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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: For Gov. Beshear, Kentucky's tornado tragedy is personal

andy beshear
Andrew Harnik
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, standing next to his wife Britainy Beshear, speaks after surveying storm damage from tornadoes and extreme weather in Dawson Springs, Ky., Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.

Several times this week – the most horrific, the most tragic in the long history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky - Gov. Andy Beshear, has had to choke back tears as he has described the unimaginable death and destruction tornadoes brought to the close-knit towns of Western Kentucky.

Anyone who would see this as a sign of weakness doesn't know Andy Beshear; doesn’t know Kentucky.

These are his people, the people he has known and loved since he was a boy.

When he cries, the people cry with him. When he shows resolve to rebuild a region reduced to rubble by the storms, the people of Western Kentucky show resolve with him.

"The governor has shown compassion, empathy and real emotion over what Kentucky is going through," said Matt Jones, the host of Kentucky Sports Radio, whose show is heard on 40 radio stations all over the Commonwealth and beyond. "He genuinely cares about people. And that is the kind of person I want in that office, especially now."

Of course, the governor has mourned with every town, every county ravaged by the storms. But the tragedy in one Western Kentucky town hit very close to home for the first-term governor.

Dawson Springs, a town of about 3,000 souls, is where his father, former governor Steve Beshear was born and where he still has ties by blood and friendship.

When he was a boy, Andy Beshear well remembers visiting Dawson Springs and sitting on his grandparents' front porch.

Local officials say about 60% of the town was wiped out in the dead of night Friday.

dawson springs kentucky tornado damage
Michael Clubb
The front steps of a house are all that remains after a tornado in Dawson Springs, Ky., Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021. A monstrous tornado, carving a track that could rival the longest on record, ripped across the middle of the U.S. on Friday.

Saturday morning, as he was beginning to deal with the reality of what had happened – eight counties with fatalities, 18 counties with significant tornado damage – Beshear took some time to make frantic calls to Dawson Springs, trying to locate his cousin, Jenny Beshear Sewell, who owns the Beshear Funeral Home in Dawson Springs.

After several hours, the governor got in touch with his cousin, alive and well.

The first places he went to on Saturday were Mayfield, a town of about 10,000 in Graves County, where there were fatalities and where the downtown was leveled by a tornado that blew debris 30,000 feet into the air; and then on to Dawson Springs, where he surveyed the damage and met with his cousin, giving her a hug.

Wednesday, he gave President Biden a tour of those towns, being careful not to interfere with the relief efforts in Mayfield and Dawson Springs.

Little wonder then that, on Monday, when the confirmed death toll from the tornadoes was at 64 (it has since risen to 75 and will undoubtedly grow), the 44-year-old Beshear had to choke back tears at his media briefing in Frankfort as he read the numbers and age range of those who died.

"We lost lives in eight counties... 64 dead, 18 unidentified."

He paused, on the verge of tears, slapping at the podium with his right hand in an attempt to compose himself.

"They range in age from five months to 86 years... six are younger than 18."

The grief was there for all the world to see.

"Remember, each of these lives are children of God, irreplaceable to their families and their communities," Beshear said. "We will make it through this. We will rebuild. We are strong, resilient people."

For most of America – and particularly most of the American news media – it was their first look at a Democratic governor who, as Kentucky's attorney general, won an incredibly close election in November 2019 over Republican Matt Bevin, who had overstayed his welcome, particularly with voters in Kentucky's two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington.

"When he was running in the primary in 2019, I signed on with Andy early on," said Col Owens, a retired legal aid attorney who has long been a Democratic leader in Northern Kentucky.

"I think he is heroic, and not just because of what he has done this week," Owens said. "He has had to deal with one crisis after another, ever since he took over as governor."

Eastern Kentucky underwent a major disaster in February 2020 when an ice storm hit and there was major flooding in a mountainous region of the state.

At about the same time, the COVID pandemic struck; and the governor was using broad powers to mandate Kentuckians to wear masks, closing schools and non-essential businesses and shutting down public gatherings, including church services.

As has happened in Ohio and elsewhere, these gubernatorial mandates got under the skin of the Republican super-majority in the legislature and they acted to take away the governor's powers to mandate COVID prevention measures.

But Beshear continued to use his office as a bully pulpit to raise awareness. When vaccines became available, Beshear pleaded with the people of Kentucky to get the shots.

"I've admired him since he was attorney general," Owens said. "I was impressed by his willingness to take on some very big people. I still admire him."

The governor faces a re-election campaign in 2023; and the prospects for that look very good – even in a state where Donald Trump won twice by huge margins.

There are those who believe he has the potential to become a national political figure, perhaps a presidential candidate some day.

But nobody wants to hear that now. Least of all Andy Beshear. And, for the time being at least, labels like Democratic and Republican mean nothing. Right now, there are only Kentuckians.

Andy Beshear leads a state that is in mourning and trying to lift itself up from the worst natural disaster in its history.

In his briefing Monday, the governor talked about writing down notes on the fatalities and realized that he was writing on the back of a paper one of his kids had brought home from school.

"There were notes on inertia on the other side," the governor said. "Inertia means that an object in motion will remain in motion.

"So, we are going to keep putting one foot in front of the other, push through this," Beshear said, his voice trembling with emotion.

And if that means shedding tears now and then with his heartbroken people, so be it. That's what a leader does.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.