Former Kentucky Governor Jones remembered as ‘man of character’ at state visitation

Former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones, who died last week, was the best man at David Whitehouse’s wedding.

But that day isn’t the moment that stood out most to Whitehouse, Jones’ former director of intergovernmental affairs. In line for a visitation service Monday while Jones’ body lied in state at the Capitol rotunda, Whitehouse recalled fondly a time when a poor family with 11 children came to visit the governor at a “open door after 4” event where constituents could meet with the governor in the evening.

“Anybody could come in because it was first-come, first-serve, and one of the couples that came in said they didn’t have water service in rural Rockcastle County. Well, governor Jones was able to get them water for them for the first time in their lives,” Whitehouse said. “That’s how valued constituents were to him, and everybody was the same, regardless of your stature.”

While Jones’ efforts to push for ethics and health care reform are lasting and high-profile actions during his one term as governor in the 1990s, Whitehouse’s comment highlights a red thread mentioned by nearly everyone at the service: Jones was a deeply good man.

“He was a man of character, and his word was his bond,” House Minority Leader Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, said. “Now we’re in this era of ‘if you’re not with me, you’re against me,’ and he wasn’t like that. He wanted to bring people together and he tried to bring in both sides.”

From the other side of the political aisle, Rep. Matthew Koch, R-Paris, commented on Jones’ bipartisan nature and general encouragement. Koch and Jones knew each other through the horse industry, in which Jones was deeply involved before and after his term as founder of Airdrie Stud in Woodford County.

“When I first filed for office, he was one of the very first people that called me. I remember he said ‘go get ‘em,’ and he said he was proud of me and he’d help me any way he could,” Koch said.

The Kentucky State Police Honor Guard carries the casket of former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones into the Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023.
The Kentucky State Police Honor Guard carries the casket of former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones into the Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023.

That bipartisan flair trickled down to his administration, according to those who served in it.

Franklin Circuit Court Chief Judge Philip Shepherd ran the Natural Resources & Environmental Protection Cabinet under Jones. Shepherd said that the administration balanced a pro-business agenda while also looking out for the little guy — he cited initiatives taken by Jones to protect groundwater, still a vital source of drinking water for many in Eastern Kentucky at the time.

“For the first time in modern history, he took the politics out of environmental enforcement. He wanted businesses to be treated fairly, but he also wanted the average citizen to have a fair shake,” Shepherd said.

Under the Jones administration, coal production was as high as it’s ever been, Shepherd said. At the same time, the cabinet enforced the law and prosecuted violators

“I think it went to show that the coal industry could succeed in an environment where the law was strongly enforced. That made a big difference to a lot of people,” Shepherd said.

Aside from Shepherd, the Jones administration launched another career in public service.

Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary and former mayor of Lexington Jim Gray said that his first gig in Frankfort began when he was appointed chair of Jones’ Quality and Efficiency Commission.

The commission was tasked with identifying areas of state government where taxpayer dollars could be saved and where more investment might increase efficiency. The group identified more than $900 million in potential savings, Gray said.

Gray said it exemplified Jones’ preference for policy solutions over political machinations. It also got Gray, who went on to serve two terms as mayor of the state’s second-largest city and was later appointed to one of the most powerful posts in state government, interested in politics.

“From the very beginning, he really was about the policy side of things. He wanted to get things like that done,” Gray said. “And for me in that role, it was a big deal to take it on. And that sort of gave me the bug.”

Former Democratic governor Steve Beshear, father of current Gov. Andy Beshear, called Jones a “unique kind of fellow” in Kentucky politics for his propensity to put the interests of others in front of himself.

That was put in practice, Beshear said, when Jones pushed for a constitutional amendment to allow statewide officeholders to run for a second term but excluded himself from that effort.

Jones was also one to used his position of prominence to elevate other politicians. After flirting with a run himself, Jones endorsed Beshear in a crowded 2007 gubernatorial primary, which Beshear acknowledged made a significant difference.

The late governor was “ahead of his time” on health care and gaming, Beshear argued. Jones’ efforts to increase health insurance coverage for Kentuckians fell apart due to a conflict with insurers, but the push had a lasting effect.

“It ended up not being successful in the long term, but every effort like that helped push it to the forefront. And then when I got to be governor and the Affordable Care Act passed, I was able to implement that in Kentucky and expand Medicaid and get about 450,000 to 500,000 Kentuckians insured for the first time. And so I’ve always thought of him and his efforts as we did that because he was ahead of his time,” Beshear said.

Another initiative of Jones’ was expanding gambling opportunities in the state. Just this year, the General Assembly passed a law allowing sports betting to take place under the supervision of companies in the horse industry, something that Beshear said he thought Jones’ appreciated.

Jones’ funeral will be in Midway on Tuesday with a private burial to follow. Jones’ exact cause of death has yet to be publicly released. He was 84.