By John David Dyche
Some members of Kentucky's media, including this one, occasionally say that the state has never had a governor from Louisville. When they do, Al Cross, the walking, talking encyclopedia of Kentucky politics who now directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky and writes a column for The Courier-Journal, is quick to set the record straight.
Lawrence W. Wetherby, who claimed Middletown as his hometown, is the only governor who was born in Jefferson County. Wetherby, a Democrat, became governor by succession in 1950 when Earle Clements went to the U. S. Senate and then won election in his own right the following year, but that was decades before Louisville and Jefferson County merged.
But Cross rightly reminds errant commentators about Augustus E. Willson. He was not born or raised in Louisville, which may account for some of the confusion, but Willson lived and practiced law in the state's largest city when he won the governorship in 1907.
Willson was born in Maysville, moved to Covington and then to New Albany, Indiana. Orphaned at age 12, he lived with relatives first in New York and then in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
After attending Harvard Law School he returned to New Albany where he lived with an Indiana congressman before joining the Louisville law firm of fellow Republican and future U. S. Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan. He left Louisville to be an assistant to another eminent Kentuckian, U. S. Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow, but soon returned.
Willson lost a lot of races for elective office before finally securing the GOP gubernatorial nomination. With strong urban support he won a campaign in which the Black Patch Tobacco Wars and prohibition were big issues, and the Democrats divided.
Despite conflict between Willson and the Democratic legislature several progressive reforms became law during his administration. But there was plenty of controversy, too, especially as to his aggressive actions in the tobacco conflict and his pardons of Republicans implicated in the 1900 assassination of Democratic Governor William Goebel.
After his term Willson returned to Louisville, lost a U. S. Senate bid to another former governor, J.C.W. Beckham, and died in 1931 at age 84. He is buried in Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery.
Since Willson several from Louisville have sought the governorship without success. Former Louisville mayor Wilson Wyatt wanted it badly in 1959, but settled for the second spot on a Democratic ticket with Eastern Kentuckian Bert T. Combs.
More recently, Bruce Lunsford made a losing primary bid in 2007. Another former mayor, Harvey Sloane, met the same fate in 1979 and 1983, as did former Jefferson County Judge Executive Todd Hollenbach in 1975. Another Jefferson County Judge, Marlow Cook, lost the 1967 Republican primary.
Next year's race could feature a contender from merged Louisville in each party. Attorney General Jack Conway, a Democrat, and former Louisville Metro councilman Hal Heiner, a Republican, are both acting like candidates.
Can either of them break the curse that has afflicted the gubernatorial aspirations of the biggest city's candidates for a century (Wetherby, perhaps, excepted)? It will not be easy, but both men have reasons for hope.
Conway has won twice statewide already. But he has also lost statewide, and rather badly, in his 2010 U. S. Senate bid against Republican Rand Paul.
Heiner has virtually no statewide name recognition. But he is working hard to remedy that and has the financial resources to get his name known once he tabs a running mate and really gets started.
An even bigger obstacle for both will be the formidable primary foes from "out in the state" that they are likely to confront. Conway could face two popular Democrats from the Bluegrass region, former auditor Crit Luallen and current auditor Adam Edelen, while Heiner will likely go against popular Agriculture Commissioner James Comer from South Central Kentucky.
There could be others, too, of course. Luallen, Edelen, and Comer are all proven statewide winners without the albatross of Louisville around their necks.
Louisville may be the state's most powerful economic engine, and it pays considerably more into Frankfort than it gets back. Unfortunately, fear, loathing, and misunderstanding of it persist to varying degrees throughout the rest of the commonwealth.
Kentucky's state seal shows a frontiersman shaking hands with a formally clad fellow and represents the unity of rural and urban interests. In some respects, however, the emblem remains more aspiration than reality.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.