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With state elections just hours away, the campaign process has led to an extensive exploration of each candidate’s positions, actions and even their traits.
As we are buried in the 30-second TV assaults that pass for political messages, one trait often seems lacking. Integrity.
When it comes to integrity, few politicians and public servants would rank above R.R. “Babe” Thomas.
Judge Thomas spent much of his working life in the Hardin County Courthouse, including multiple terms as the leader of county government. Along the way, he repeatedly demonstrated an adherence to his morals and principles.
And it sometimes led to conflicts with others.
In 1973, Congress consolidated several federal initiatives and created a jobs program called the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. Money was provided in the form of block grants to state and local governments who served as the primary sponsors of these CETA workers.
Most Kentucky counties employed CETA workers. Hardin County did not. Judge Thomas blocked it. He would not accept the money.
He was criticized regularly for looking this gift horse in the mouth and not just by political opponents. In an era when all elected county officials were Democrats, most thought Babe was in the wrong.
Neighboring counties used the money to hire jail deputies, road workers and some built their entire ambulance staff based upon it. Led by this conservative county judge bent on sticking to principle, Hardin County did not.
Unlike most others, Thomas did not see block grants as free money. Like all the money that passes through county government, it all came from taxpayers — even gifts from the federal treasury. He was certain that spending grant money on recurring costs such as salaries set the county up for hardship and layoffs when the federal program eventually disappeared.
CETA disappeared in 1982. While most of Kentucky counties suffered, Hardin County was not impacted by the federal policy change.
Time proved that Judge Thomas had been correct all along.
It’s nice to be proven right but Judge Thomas had the reward of knowing he remained true to his convictions.
Another of his principled but unpopular stands came to mind last week when an Elizabethtown event briefly became the centerpiece of the current gubernatorial campaign.
Criticism surfaced regarding Kentucky politicians and community representatives participating in a Hindu ground blessing ceremony held as part of a celebration of a $180 million investment in a new manufacturing plant.
A generation ago, it was not India but Japan making new investments in Kentucky. A major ceremony was planned at Freeman Lake Park to celebrate one of those new employers.
Judge Thomas, the county’s leading elected official, did not attend.
He did not feign an illness or make an excuse. It was quite clear then — as it is now — that his decision was based on a principle rooted in personal experience.
Babe Thomas served with the U.S. Navy in World War II. While in the South Pacific, he saw countless atrocities of war. He knew friends who were captured only to later die in the infamous Bataan Death March.
Principles based on pain associated with those memories caused him to refuse to participate. And he was criticized and shunned for his views.
“It outraged many folks,” Thomas said in a conversation last week. He recalls then-Gov. Martha Layne Collins sending emissaries trying to convince him to change.
Thomas could not bring himself to participate in social events welcoming the Japanese. He remained true to his own view. At the same time, he did not criticize anyone who did.
“I have great respect for freedom of action,” Thomas said. “So long as it doesn’t harm someone else.”
What’s he think about the governor and others participating in a Hindu ritual?
“I suppose it was harmless.”
Basically, he said if someone was personally willing to take part that’s their own business. Each to our own conscience and judgment.
There’s a thought to carry to the polls Tuesday.
Ben Sheroan is editor of The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at (270) 505-1764 or firstname.lastname@example.org.