Joe Wright, a leader in Kentucky legislative independence movement, dies at 82

By: - July 17, 2023 6:41 pm

Joseph “Joe” Richard Wright, 1940-2023

Former state Sen. Joe Wright, a leader in the Kentucky General Assembly’s fight to become independent from the control of the governor more than four decades ago, died Saturday at Louisville’s Baptist East Hospital. He was 82.

Joseph “Joe” Richard Wright of Breckinridge County served in the state Senate from 1976 to 1992. From 1981 to 1992, he was the majority floor leader for the Democratic Party.

In 1978, Wright joined a group of Democratic senators led by the late John M. Berry Jr., in a push for legislative independence from the governor’s office in a direct challenge to their party’s leadership.

Berry and Wright were joined by senators Mike Moloney, David Karem, Lowell Hughes, Danny Meyer, Ed O’Daniel and John “Eck” Rose. 

The group was known as the Black Sheep Squadron. They demanded that the legislature be open, transparent, accountable and, above all, independent (that bills be heard regardless of the governor’s opinion). 

The movement started in the administration of Gov. Julian Carroll and flourished in the administration of Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. with support from Senate Republicans.

Wright, as Senate majority floor leader, became a pivotal, effective figure in the independence movement.

Wright and his colleagues then used their newfound independence to reform education and to pay for the sweeping improvements by enacting a penny increase in the sales tax and by reforming property tax collections. The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 wrested direct governance of public schools from politicians and entrusted it to educators and parents. 

Asked why Wright was such an effective legislator, Moloney, a Lexington attorney who headed the Senate’s budget committee, said, “You could always count on what he had to say. Always.”

Moloney said Wright, a farmer from the tiny community of Harned, was a prime example of a citizen-legislator.  “No question about it.  He was one hell of a man.”

His obituary said Wright was born in the same house he would call home for his entire life on July 29, 1940. 

Karem, who served as Senate majority caucus chairman and majority floor leader, echoed Moloney’s words by saying Wright was “a man of his word.”

“When you sat down with Joe and he made a commitment to you, that commitment always was good.  I never once knew that he ever left a commitment.”

Karem also said Wright had “the strong capacity to communicate to every legislative area throughout the state.

“He was a farmer so he knew how to talk to people in rural areas and he had a strong affinity for urban areas and their cultures.  He was able to pull together a very diverse group of legislators.”

Wright “was certainly strong in defending the legislative process,” said Karem.

Karem recounted a breakfast meeting former Gov. Wallace Wilkinson scheduled with legislative leaders late in a session. Wilkinson had been making a strong pitch to allow governors to be given the opportunity to run for reelection and succeed themselves, starting with him.

Legislators liked the idea of gubernatorial succession but thought it should start with the next governor, said Karem.

“Gov. Wilkinson brought up the topic instantly at that breakfast and Joe, in a very calm, deliberate manner simply said, ‘Governor, that’s not going to happen.’”

Karem said that meeting lasted only a few more minutes.  Gov. Brereton Jones was able to see succession pass because he was willing to exempt the incumbent, himself, from its provisions.

Diana Taylor, a former Capitol reporter and chief of staff for Gov. Jones, said, Wright presented himself like a statesman.

“He was focused on what he was doing and did so in a calm, strong demeanor.  He actually was pleasant to deal with.”

Taylor said the power of the legislature has increased since the days of the Black Sheep.  

Before the Black Sheep, it was not unusual for the governor to tell the legislators what bills to pass.  

Since then, “we have seen a growing level of legislative independence.  What you seek is three equal branches of government.”

Wright’s funeral will be held at Harned Methodist Church in Harned on Friday, July 21, at 12 p.m. under the direction of Trent-Dowell Funeral Home. Visitation will be held at the church on Thursday, July 20, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m at the church on the day of the funeral.  All times are Central.

‘Just as farming is more stewardship than ownership, so is public service. I do not own this seat. I’ve held it for awhile.’ 

This is Joe Wright’s farewell address to the Kentucky Senate, delivered April 14, 1992.

Mr. President, members of the Senate…

As this session grew shorter, and this day and this moment approached, I found myself dreading it in ways I hadn’t imagined I would. I thought to not say anything. But of course I must. I cannot close out 17 years of my life with people I love and an institution I cherish, without saying goodbye.

As you know, I’ll be retiring from this Senate at year’s end. The time has simply come — both for me personally, and for the greater public good, I think. Some have tried to dissuade me, and I truly appreciate it; but I doubt I’m as irreplaceable as some have flattered me by saying.

As George Washington said in his Farewell Address: “I have the consolation to believe that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.”

Washington knew that one man can make a difference. He also knew that no living democracy is based on the presence or absence of any individual.

As you know, I’m a farmer. As a farmer, I know something about the idea of stewardship. The land I farm is, in every conventional sense, “mine.” But I know I will never truly own it. I can only use it for a time, and pass it on to someone else, someone who’ll come after; and when that time comes, I’ll pass it along in hope, and in faith, that the land will not just endure, but prosper.

My goal, every true farmer’s goal, is to leave the land a little better for my stewardship, a little more prepared to do the work of the good earth, a little more fertile for whoever follows.

That is the covenant of farming.

Just as there is a covenant of farming, there is a covenant of public service. And just as farming is more stewardship than ownership, so is public service. I do not own this seat. I’ve held it for awhile. 

When I first came to this chamber in 1976, I did not receive a lifetime appointment. I never took it as such. I was elected for a four-year term. And every four years I had to make a conscious decision to renew my covenant with the people who elected me. I knew the day would come that our covenant would end. I came hoping to stay eight years. I’ve been here 17.

Like the farmer I am, I have tried to leave the ground of this seat a little better for my work here, better prepared and better able to produce the works and fruits of democracy.

It’s not for me to say if I’ve succeeded or failed.

That is a judgment history will make.

But I would remind every member of this body that you too will pass on the seats you occupy, for you can never own them. Your seat preceded you and will succeed you. And you too will be judged by history, by those who come after, on the basis of how healthy, or how poor, is the soil of our democracy as symbolized by the health of this institution, the Kentucky General Assembly.

From my own perspective — the perspective of one whose time is near over — I can say its health is much improved over what I found here 17 years ago.

I was fortunate, I think, to have come here at a historic moment, and to serve in historic times. The historic moment we faced years ago was the arrival of what we call the legislative independence movement. In it, the Kentucky General Assembly asserted, and won, its proper prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government. This Legislature and this Commonwealth are better for it.

Such progress as we’ve made in recent years—from court reform in the ‘70s to education reform in the ‘90s—can be credited in large measure to the work of a forceful Legislature.

I know I’m identified with the legislative independence movement; I know I’m one of the last still here of those who set it in motion. I know I’m seen as a symbol for much of what has happened to the Kentucky General Assembly over the past two decades.

I’m comfortable in that role, because I’m proud to have played it.

But I also know that others along with me defined the legislative independence movement. I would name them all if I weren’t afraid to leave someone out. They know who they are. And so do you.

You know their names form the lore of this chamber, for I would say the legislative independence movement originated here, in the Senate. What was to be called the Black Sheep Squadron, a group of independence-minded senators, emerged here in 1974. By 1978, the Black Sheep were a force. And by 1979, the work we began culminated in passage of what is called the Kenton Amendment, a constitutional amendment with far-reaching consequences for legislative independence. It was, I think, a last nail in the coffin of improper executive-branch domination of state government. Out history since has been to consolidate and define the actual terms of legislative independence; to state in words and express through actions our proper role in the governance of this Commonwealth.

I also know, and want to stress, that each of you has been critical in that movement too. And you will continue to be. The legislative independence movement goes on—and you are that movement. For the true work of legislative independence is, finally, the everyday work of doing what the constitution calls upon you to do:

Function as a co-equal partner with the other two branches, in a spirit of compromise and goodwill, but with firm resolve to preserve and defend the legitimate role and legal prerogatives of this legislative branch.

That is, institutionally, your first duty.

I am confident you’ll meet that duty.

It is traditional, in American politics, for farewell speeches to include cautions. Anyone who’s been in politics long enough to warrant a farewell speech has supposedly learned a thing or two. Washington cautioned against sectionalism—and, interestingly enough, the encroachment of one branch of government into another.

(Wright is referring next to the BOPTROT scandal in which an FBI investigation of bribery resulted in multiple lawmakers, including a House speaker, going to prison.)

Moreover, events of the past two weeks have weighed heavy on me, and I know on many of you. To have the integrity of this institution called into question is a blow to the work so many of us have given our lives to; such allegations, even when they’re unproven, can never be taken lightly. For even the rumor of impropriety can shake the foundation of public trust on which this body is built.

I am saddened by this, as we all are. But I would say to you this can be a step forward rather than a step back, if we see it correctly as opportunity rather than defeat.

If we welcome this scrutiny, if we do not flinch, and so prove our commitment to the highest standards of public conduct, I think we will gain in stature with the people we serve. And if we move forward from these days with a renewed resolve to be impeccable in our conduct, if we redouble our efforts to earn and deserve the public trust, we will be a stronger institution for it.

With that in mind, I want to draw against whatever wisdom I may have gained in my years here, and issue some cautions of my own today.

I would caution you that a legislative body must be constantly on guard, to balance public interest with special interest. With legislative independence has come explosive growth in the attention this body receives from special interests. That’s not all bad. But it can be. And often is. We need to remember there’s an OVERALL public good that transcends individual issues. Our focus on that greater good must be steady.

I would caution you against a growing perception nationwide that while legislatures are quick to criticize the executive, legislatures are slow to police themselves and their perceived excesses.

I would caution you about the arrogance of power and loss of public trust that has afflicted certain other legislative bodies in recent years. We’ve seen that with Congress. Let’s not see it in Kentucky.

I would caution you to remember that this is—or should be—a deliberative body, not a reactive one. A modern Legislature often finds itself reacting in haste to a crush of events. It too seldom reflects on the things it’s doing.

I would caution you against the creeping professionalism that in modern America threatens to turn any body of Jeffersonian citizen-lawmakers into a chamber of isolated political professionals.

Similarly, I would caution you against the ever-expanding and ever-growing demands on a legislator’s time, demands that make it almost impossible for a “citizen,” in a true sense, to serve this body.

Finally, I would caution you that the moral and ethical fiber of any democratic institution are the strands that hold it together. When moral and ethical fiber are lost, the institution itself is lost and irrelevant, for its bond of trust with the people is shattered.

These are not criticisms; they are reminders. Reminders that vigilance against abuse must never falter. Reminders that, as a human institution, we may always seek, but surely never reach, perfection. Reminders that, in knowing we’re not perfect, we can guard against our human failings. For this too is the work of legislative independence: Legislative responsibility.

To paraphrase Wendell Berry, a great Kentucky writer, brother of our friend John, and fellow farmer: If we had known the difficulty, we would not have come even this far. If what I ask of you seems hard, remember how far we’ve come on a hard road. We must defend what we’ve gained, and press on.

Before I close, there are some people I must thank. “Thanks” is such a poor expression of what I feel, but to say it publicly seems the least I can do.

Thanks to my wife and family, who are here today. Without their love and support and encouragement I doubt I could have survived this life, let alone 17 years in the Legislature.

Thanks to my constituents—my friends and neighbors—for their faith and trust in me, which I hope I’ve earned and earned again over the years.

Thanks to LRC staff, the best staff in the world; and to my personal staff, for dedication not only to me, but to the people of Kentucky, above and beyond any call of duty.

And I hate to single anyone out, but I have to mention the Senator from Harlan, my friend, for his good companionship and good conversation over the years; the Senator from Fayette 13, whose dedication to public service, often at great cost to himself, exemplifies what is best about a citizen-Legislature; and the Senator from Clark, who has been both friend and ally in the struggles of recent years.

I want to thank the other members of Senate leadership, past and present, who have helped me and supported me and made my job much easier.

I would also like to thank the members of the minority party, for their under-appreciated contribution to the dialogue that takes place in this chamber; and to the members of House leadership, with whom I’ve always had a good working relationship.

As I say, I’m proud of my time here. I’m also proud of you, and of every senator I’ve served with. Thank you, each of you.

I’m proud too of my constituents. In the weeks leading up to this day, many well-wishers in Frankfort have said kind things about the independence of judgment they say I’ve shown. I always reply I was blessed: At no time, ever, did I feel my re-election to office, or my re-election as majority leader, depended on how I voted on any particular issue.

I always felt free to make those decisions based on my own best judgment. That implied great trust. I always tried to live up to that trust. And I always sought to return it. As both lawmaker and Senate leader, I’ve tried to strike a balance between tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness. That’s a thin rail to balance on, believe me.

By almost any measure, I’ve given the best years of my working life to this job. From age 35 to age 52. I have reached a point in my life where the old fire for this particular job has left me. And take it from someone who knows: To do this job right, you need that fire.

Lacking it, I feel obliged to step down. Knowing when to move on is the last, best service we can pay our constituents and our Commonwealth.

I’ve been asked if I’ve left anything undone, an item on my agenda I’d like to see accomplished. The answer, honestly, is no. I have never had individual goals. All I ever really wanted was to bring credibility to the process. To serve and leave with people feeling good about my time here. I think—I hope—I’ve done that.

As I survey this chamber on my leaving, I’m encouraged at what I see. So many new faces have joined us this session—bright, qualified, committed faces, in many cases young, in all cases full of the passion for public service that drives this body onward.

I leave this chamber in good hands, this patch of democracy fertile.

Thank you.

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Jack Brammer
Jack Brammer

Jack Brammer, a native of Maysville, has been a news reporter in Kentucky since 1976. He worked two years for The Sentinel-News in Shelbyville and then from 1978 to 2021 in the Lexington Herald-Leader's Frankfort bureau. After retiring in December 2021 from the Herald-Leader, he became a freelance writer for various publications. Brammer has a Master's degree in communications from the University of Kentucky and is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.