January 22, 2015 / 5:53 PM / 5 years ago

Wendell Ford, last Democratic U.S. senator from Kentucky, dies

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) - Wendell Ford, a former governor and the last Democratic U.S. senator from Kentucky, died on Thursday. He was 90.

A native of Owensboro, Ford served four terms in the Senate, from 1974 to his retirement in 1999. During his last eight years in Washington, he served as the party’s whip, first under Majority Leader George Mitchell and then under Minority Leader Tom Daschle. He was succeeded by the current minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada.

Ford said last summer that he had lung cancer.

Republican Mitch McConnell, the senior U.S. senator from Kentucky and the body’s new majority leader, announced Ford’s death on the Senate floor on Thursday morning.

McConnell recalled that when Ford first arrived in the Senate, after serving as Kentucky’s governor from 1971 to 1974, he called himself “a dumb country boy with dirt between his toes.”

“But, over a distinguished two-decade career, this workhorse of the Senate would prove he was anything but,” McConnell said.

Just as McConnell is seen as the father of the modern Republican Party in Kentucky, Ford was credited as the patriarch to the state’s modern Democratic Party.

Even after his retirement, Ford stayed involved in politics, campaigning across the state for several Democrats, including Daniel Mongiardo and Jack Conway, who ran for his seat unsuccessfully against Jim Bunning and Rand Paul respectively.

More recently, Ford filmed a commercial for McConnell’s opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, during last fall’s election.

“As I began my career in public service, I watched and learned from Senator Ford, who was the epitome of principled leadership,” Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said in a statement. “In every office in which he served, his methods were simple: Wendell Ford listened, he cared, and he got the job done.”

Reporting by Steve Bittenbender; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Doina Chiacu

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