Wednesday, August 17, 2011

'Our greatest citizen leader': Gov. Bert Combs shone during, after political career

This from Kevin Hable in the Courier-Journal:

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bert Combs, who was born on Aug. 13, 1911, in Clay County. Although he spent much of his professional life in Frankfort, Louisville and Lexington, he was an Eastern Kentuckian his whole life. Many people believe he was one of Kentucky's great governors. I know he was the most outstanding governor in my lifetime. I think we should remember him not only for what he accomplished as governor from 1959 through 1963 but for what he did for Kentucky as a citizen after his political career.

In addition to being governor, Combs spent many years as a judge. Before he became governor he was on the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which at the time was the state's highest court. After Combs' term as governor, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he served from 1967 to 1970. I believe he was more proud of having been a judge than of having been governor. He preferred to be called Judge Combs instead of Governor Combs. (His wife, Sara, a former partner at Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, was the first woman to serve on the Kentucky Supreme Court. She is currently a judge on the Kentucky Court of Appeals. So, even though Bert Combs is gone, there is still a Judge Combs.)

In 1955 Bert Combs ran for governor but lost to Happy Chandler in the Democratic primary. During that campaign, Combs, who had never run for statewide office, tried to explain to voters that Kentucky needed more revenue to become a modern, competitive society. He and his plans were rejected in 1955, but by his second campaign for governor in 1959, the public recognized that Combs had been right in 1955 about Kentucky needing more revenue to become modern. Combs was elected and vindicated. Wilson Wyatt, the former mayor of Louisville, was elected lieutenant governor.

Combs, as governor, succeeded in preparing Kentucky to be a modern society. The Combs administration accomplished more in one four-year term than most U.S. governors get done in eight years. (The Kentucky Constitution did not then allow a governor to succeed himself and serve two consecutive terms.). To get the revenue to begin to make Kentucky a modern society, Kentucky enacted a 3-cent sales tax. One cent of that tax was committed to a bonus for military veterans, leaving two-thirds of the new revenue for education and the modernization of Kentucky society.

Bert Combs, as governor, made sure that Kentucky increased its investment in education significantly. During his term, funding for education increased 50 percent and the community college system began. Although KET did not become a reality until after his term, Combs was, I believe, one of the first to suggest that we have a statewide educational TV network.

Other significant steps occurred during the Combs administration. His administration undertook a major expansion and renovation project in the state park system and began a road construction project that resulted in modern highways that connected all parts of Kentucky.

Combs proposed a merit employment system for state employees that protected career public servants from political threats. In my view, the merit system made it easier to attract and keep qualified people as public servants.

Combs realized that a modern society could not tolerate racial discrimination; he ordered in 1963 the desegregation of all public accommodations in Kentucky, a year before Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Combs knew that the big increase he obtained for education spending could result in money being wasted or improperly spent. He ordered an audit of a county school system and its superintendent in my part of Eastern Kentucky. The audit showed misuse of funds. The state school board removed the county school board members. Their replacements, the new county school board, then fired the county superintendent. Combs believed it was important to show the education community that the increased state spending be well-managed and spent solely on education.

Kentucky was prepared to be a modern 20th century society after Combs' term. The only other political leader I can think of who presided over such big, permanent changes in society was Franklin Roosevelt.

After his governorship, Combs became a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals. I believe this was a high honor; that court is one level below the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1971, Combs ran for the Democratic nomination for governor. He was defeated by Wendell Ford. I believe that serving on the 6th Circuit kept Combs from preparing adequately to run in 1971.

Combs never ran for office again. If the story of his contribution to Kentucky society ended there, we would view his record as having been outstanding. But I believe his most important contributions to Kentucky society came when he was a private citizen after 1971.

His later contributions came in the areas of education and the law. These areas were not a surprise to anyone who knew him. I was a child when Combs was governor. I got to know him after joining his law firm and becoming his law partner. He spent a lot of time with me I guess because I was, for a time, in public life. His quiet passion for educational excellence and educational equality was clear to me. I have always given his mother some credit for his commitment to education; she was a schoolteacher in Clay County. For Combs, learning was a lamp that could light the way to a larger life.

Combs started his public involvement as a private citizen by being one of the founders of the Prichard Committee in 1983. Robert Sexton, the first and longtime executive director of the committee, gave the reasons for its founding: “They (the founders) did so because they were frustrated with elected officials' indifference to education and because they felt that Kentucky's historic educational deficits would not solve themselves. ... They wanted to create a compelling vision of a future with excellent schools.”

The Prichard Committee worked to convince the public that education reform was needed, that it needed to be comprehensive and that it needed to be accomplished soon. In my view, the Prichard Committee played a key role in creating the climate of acceptance for the Kentucky Education Reform Act. Since the adoption of KERA, the Prichard Committee has been the conscience of education reform in Kentucky. It has been used as a model by citizen groups in other states.

It is clear to me that Combs' greatest accomplishment in a life of accomplishments was his successful pro-bono representation of 66 poor school districts in their challenge to Kentucky's school financing system.

Those districts claimed the school financing system unfairly discriminated against poor districts. In 1989, the Kentucky Supreme Court declared the entire public school system unconstitutional. Chief Justice Stephens wrote the court's opinion in the case, Rose v. Council for Better Education. The court found that education is a fundamental right in Kentucky and that the school system must be adequately funded to achieve its goals and, further, that funding must be substantially uniform, so that every child is provided with an equal opportunity to have an adequate education.

In response to the ruling, the General Assembly adopted KERA in 1990. KERA provided for significant alterations in Kentucky's school system, established a procedure for equalizing financing among school districts and set up accountability standards that were, at the time, considered to be rigorous.

No governor or other political leader could have proposed anything as radical as the restructuring of the entire school system and been taken seriously. It took a citizen who had a quiet passion for educational excellence and educational equality who took a case for free because he knew its rightness. It took a committed citizen leader to convince the Kentucky Supreme Court that the operation of our school system was fundamentally wrong and unfair.

Many have said that in a democracy the highest office is the office of citizen. If that is true, then the highest form of leadership is effective citizen leadership. In my opinion, Combs was the greatest citizen leader in my life. We should remember and celebrate how he changed Kentucky society as a citizen. His leadership as a private citizen is an example for all of us to imitate.
I'm proud to have been his friend and his law partner.

Kevin Hable is the former managing partner of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs and currently serves on the board of the Prichard Committee. He served as secretary of Gov. Brereton Jones' Cabinet in the 1990s.


Anonymous said...

The only soiled spot on the vest of Bert Combs is a letter (in the UK archives) he wrote to Dr. Frank Dickey in the 1960's making it clear that he wanted Dr. Abby Marlatt fired at UK. Marlatt was a brilliant woman (PhD in Home Economics) who fought for civil rights in Lexington during a time when most whites remained silent.

Strangely, her death was overlooked on this blog and at UK, but this is the fate of so many prominent Kentucky women. Her story is readily available in the oral history collections of the Kentucky Historical Society.

Why Combs wanted Marlatt out is unclear, since he himself made concessions to civil rights while Governor.

Richard Day said...

The idea of folks being at odds while standing for essentially the same principles is not too rare. Particularly among Democrats, who it was said, formed their firing squads in a circle, disagreements over means were common.

What was Combs' complaint.

For myself, I was not familiar with Marlatt's work, despite sitting next to her in a meeting one day. As I recall, I was advocating more academically-based preschool programs for poor kids and she argued in favor of a set of social supports. She wasn't wrong. Neither was I.

Anonymous said...

No, Dr. Day, I don't think you are wrong aboout what you have advocated. I do believe the blog was in error when it failed to report Abby Marlatt's death.

Richard Day said...

Fair enough.

Richard Day said...

I absent-mindedly dropped a comment from Skip Kifer a couple of weeks ago. My apologies.

Skip said that it was "too bad that [Combs's] equity dreams were not fulfilled. In fact, things are worse now."

Skip included a picture of the data that supports his conclusion, but I cannot paste it here. Perhaps that can become a new post.