grateful to friend John Y. for the lead role in co-founding the center.”
Jones was succeeded by Democrat Paul Patton, who was a more traditional politician but had a strong drive for reform and was most active in transforming the public higher education system. His first government job after being a coal operator was in the Brown-Metts transport cabinet.
Kentucky needs to remember and celebrate these reformers and their reforms, because the reform momentum in Kentucky politics has never been stronger than in most other states – perhaps because Kentuckians are quite cynical about politicians, and not without reason.
In many communities they see officials treating public offices as private property rather than public trusts, and at the state and federal levels they see government levers being manipulated primarily for the benefit of those who fund officials’ campaigns. Many don’t believe their government is on par, and that’s one of the reasons Donald Trump has millions of supporters; They forgive him for not being on the level because they believe the system is not.
For policies to work, we need a dose of real reform, from the likes of John Y. Brown Jr. May his example be remembered and widely followed.
Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor at the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinion is his own, not UK’s. He was the senior political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. In 2010 he was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.