An old joke relates the story of a man who contrived to have his faithful horse named a Kentucky Colonel. The punchline is that the animal’s chief distinction lay in being the only whole horse ever awarded the title.
It’s long been recognized that becoming a Kentucky Colonel was no big deal. About all you had to do was know someone who knew someone in the secretary of state’s office and the deed could be done in a jiff. The governor dutifully attached his signature, perhaps without even noticing the name of the honoree.
The nature of the process virtually reduces to absurdity a controversy that arose over the appointment of 1,127 Colonels since Alison Lundergan Grimes took office as secretary of state in January. The Courier-Journal reported about 675 of those recipients had contributed to her campaign and 10 of the donors told the paper their certificates arrived in the mail along with a letter on the secretary of state’s stationery thanking them for their “help and support” in the election.
The secretary said her office handles the processing of Colonel’s commissions but she is paying the postal costs out of her own pocket until the state budget is finalized.
Determined to get to the bottom of this situation, the newspaper cross-checked names of the new Colonels against a list of contributors to Grimes’ campaign and found more than half the names matched, with 40 other Colonels being spouses of contributors. The secretary of state’s office maintained the numbers were overstated.
Grimes said she considers the Kentucky Colonels program an important function of her office and tries to pick honorees who “have done great things for this state, for this nation.” This presumably excludes horses but has included Bluegrass Community and Technical College students who visited her office, fourth-grade teachers who attended a health initiative and masons she met at the Capitol. Neither political affiliation nor contribution history has anything to do with the selections, she said.
Steve Robertson, state chairman of the Republican Party, was predictably unimpressed. He complained that the mailings created the perception of “mixing political business with state business.”
Among the new Colonels, the paper found, were state legislators, lobbyists, four former governors, other state officials, a powerful highway contractor and a coal executive.
The sheer number of Kentucky Colonel titles issued – 67,000 over the past four years according to Grimes – dims any aura of exclusivity surrounding the program. If the secretary really wanted to show her appreciation to campaign contributors, she should have invested in the postage to send out personal letters, not mere accompaniments to a certificate that traditionally has gone to pretty much any Tom, Dick and Harry in Kentucky, or elsewhere, who really wanted one.
No rational person who receives a Kentucky Colonel commission would list it on a job application in the expectation of career advancement. Nor does the badge count for much when it comes to currying favor with the rich and famous. It’s rank without privilege, small change in the currency of political influence.