Al Cross: Political tumult makes us value pols like Ron Mazzoli, whose ‘fine character always won’

As the nation hurtles toward a tumultuous and fraught midterm election, Kentucky is an island of relative calm.

Beyond elections for local office in every county, our voters seem unlikely to change much of government, with Republican congressional incumbents favored and GOP legislative majorities secure. Louisville will get a new congressman, almost surely another Democrat; the biggest change could be in the state Supreme Court, in races that are supposed to be nonpartisan but aren’t.

Abortion is on our ballot, as a constitutional amendment that many voters can’t understand, partly due to disinformation from both sides.

The misinformation madness that infects much of the Republican Party has had less effect in Kentucky, because state GOP leaders haven’t fanned the flame. Secretary of State Michael Adams has been a voice of calm and reason among the nation’s Republican election officials and would-be officials, some of whom undermine the system they’re supposed to protect.
Kentucky’s congressional delegation has largely taken cues from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who made clear in January 2021 what he thought about Donald Trump and then shut up – for the sake of his leadership post, party unity and becoming majority leader again (which seems likelier than not).

The only delegation member who voted Jan. 6 to uphold objections to electoral votes was Rep. Hal Rogers of the 5th District, who sounded a bit regretful as he explained himself on KET last month, saying he was simply reflecting the overwhelming opinion of his constituents.


Rep. James Comer of the 1st District, poised to be a leading inquisitor of the Biden administration when – “if” is very iffy – Republicans take over the House, was a responsible voice as some other Republicans tried to take political advantage of the attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I’ve said for several years now the rhetoric keeps getting worse and worse,” Comer told CNN’s Pamela Brown Oct. 28. “And it’s very difficult, the environment out there. You have a lot of people that get so fired up because of various political causes. It puts many politicians in a dangerous spot.”

Comer went on: “I believe people in both parties are guilty of intense rhetoric that really leads to, you know, feed into these people who are deranged and create violence. . . . Violence is wrong. These people need to be put in jail for the rest of their lives, and we need to try to do better in both parties, myself included.”

In the current Republican Party, that’s a voice of moderation. And the sort of moderate Democrats who used to win in Kentucky are an endangered species nationally.

The polarized political landscape makes you wish for politicians like Romano Mazzoli, who died Tuesday. He was Louisville’s House member for 24 years, the longest ever, and steered his own course – often to a fault.

Ron Mazzoli “at one time or another, defied almost every rule of House politics,” said the 1994 Almanac of American Politics. He was an anti-abortion Democrat who alienated organized labor, and such a maverick that he lost the subcommittee chair for immigration, the issue on which he had made his mark with Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming. He bucked the powerful cigarette industry on advertising and smoking bans, and didn’t make a priority of getting the district federal aid, which often required arm-twisting and horse-trading.

Courier-Journal editorial said some constituents “wanted more pork than his pride could deliver,” but Mazzoli “defies the stereotype of the back-slapping, deal-making, money-grabbing, promise-breaking politician, the kind who too often dominate the news from Washington. . . . He has, in short, been exactly the kind of representative that people always say they want, but too often fail to elect.”

Near the end of his career, Mazzoli stopped taking fees for speeches, limited political contributions to $100 and refused lobbying-interest money. He ran no TV ads in his last race, which he won by 5.5 percentage points when Bill Clinton was carrying the district by 13 in a three-way race. He did it his way, and quit while he was on top – and at the right time, having voted for Clinton’s 1993 budget and taxes.

Asked to name his accomplishments after he announced his retirement, Mazzoli told the C-J’s Mike Brown that he would be remembered not for legislation but for boosting public confidence in government. Mike noted that Mazzoli had bristled at suggestions that he was ever motivated by anything but the common good.

That made critics call Mazzoli sanctimonious. I never thought he considered himself morally superior but was simply a moral man focused only on his own compass.

When Mazzoli retired, then-Sen. Wendell Ford, who scoffed at sanctimony, said of him: “If politics ever challenged his deep-rooted principles, Ron’s fine character always won.”

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column.