Remembering Gatewood Galbraith, by John Y. Brown III

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I want to share a few memories about Gatewood Galbraith, a Kentucky statesman.

I don’t claim to know Gatewood as a good friend, but he was much more to me

Gatewood Galbraith and Willie Nelson. Ace archives. Photo Peggy Blythe.

than a casual acquaintance. I ran in several statewide races alongside Gatewood.

Political candidates are a bit like athletes traveling together across the state appearing to shake hands and give speeches wherever twoor more registered voters are gathered. There is a camaraderie that develops. And a respect and friendship that lasts.

As a young man I knew Gatewood the way everyone else knew him, as the hilarious, unrestrained, whip-smart, loquacious character who added comic relief and trenchant insights to KY’s governor’s races.

One of the first debates I watched with Gatewood he defended medicinal marijuana by saying something along the lines of “We aren’t talking about people who get drunk, cross state lines, and trash hotel rooms. We are talking about people who will mellow out and order a pizza and fall asleep.”

But because he wanted to legalize medicinal marijuana (coupled with the fact he looked like he just dressed himself and shaved from the back seat of his car) he was never taken as seriously as he could have been. And I wondered how seriously he wanted to be taken. Gatewood could have been an able governor had he ever found a way to get elected, but I’m not sure he really ran to win. I think he ran because he couldn’t not run and because he had something to say and people wanted to hear it. And it beat practicing law seven days a week.

And he was at good running for office—extraordinary, in fact. It just made sense for Gatewood to run. And keep running. And because of that, he mattered a lot to a lot of people across our great state.

The first time I seriously reflected on Gatewood’s politics I was in college. A friend of mine at UL was taking a political science class on KY politics and Gatewood was used as an example along with my grandfather, John Y Brown Sr, as two KY politicians who ran often for office and rarely won but managed to shape the debate and affect policy in important ways.

Well, I wasn’t too crazy about that characterization but agreed there was something to it. They were alike in some important ways as political influencers, except Gatewood had the good sense never to win a race. My grandfather never smoked pot that I know of and probably never advocated legalizing it, but he would have respected and liked Gatewood –and considered him a man with who had ideas worth listening to and thinking about.

My first personal encounter with Gatewood was in 1995 Democratic primary. I was running for secretary of state and Gatewood was running for governor. We were in a small town in Northern Kentucky at a speaking engagement. It was a disappointing turnout. There were more candidates attending than voters. I joked in my speech that I might not have persuaded anyone in the audience to vote for me but I think I picked up Gatewood and two auditor candidates that night as supporters

I was a newcomer to politics and needed some wise counsel that evening. Unlike most any other candidate seriously running for office, I chose Gatewood to consult with. “Gatewood, I need your advice on something important. Do you have a minute?”

“Sure, Johnny! What can I do for you?”

“Well, Gatewood, I’m struggling to raise money in my race. I hate it but know it’s important. I received a check yesterday from Joe Smith (a fictional name) for $500 and I was overjoyed—but there’s a problem. Joe went to prison a few years ago on a drug related charge. He’s out now and doing well but I’m worried about accepting a campaign contribution from him. What should I do?”

Gatewood put his arm around me and we walked away from the crowd. In his own friendly yet also fatherly way, he intoned, “Johnny, Joe Smith is a dear friend of mine. I was with Joe at his going away party the night before he went to prison. But Johnny, not even I could take a check from Joe Smith. You have to give it back.” And I did. And I was always grateful for that advice.

During my 8 years as secretary of state, I was by virtue of that office, the state’s chief election officer who registered all candidates who ran for statewide office. As a result, I got to see Gatewood a lot during that time.

There was Gatewood’s affiliation with Woody Harrelson, who was speaking out about legalizing hemp and had just starred as Kentucky’s own Larry Flynt in The People vs Larry Flynt. Woody came down to our office several times before or after a press conference in the capitol rotunda. Politicians typically love the chance to get to hang out with a celebrity –especially if the cameras are rolling and it appears the celebrity is somehow approving of you. But usually not if the celebrity is trying to legalize illegal substances and just starred in a movie as the king of porn, albeit a native son. I enjoyed getting to meet Woody Harelson, but was painfully cautious to avoid ever being caught on camera with him. Gatewood welcomed and relished the affiliation. On principle and genuine friendship.

Another particular visit stands out in my mind. Gatewood came by to ask about filing requirements for some office, I think attorney general. He took his hat off and sat down across from my desk and smiled in that broad and easy Gatewood way.

“How you doing, Gatewood?” I asked.

“I’m doing great, Johnny. It’s a good age for me right now….just turned 55. The world gets bigger and life gets better. I just left a lovely lady who is about my age and she was with her mother and daughter. I gotta tell you, Johnny, I was equally attracted to all three of them. Life is good. Anyway, I think it may be time for me to run for attorney general. What do you think?”

Who was I ever to argue with a loaded question like that?

In 2007 I ran for Lt. Governor and Gatewood for governor. He had hit his stride and just written his now famous book, The Last Free Man in America. We had fun and funny memories traveling the state again. I traveled 4 and 5 hours at a time to give speeches in the most remote parts of Kentucky. Gatewood was always there. Always. And always dazzled the crowd with his oratory and good will. And he was often either the first to arrive or the last to leave, or both. He had a genuine passion for what he was doing and an infectious love of life.

My last interaction with Gatewood was about 5 months ago during the 2011 governor’s race. I had just gotten my hair cut at a men’s hair salon I was trying for the first time. I was paying and making conversation with the talkative shop manager. She was full of life, too, and carrying on about Frankfort politics. She said, “You know that guy who ran for governor and wrote a book? I love him. What’s his name?”

I thought for a minute and said, “Jonathan Miller?”

“No, I don’t think so. He’s wild. I just love him and would give anything to meet him someday.”

“Gatwood Galbraith? I asked.” “Yes, oh my God, that’s him! Do you know him?”

I told her I did, and would call and see if he could come by and say hello.

Thirty minutes later I had called Dea Riley, Gatewood’s lieutenant  governor running mate and she called Gatewood who said he would be at the hair salon to meet this young fan next Wednesday—but that he couldn’t get his haircut there because he had used the same barber in Lexington for decades. Gatwood called me the next day to confirm and asked if I could join him and I said yes. Something came up, though, and he couldn’t make it in but still called the shop and spoke to the manager who was so excited to get to talk to Gatewood and Dea.

And that’s the way I remember Gatewood. He made a young person’s day by caring enough to say hello and talk politics and policy. And make a new friend. Because he wanted to and it was the right way to treat people.

Gatewood Galbraith was, indeed, the last free man in America— in more ways than he even knew.

Reprinted with the permission of


Ace 10th Anniversary Letters From Our Readers: candidate Gatewood Galbraith  Ace 1999

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