Smooth as a Flat Rock: The Kentucky Senator Has Seen Bluegrass Politics from the Statehouse to the Governor's Mansion and Back Again

By Reese, Lowell | State Legislatures, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Smooth as a Flat Rock: The Kentucky Senator Has Seen Bluegrass Politics from the Statehouse to the Governor's Mansion and Back Again


Reese, Lowell, State Legislatures


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When Kentucky Governor William Goebel was shot to death in 1900--the only American governor ever assassinated while in office be was succeeded by Lieutenant Governor J.C.W. Beckham. As lieutenant governor, Beckham was also president of the Senate, and a month earlier he had been speaker of the House.

Since then, only one other person has held Kentucky's top two jobs in the legislative branch and the top two jobs in the executive branch: Julian Carroll. He became speaker at age 37, lieutenant governor and Senate president at 40, governor at 43. Now at 79, he's halfway through a second term in the Kentucky Senate. And unlike Beckham, no one had to die for him to achieve the milestone.

When Carroll, a Democrat, ran for lieutenant governor and governor in the 1970s, Kentucky's diversity was a challenge for statewide candidates. There was coal in the east and cotton in the west. Cocktails were served before political rallies in the north, prayers were offered before rallies in the south. Old-fashioned stump speaking and wooing of local courthouse officials were the tools of the trade. In all of those dimensions, Carroll--attorney, orator and lay preacher--was capable and smooth as a flat rock.

Always a leader, Carroll was also often lucky. He was born in western Kentucky, called the "Rock of Gibraltar" in political circles because the region was the state's largest enclave of Democrats.

DESTINED FOR POLITICS

In 1949, Carroll was elected governor of Kentucky Boys State, a mock-government program for high school students. When Carroll and the other Boys State governors met in Washington, D.C., Vice President Alben Barkley spoke to them. They also met President Harry Truman, who asked the 18-year-old Carroll where be was from. When Carroll replied, "Paducah," Truman quipped, "Seems like I've heard of that town." It was Barkley's hometown.

Carroll's public life reads like the fulfillment of a destiny. After earning a B.A. and then a law degree at the University of Kentucky, he entered the Air Force in 1956. He spent three years in uniform, most of it at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was the attorney for the base commander, Brigadier General Nils Olman.

The general was so impressed with Lieutenant Carroll that he held a going-away party for him when he left the service. Generals don't usually do that. It became a tipping point in Carroll's career.

When he returned to Paducah in December 1959 to practice law, the local newspaper ran a large article about the general's party for Carroll. Soon afterward, a delegation of local business leaders came to his law office and asked if he would lead a community effort to pass a referendum to allow the city to buy the Kentucky Utilities facility in town and convert to low-cost electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

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Carroll agreed and voters approved the referendum by almost 3-to-1. His name became a household word. He was on his way to a long career in politics with a statewide base of support in the electric utility industry.

Carroll was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1961. When he arrived at the Capitol in January 1962, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in both chambers, and Democratic Governor Bert T. Combs, like other governors of the period, dominated the legislature. He named the leaders, including committee chairs, and told legislators how to vote, and they complied.

"I remember Governor [Edward T. "Ned"] Breathitt coming to the floor of the House in his first legislative session in 1964," Carroll says. "Breathitt spoke. The floor leader introduced the governor's budget. We recessed the House. The budget bill was referred to the Statutes 1 Committee.... which met in the corner of the chamber and reported the bill out while the governor was still on the floor shaking hands. …

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