Off The Record: Joe Clarke was truly a pioneer and a statesman

September 23, 2003|HERB BROCK

A lot of politicians and common people around Boyle County and the Commonwealth are reliving memories they have of P. Joseph Clarke, the man nicknamed "little Joe" who became a giant in the Kentucky legislature over nearly three decades as 54th District state representative. His death Sunday caused me to recall a few memories myself, including the first one I had of him in action in the legislature.

The Advocate doesn't have a Frankfort bureau like the big boys in Lexington, Louisville and Covington. Our "bureau" is whatever vehicle we're driving to and from Frankfort for a rare visit to the legislature,

For my visit to the state House of Representatives that day back in the early 1980s, my bureau was a used Ford Granada, and my assignment was to interview Joe Clarke about the prospect of the state Corrections Department taking over the old Kentucky State Hospital on Burgin Road for a prison. I was unsure of his position and needed a clarification.


I arrived at the House chamber at a great time. The session of the day had just ended. That meant I could march right in and interview Clarke. My only problem was it might take a while to locate him in the mass of 100 House members.

There was good news and bad news. The good news was that Clarke's desk was easy to locate. It was the one surrounded by a throng of media. The bad news was getting through that throng for my interview. I needed to take a number.

Remember those old E.F. Hutton TV commercials? Those were the ones in which, say, there would be a restaurant full of people making racket eating, drinking and talking. Then, when someone would say, "Well, E.F. Hutton says such-in-such," the place suddenly would grow quiet as everybody would cup their ears to hear the word from Hutton.

P. J. Clarke had the same effect on those interested in government as E.F. Hutton had on those interested in investment. They were eager to hear every word of wisdom.

And it didn't take long for me to hear Clarke's words of wisdom about the prison issue. Even though Clarke was holding court, fielding questions from representatives of all the state's major print and broadcast news organizations, he politely cut them off and let me elbow my way toward his desk. He put the big boys on hold to give some time to the "Frankfort bureau chief" of his little hometown paper.

During the interview, he said he could understand why so many of Danville's community leaders and citizens were upset about the prospect of the old mental hospital being converted into a prison. He said he understood their concerns about everything from public safety and property values. He said he would make then-Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. aware of those concerns.

But Clarke explained that the hospital already was a state facility, and it was badly needed by Corrections for a prison to house a growing number of inmates. It would be for the greater good of the state to allow Corrections to convert the facility into a prison, he said.

As it turned out, that prison - Northpoint Training Center - turned out to be more of a good neighbor than a public enemy. After 20 years of there being a prison here, the vast majority of the fears about escapes, dropping real estate values and bad effects on residential and industrial development were not realized.

But looking back on that interview, I think more about how it showed what kind of legislator Clarke was than whether he was right or wrong on a particular issue. Those few minutes with Clarke showed why he was held in such high regard around the Commonwealth.

If anyone ever wanted to cast live humans to portray the pioneer and statesman in that famous statue symbolizing Kentucky, Clarke would have been a good choice for both. A replica of the statue fittingly is in his hometown, at Governors Circle in Constitution Square.

He was a statesman in that he saw his role as representing all the taxpayers of the state and making decisions that were best for every resident. It's not that he wouldn't champion Boyle County causes, such as some road projects, but his public service was much more about making the best policy for the state than bringing home the most pork for the county. And he held to this statesmanlike stature even if a particular position would put him in direct conflict with the folks back home and was generally unpopular here. His stand on Northpoint was an example.

He was a pioneer in that he helped blaze the trails that led to the independence from the governor that the General Assembly enjoys today and to the much greater involvement that the legislature has in the budget-making process today. Clarke told me that when Wendell Ford was governor in the early 1970s, he and every other House member would find on their desks every afternoon a note from Ford's office telling them which bills they were to vote for and which bills they were to vote against.

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