Ford won his first election by only 305 votes but quickly became a key player in the state senate. In 1967 he ran for Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky, this time against the wishes of Breathitt and Burt Combs, whose pick was Attorney General Robert Matthews. Again it was an extremely close election as Ford defeated Matthews by 631 votes, just 0.2% of the total vote count in the primary.
Ford ran an independent campaign and was able to easily win in the general election even as Combs-Breathitt pick Henry Ward lost the race for governor to Republican Louie B. Nunn. During his time as Lieutenant Governor Ford rebuilt the state's Democratic machine, which would help elect himself and others to statewide office, including Senator Walter Huddleston and Governor Martha Layne Collins.
As Governor, Ford successfully urged the legislature to exempt food from the sales tax and pass reforms of the state's criminal justice system. Ford's primary success was largely due to carrying Jefferson County, and he returned the favor by approving funds to build the Commonwealth Convention Center and expand the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center. Ford also oversaw the transition of the University of Louisville from municipal to state funding. He pushed for various reforms to the state's education system, giving up his own chairmanship of the University of Kentucky board of trustees, giving budget power to a non-partisan committee and extending voting rights to student and faculty members of university boards. These changes generally shifted administration positions in the state's colleges from political rewards to professional appointments.
Ford served as Governor until 1974 when he was elected to the United States Senate.
In 1981, prosecutors asked for indictments against Ford and Carroll on racketeering charges but a grand jury refused. Because grand jury proceedings are secret, what exactly occurred has never been publicly revealed. However, state Republicans charged over the years that Ford took the Fifth Amendment while on the stand, invoking his right against self-incrimination. Ford refused to confirm or deny this report.
Ford was content to be a back-room dealer in the senate, staying away from the national spotlight, moderating differences between various factions in the party and securing legislation that would benefit his state. His role brokering compromises between Democrats was bolstered by positions as party whip and chairman of the Rules Committee.
Ford was known nationally for his support of tobacco growers as he advocated for tobacco price-support and against higher tobacco taxes. Kentucky's largest newspaper, the Courier-Journal, called Ford "tobacco's strongest champion in Washington" and said his departure from the Senate marked the end of an era of government protection for tobacco. In the senate Ford also found funding to expand both large and small Kentucky airports and secured health benefits for coal miners. Near the time of his retirement he said of his career: "I wasn't interested in national issues, I was interested in Kentucky issues." He listed his successful sponsorship of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 as one of his favorite accomplishments of his senate career.
His overall voting record was moderate to conservative. Early in his career he supported a constitutional amendment against busing for school desegregation and he voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. Ford chose to retire in 1998; his open seat was won by Republican Jim Bunning.
His senate legacy was praised by Al Gore among others, including Robert Schwarz Strauss, who said "No state was better represented in the United States Senate than Kentucky was when it had Wendell Ford there." Others, such as John Stempel, a professor at the University of Kentucky, said Ford "could have taken a more active role in foreign affairs".
|1974||Wendell H. Ford1||Democratic||53.5%||Marlow Cook||Republican||44.1%|
|1980||Wendell H. Ford (inc.)||Democratic||65.1%||Mary L. Foust||Republican||34.9%|
|1986||Wendell H. Ford (inc.)||Democratic||74.3%||Jackson M. Andrews||Republican||25.7%|
|1992||Wendell H. Ford (inc.)||Democratic||62.9%||David Williams||Republican||35.8%|
Ford was the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history. Because of his achievements and long-standing commitment to public service in Kentucky, the Western Kentucky Parkway bears his name.
Ford was active in the Jaycees, serving as the 38th President of the US Junior Chamber.
Ford currently teaches politics to the youth of the Owensboro, Kentucky community from the Owensboro Museum of Science and History, which houses a replica of Ford's Senate office.