Gatewood Galbraith: 1947-2012

One of the most colorful figures in Kentucky politics has died.

Gatewood Galbraith was 64 years old. He died overnight Tuesday in Lexington from complications related to emphysema.

Over decades, Galbraith frequently sought various political offices. He ran for governor five times, most recently as an independent. His platform routinely centered around libertarian and progressive issues like marijuana legalization and gun rights.

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Like his runs for office, Galbraith was a man of intense determination, but always carried a sense of humor.

Political consultant Dea Riley was Galbraith’s running mate last year, and she spent a lot of time on the campaign trail with him. The two won nine percent of the vote, with a mix of liberal and libertarian supporters.

“Gatewood was invited to a Tea Party meeting,” she said. “Gatewood was never a big Tea Partier himself, but he appreciated the dialogue. He arrived and everyone said, ‘Oh, Gatewood, thank you for coming. We’re so glad you’re here.’ He responded, ‘Where have you all been? I’ve been here for 30 years.’”

That’s the way a lot of stories about Galbraith go. He was outspoken. Last year, he mocked Governor Steve Beshear for not showing up for debates and Galbraith publicly told Republican challenger David Williams to drop out because he didn’t stand a chance. Both Williams and Beshear issued statements mourning Galbraith.

“I had the experience of running two races at the statewide level against Gatewood,” said House Speaker Greg Stumbo. “And if you’ve ever had that experience, you’d never forget it. He’s one of those guys who could make you mad, but you could laugh with him on the way out the door.”

Gatewood was born in Carlisle, Kentucky into a large Catholic family. His mother was a respected schoolteacher, and Dea Riley says Galbraith grew up with a strong sense of duty…and a bad case of asthma. He tried to hide the malady during the Vietnam War, when he joined the Marines.

“He’d gotten a couple of doctors to look away from the fact that he’d suffered asthma his whole life,” Riley said. “And the first time they put him out on exercise with gas he hit the ground. It was over. He was discovered.”

Riley says the asthma made Galbraith doubt his self-worth…but his eventual remedy became a centerpiece of his campaigns.

“They were treating asthma patients with marijuana,” she said. “He tried it. He never had another asthma attack for the rest of his life. What Gatewood said to me is, ‘How can I keep that secret?’”

Galbraith was open with his support of marijuana. He won an endorsement from Willie Nelson, and he told WFPL a few months ago that he still smoked.

“I smoke whenever it’s appropriate,” he said. “I might smoke again tomorrow. I don’t know. The opportunity presents itself and it’s not going to interfere with anything I do.”

Marijuana was the most famous plank in Galbraith’s platform, but he was outspoken on other issues, too. He wanted to freeze public university tuition and give every student a laptop. He was also the only candidate in last year’s gubernatorial race to oppose mountaintop removal coal mining.

And, he was open about that, too. But, as almost everyone mourning Galbraith has said, they didn’t expect him to hide anything or to hide from anything. He wanted to win elections, but he didn’t want to compromise. And the former Democrat acknowledged it was the party system the he spurned that kept him from winning.

Perhaps the best example of Galbraith’s personality is in his autobiography. But you don’t have to open it. You can just look at the cover.

“I’m standing on the front cover holding an M-16 with 400 rounds around my chest,” Galbraith said in an interview. “People ask me, ‘Galbraith, why do you have that on the cover?’ and I say, ‘Because I’m a serious man.’ And I am.”