History of Kentucky Governors

Kentucky Governors and Elections





Term: 1947-1950

                Earle Clements was the first of five Democratic Governors who served between 1947 and 1967.  He was an early leader of the Democratic faction opposed by Happy Chandler.

            Clements was born in Morganfield, Union County, Kentucky on October 22, 1896.  He was the youngest of six children born to Aaron Waller and Sallie Anna Clements.  He was from a politically active family as his father was elected county judge and sheriff of Union County.  Clements was a football star at Morganfield High School where he graduated in 1915 before entering the University of Kentucky. 

            At the University of Kentucky, Earle Clements played center on the UK football team in 1915 and 1916.  In 1916, he was recognized for his efforts on the gridiron when he was named to the “All Southern Team.

            Clements’ career at UK was interrupted by World War I.  During the summer of 1917, he enlisted in the Kentucky National Guard and served at Camp Taylor near Louisville.  When the National Guard was federalized, he was selected for Officers Training School (OTS) at Ft Benjamin Harrison at Indianapolis.  He was commissioned as a first lieutenant.  As a first lieutenant, Clements became a professor of military science at OTS.  He attained the rank of Captain prior to his discharge in September 1919.

            Following the war, Earle Clements went to Texas where he worked in the oil fields.  In 1921, Clements returned home to assist his father whose health was failing.  In doing so, Clements worked the family farm and served as a deputy sheriff for his father.  He also coached football at Morganfield High School.  After the death of his father in 1922, he was appointed to serve the remainder of his father’s term and was subsequently elected to a full term as sheriff.  At that time county sheriffs were unable to seek to a consecutive term so he sought and was elected as Union County Clerk.  He served as County Clerk from 1926-1934. 

A year into his term as County Clerk, Clements married his high school sweetheart Sara M. Blue on January 18, 1927.  They had one child a daughter, Elizabeth.  Elizabeth became the social secretary for First Lady Bird Johnson.

In 1934, Clements was elected County Judge of Union County.  In 1935, he was asked by Thomas Rhea a prominent Democratic power broker to serve as his campaign chair for governor to succeed Governor Ruby Laffoon.  Clements agreed to serve and resulted in his refusal to support his old friend Lt. Governor Happy Chandler in the Democratic Primary.  Clements support of Rhea over Chandler began a 30 year rift in the Democratic of Kentucky.

In 1941, Earle Clement was elected to the Kentucky Senate in 1941.  By 1944, Clements was the majority leader of that body.  During the 1944 session he successfully opposed many of Republican Governor Simeon Willis’ conservative programs and wrote the state’s budget during that session.  At the same time, Earle Clements successfully sought election in November 1944 as the U.S. Representative from Kentucky’s 2nd District to Congress. 

As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Clements was a strong supporter of the New Deal.  He supported the 1945 school lunch program.  In his two terms of in Congress, Clements supported bills which banning lynching and poll taxes. 

In 1947, Earle Clements decided to run for Governor of Kentucky.  He defeated House Speaker Harry Lee Waterfield in the Democratic Primary.  In the General Election, Clements defeated Republican Attorney General Eldon S. Dummit.

Clements served as Governor from December 1947 until December 1950.  As governor, Clements was considered progressive.  During his administration only one state, New York developed more state parks than Kentucky.  Tourism at Kentucky state parks increased from less than a half million in 1947 to more than two million annually in 1950. 

During his term, 3,800 miles of rural roads and 4,000 miles of primary roads were built or funded.  The state assumed maintenance of 6,000 miles of county highways.  Construction began on the Western Kentucky Parkway and the Kentucky Parkway during his term as governor.  With this massive emphasis on road construction, it was said that “Kentucky farmers were finally able to come out of the mud”.

Governor Clements encouraged Kentucky’s transition from primarily an agricultural economy with the establishment of the “Kentucky Agriculture and Industrial Board” (AIDB) which is now the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development.

One Kentucky landmark that came in being during the Clements Administration was the purchase of over 400 acres in Louisville for the State Fair and Exposition Center.  Another was the building of the State Capitol Annex behind the Capitol in Frankfort. 

The non-partisan Legislative Research Commission (LRC) was created in order to assist the General Assembly.  For the first time, there was a full-time professional staff to assist with governmental research.

In 1950, Earle Clements entered the race for the U.S. Senate.  In 1949, Alben Barkley resigned from the Senate as he had been elected Vice President with President Harry Truman.  When Barkley resigned, Clements appointed Garrett Withers who held the seat until the election of 1950. 

Earle Clements defeated Republican Charles I. Dawson in November 1950 to become a U.S. Senator from Kentucky.  As a result, Clements resigned as Kentucky’s governor.  He was succeeded by his Lt. Governor, Lawrence Wetherby.

By the end of 1951, Senator Earle Clements was Lyndon Johnson’s assistant majority leader.  In 1956, Lyndon Johnson suffered a near fatal heart attack and as a result Clements was thrust into the position of “acting” Majority Leader.  Unfortunately for Clements, it was an election year.  As “acting” Majority Leader, Clements was unable to get back to Kentucky often enough to campaign for re-election.  He was defeated by 7,000 votes by Thruston Morton of Louisville.

After the end of his Senate career, at the direction of Lyndon Johnson Clements served as executive director of the Senate Democratic Reelection Committee.  In this position, he helped Democrats elect a fourteen (14) seat majority in the Senate after the 1958 elections.  From 1959-1960, Clements served as Highway Commissioner under Governor Bert T. Combs. 

From 1960 until 1981, Earle Clements was a lobbyist based in Washington, DC.

In 1981, he retired to Morganfield where he died on March 12, 1985.