Governor Ruby Laffoon was born in a two room log cabin on January 15, 1869 in Madisonville, Kentucky. He was the third child and only son of John Bledsoe Laffoon, Jr. and Martha Henrietta Earle Laffoon. According to lore, his parents could not decide what to name him and for several years called him “Bud”. While he was still a young child, Laffoon chose the name “Ruby” after the local grocery store owner John Edwin Ruby.
Ruby Laffoon was educated in the schools of Hopkins County. By the time he was 17, he was teaching in the schools at Charleston in Hopkins County. In 1887, he went to live in Washington, DC with his uncle, U.S. Representative for KY’s 2nd District, Polk Laffoon. He then went on to attend Columbia Law School (a precursor for George Washington University Law School) and later Washington and Lee University where he graduated in 1890.
Following graduation from law school, he passed the bar and established a law practice in Madisonville. Laffoon married Mary “May” Bryant Nisbet on January 31, 1894 at Madisonville’s Lucille Hotel. Ruby and May Laffoon eventually had three daughters. In addition to supporting her husband’s political career, May Laffoon was an “At Large Delegate” to every Democratic National Convention from 1932 to 1960.
In 1901, Laffoon was elected Hopkins County Attorney. He was re-elected in 1905. In 1907, Laffoon was the Democratic nominee for State Treasurer. However, the 1907 General Election was a bad election for Kentucky Democrats when the Republicans lead by Governor Augustus Willison swept into all of the state constitutional offices.
Laffoon sought the Democratic nomination for State Auditor in 1911 but was defeated in the primary. In 1921, Laffoon was elected Circuit Court Judge for Kentucky’s 4th Judicial Circuit which includes Hopkins County. He was re-elected for a second six year term in 1927.
In 1931, Kentucky with the rest of the nation was in the midst of the “Great Depression”. The Democratic Party decided to choose its candidate for governor by convention rather than primary. The Kentucky Democratic Convention held in May 1931 chose Judge Ruby Laffoon as its candidate for governor. The Republican candidate for governor was former Louisville Mayor, William B. Harrison. During the election campaign, the Louisville Courier-Journal endorsed Harrison. Laffoon was supported by party leaders, Ben Johnson, Allie Young and Thomas Rhea.
Laffoon was elected by a 72,000 vote margin, a record at the time for a Kentucky governor. A. B. “Happy” Chandler was elected as Laffoon’s Lt. Governor. Laffoon became known as “The Terrible Turk”. The relationship between Laffoon within a month of the inauguration would soon become tense. The state was short of funds. Chandler as the presiding officer of the State Senate helped block Laffoon’s proposal of a 3 cent sales tax during the 1932 session. It should be noted that there were boisterous demonstrations against the sales tax proposal at the Capitol. One day in March 1932, over 100 men and women invaded the Governor’s Mansion and grounds trashing the first floor of the Mansion and its grounds. In response to the General Assembly’s failure to pass the sales tax, Laffoon vetoed a cut in state property taxes and over $7 million in appropriations.
In 1932, the “Great Depression” worsened. Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was elected President of the United States in November 1932 but was not inaugurated until early March 1933. In March 1933, just prior to FDR taking office, Laffoon called a bank holiday closing all the banks in the state in an attempt to prevent a collapse of the state’s economy. Later the same year, he closed the tobacco markets.
During 1933-1934, Laffoon needed to come up with matching funds in order for the state to receive matching relief funds for Federal Emergency Relief Funds. During the 1934 session of the General Assembly, Laffoon and his Democratic allies with the assistance of some Republicans stripped Lt. Governor Chandler of most of his power. In exchange for reducing the state tax on automobiles and real property, the General Assembly over Chandler’s opposition passed the sales tax.
As Laffoon did not want Chandler to succeed him, he successfully opposed a compulsory primary election law in 1932 and 1934. This situation change when Governor Laffoon took a trip to Washington, DC and Lt. Governor Chandler was acting governor. Once Laffoon’s train crossed into West Virginia, Chandler called a special session of the General Assembly to consider the compulsory primary for the 1935 elections. Governor Laffoon was incensed. As a result a compromised was broached. The primary law required a run-off if the candidate did not receive a clear majority or 50%. In 1935, this benefited Chandler rather than Thomas Rhea, Laffoon’s choice. Rhea won a plurality over Chandler in the primary and Chandler beat Rhea in the run-off.
In addition to dealing with the depression and the growing interface between the state and federal government, Laffoon’s Administration built more miles of highway and bridges than had been built in Kentucky over the previous 15 years.
Upon leaving office, Laffoon returned to Madisonville to practice law and act as a special judge. On March 1, 1941, Governor Ruby Laffoon died of a stroke.
Governor Ruby Laffoon taking the oath of office as KY's Governor in front of the Democratic Rooster. Note--Happy Chanderl standing behind Laffoon on the left. WLW Radio in Cincinnati covered the swearing in, in December 1931. Photo courtesy of the KY-e archives.