Kentucky: Independent gubernatorial candidate Gatewood Galbraith wants to make the system work

by Mike Wynn, The Courier-Journal
By Aaron Borton, Special to The Courier-Journal

There is a truth that must be heard! Supporters view him as a maverick who provides a much-needed challenge to mainstream political conventions. Critics dismiss him as a spoiler, a pothead, a perennial lost cause.

And despite four unsuccessful bids for governor (three times as a Democrat, once on the Reform ticket), failed runs for state agriculture commissioner, state attorney general and Congress, Gatewood Galbraith has again entered the governor’s race — as an independent.

Until now, Galbraith said, spreading his message has been as important as winning.

Winning is more important this year, he said, because anti-incumbent attitudes among voters have peaked and “people are newly aware of just how dysfunctional this system has become.”

And in running, Galbraith, a 64-year-old Lexington criminal defense attorney, businessman and activist, gets another chance to fulfill a vow he made to himself in 1971 at a Lexington protest over the U.S. bombings in Cambodia.

Galbraith, who was then 24, had spent the four previous years working odd jobs, hitchhiking across the country and, by his own admission, experimenting with drugs.

As he manned a bullhorn at the protest, he said, he decided on his future course: studying the law and trying for high office as a way to help as many people as possible.

“I knew then that I had to fashion some goal that was so big that it would subsume all of my predilections for getting off the path,” he said in a recent interview.

Galbraith describes his views today in straightforward political terms.

“I’m a Barry Goldwater conservative” — one who finds inspiration from America’s founding fathers and loathes the neo-conservative vision of a “bloated police state,” he said. “I want the government to stay out of my life unless I represent a threat to somebody else or their property.”

One of seven

A native of Carlisle and the middle child of seven, Galbraith came to Lexington at age 12 when his father moved the family to buy a downtown restaurant.

He graduated from Lafayette High School and attended two semesters at UK before dropping out and joining the Marines in 1966.

In his 2004 autobiography, he wrote that he enlisted with a “gung-ho” attitude but received an honorable discharge four months into basic training after doctors discovered that he had asthma.

After his experiences with student protests, he returned to UK and graduated with a law degree in 1977. He has been married and divorced twice and has three adult daughters.

Galbraith first ran for governor in 1991, and again in 1995, 1999 and 2007. During that time, he gained widespread attention as an outspoken proponent for legalizing, licensing and regulating marijuana.

Attorney Larry Forgy, who ran for governor as a Republican in the 1991 primary while Galbraith campaigned as a Democrat, said Galbraith is one of the smartest Democrats he has known in Kentucky politics.

Still, he has struggled to overcome the first impression voters got of him as a pothead, Forgy said.

“If he had decided he was going to become a machine Democrat from Lexington and had abided by the tenets of the machine, he would have been governor already,” Forgy said.

Instead, Galbraith shirked the conventional.

In his first bid for governor, he poured hemp-seed oil into his gas tank, and drove from Lexington to Louisville, campaigning along the way with country music star Willie Nelson. A story about the trip graced the cover of High Times magazine.

Later, in 1995, he gave a speech to 600 people at a Kentucky Association of Counties meeting. He concluded by saying: “As far as having to pee in a cup to hold a job, I look to the words of General George Patton — ‘Screw you Nazis!’ ”

The audience applauded for two minutes after the shock subsided, Galbraith wrote in his autobiography.

Stephen Voss, associate professor of political science at UK, said the marijuana stance still defines Galbraith in the media and for many voters, despite his interest in other issues.

Kim Thomas, who writes the Lexington arts and activist blog KimmyVille, supports him and said that she knows many in the arts community who plan to vote for Galbraith. But some are afraid to show support in public because of the stigma attached to the marijuana issue, she said.

Thomas attributes her support to Galbraith’s environmental positions and independent spirit. Part of his appeal is that “no skeleton in his closet has not already been dusted off and polished,” she said.

One problem for him politically, though, is his history of financial problems.

According to court records, he filed for bankruptcy in 1993, with creditors seeking more than $368,000 in claims against him.

He also failed to pay occupational license fees in Lexington for nine years, between 1994 and 2003. His final payment for the time period was remitted in April this year.

Galbraith said his financial woes began when a business partner sued him to collect on $80,000 in loans, setting the stage for problems in his tractor distribution business.

He said he slept in his car at times to pay child support, and believes his financial troubles do not disqualify him from holding public office.

“I think that gives me a little more insight into the problems of the everyday person out there and makes me a little more compatible with the human side of politics,” he said.

Education proposal

In this year’s race — in which he is campaigning as an independent, with Frankfort marketing consultant Dea Riley as his lieutenant governor running mate — Galbraith is advocating programs that he says will restore trust and integrity to state government and spur economic growth as Kentucky’s jobless rate continues to hover around 9.5 percent.

Chiefly, he is proposing an education program called the Commonwealth Incentive, which would provide a one-time $5,000 voucher to any student who graduates from high school or earns a GED, regardless of grades or income.

The voucher would pay for books, tuition and fees at any institution in Kentucky — from cosmetology school to a state university — that will train students for jobs. The program also would provide laptop computers to every eighth-grader in the state.

“It’s time we start talking about further education for everybody, not just higher education for a few,” Galbraith said. “We need to train our C and D students into employability, too, or else they are just going to be a drag on us.”

Galbraith reasons that the initiative would draw in new training programs and emerging industries and also help attract jobs by creating a more highly skilled workforce.

He estimates the program would cost about $350 million annually, which he says can be paid for by eliminating waste and inefficiency in state government.

In particular, he believes Kentucky could save $1 billion by employing state workers on projects rather than using personal service contracts to hire private firms, which he calls a system of “political payoff.”

The Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship, known as KEES, already provides state funds to help high school graduates with good grades pay tuition to college or technical schools.

Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, a Louisville Democrat who sponsored the bill to create KEES in 1998, said one issue he has with Galbraith’s proposal — aside from funding — is that it doesn’t provide a sustainable strategy toward obtaining degrees.

Spending state funds on courses that do not count toward a degree is already an issue and would become a larger problem under the Commonwealth Incentive, Shaughnessy said.

“Where our challenge is now is not just getting students through the front door, but to get them through their respective program as quickly as possible, and we are failing miserably from that perspective,” he said.

Galbraith said that his goal is to provide poor students with vision beyond high school, and that the program would serve as a launching pad.

Backing biofuel

In addition to education, Galbraith is calling for programs to encourage bio-industrial development, clean up the environment and help Kentucky transition from coal.

He opposes the coal mining process known as mountaintop removal and said he is disappointed that the federal government hasn’t enforced environmental regulations on coal mining more strictly.

“I don’t want the (Environmental Protection Agency) to get off the backs of the mining companies,” he said, referring to a comment made earlier in the year by Gov. Steve Beshear. “I want the EPA to enforce the laws that are on the books right now.”

Galbraith advocates ending coal subsidies and forcing coal companies to invest in public infrastructure in Eastern Kentucky. He said he is not against mining in general, but believes coal as an industry is in decline and mountaintop removal replaces workers with machines.

One way Galbraith proposes to transition from coal involves expansion of natural gas development and promotion of hemp as a biofuel. Hemp could become a $1 billion industry and create 60,000 jobs in Kentucky, he estimates.

According to the University of Kentucky Crop Diversification and Biofuel Research Education Center, Kentucky was once a leader in farming hemp as a fiber crop.

However, production declined after the Civil War, and hemp — the same species as marijuana — is now restricted by state and federal laws.

Former Gov. Brereton Jones appointed a task force in 1994 to study hemp’s potential in Kentucky, but its value as a cash crop remains in question.

Scott Smith, dean of the UK College of Agriculture, who helped perform research for the task force, said the effort did not demonstrate much potential, and the federal government turned down a request from the Kentucky General Assembly in 2000 to study hemp farming here.

“It’s not an issue that the states or the governor can deal with until the federal government changes its policies,” he said.
Marijuana reform

Galbraith is best known for advocating reforms to marijuana laws, and he credits marijuana for curing his asthma.

Although the issue not central to his campaign, as in years past, Galbraith still proposes to license and regulate marijuana, allowing people to grow the plant at home and dispense the drug after obtaining the appropriate permits. The term “legalization” overgeneralizes his position, he said.

“I want it to be available to the adults who want it, and it doesn’t only have to be for medical (uses),” he said. “All use is medical. It is the number one stress reliever on earth.”

Galbraith said he would rather focus anti-drug resources on more addictive substances such as illegally traded pain pills. He wants to sue pharmaceutical companies to fund drug treatment programs and said treatment is the main the solution he would support for addicts while traffickers should face stricter penalties. “I’m the most anti-drug person in the whole damn campaign,” he said.

On other issues, Galbraith proposes to tackle tax reform and wasteful spending.

He advocates extending the state sales tax to services, and elimination of the state income tax.

Both Forgy and Voss believe Galbraith continues to run because he enjoys the exposure and feeds off an audience.

Voss said that Galbraith could earn some support this year from progressives who are unhappy with Beshear’s center-left positions and that he may win votes from a subset of tea party populists who like challenges to the establishment.

While some may dismiss his candidacy, that “doesn’t mean it is a waste of time,” Voss said.

According to the latest Courier-Journal/WHAS11 Bluegrass Poll, Beshear, a Democrat, leads the Republican nominee, Senate President David Williams, 57 percent to 26 percent among likely Kentucky voters. Galbraith had 8 percent, and 9 percent remained undecided.

But Galbraith disputes the accuracy of opinion polls and said he remains committed to the oath he made four decades ago.

“When I take an oath or make up my mind to do something,” he said, “I am going to do it.”