John Y. Brown Jr.

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On March 27, 1979, Brown interrupted his honeymoon with Phyllis George to announce his candidacy for governor of Kentucky. [6] [39] The announcement surprised most political observers because of his prior political apathy and because Brown had spent considerable time out of the state with his business ventures and lavish lifestyle. [6] Funding his campaign with his own personal fortune, Brown launched a massive media campaign promoting his candidacy to help him overcome his late start in the race. [39] He promised to run the state government like a business and to be a salesman for the state as governor. [6]

Other candidates in the Democratic field included sitting lieutenant governor Thelma Stovall, Terry McBrayer (the choice of sitting governor Julian Carroll), congressman Carroll Hubbard, state auditor George Adkins, and Louisville mayor Harvey Sloane. [40] Initially the leading candidate, Stovall was hampered during the campaign by ill health. [40] During the campaign, Brown was attacked by McBrayer for refusing to release his federal tax returns. [41] McBrayer also claimed that Brown had not voted in a Democratic primary since 1975, a charge validated by public voting records. [41] Nevertheless, Brown won the primary by a margin of 25,000 votes. [6] The race was so close that Sloane, Brown's closest competitor, refused to concede for two days. [6] Brown defeated former Republican governor Louie B. Nunn in the 1979 general election by a vote of 588,088 to 381,278. [42]

Renovation of Governor's Mansion

The Kentucky Governor's Mansion underwent a significant renovation during Brown's term KY Governors Mansion.png
The Kentucky Governor's Mansion underwent a significant renovation during Brown's term

Within a month of moving into the Governor's Mansion, Brown noticed significant deterioration in the wiring and ordered a full inspection. [43] The Department of Buildings and Construction's preliminary report stated "If this was a privately operated structure, this office would have no alternative other than to give the operator 30 to 60 days to rewire the structure." [44] The report went on to say that the mansion was a virtual firetrap. [44] Upon receiving the report, Brown immediately moved his family out of the mansion and back to Cave Hill, his estate in Lexington. [44] The Department of Buildings and Construction forbade use of the mansion for overnight purposes or group meetings until repairs could be made. [44] Brown's Cave Hill estate was officially designated the temporary executive mansion, and the state agreed to furnish Brown's groceries, reimburse him for entertaining official guests, and pay for telephone calls made in his capacity as governor. [45] He was also given a travel allowance. [45]

In March 1980, the General Assembly created a committee to study whether it would be more feasible to construct a new governor's mansion or repair the old one. [46] Ultimately, they decided to renovate the existing mansion, and Brown's wife Phyllis was given liberal input into the decision making. [46] The state had expected to cover the cost of the repairs using federal revenue sharing funds, but President Jimmy Carter ordered a halt to the funds in May 1980. [46] First lady Phyllis Brown organized a group called "Save the Mansion" to raise private funds to offset the repair costs. [46] Independently wealthy, Governor Brown donated his first year's salary to the project. [47] He waived his salary for the remainder of his term. [47] The renovation and repairs were completed in March 1983, and the Brown family returned to the mansion in April. [48]


Governor and Mrs. John Y. Brown, with C.V. Whitney and Marylou Whitney. Mr. and Mrs. C.V. Whitney and Governor and Mrs. John Y. Brown 001.jpg
Governor and Mrs. John Y. Brown, with C.V. Whitney and Marylou Whitney.

Because he owed few favors to the state's established politicians, many of Brown's top appointees were businesspeople. [6] Keeping a campaign promise to appoint a woman and an African-American to his cabinet, Brown named William E. McAnulty Jr., and Jacqueline Swigart to his cabinet. [49] McAnulty resigned his post as secretary of the state's Justice Cabinet within one month, saying the position would keep him from spending enough time with his family. [50] Brown re-appointed McAnulty to his former position as a judge with the Jefferson County District Court and replaced him with another African-American, George W. Wilson. [50] He also appointed Viola Davis Brown as Executive Director of the Office of Public Health Nursing in 1980, she was the first African-American nurse to lead a state office of public health nursing in the United States. His most controversial appointment was Frank Metts, his secretary of transportation. [47] Metts broke with political tradition in Kentucky, announcing that contracts would be awarded on the basis of competitive bids and performance rather than political patronage. [47] Despite cutting personnel from the department, Metts doubled the miles of road that were resurfaced. [47]

Difficult economic times marked Brown's term in office. During his tenure, the state's unemployment rate climbed from 5.6 percent to 11.7 percent. [39] Brown stuck to his campaign promise not to raise taxes. [47] When state income fell short of expectations, he reduced the state budget by 22 percent and cut the number of state employees from 37,241 to 30,783, mostly through transfer and attrition. [1] [47] At the same time, his merit pay policies increased salaries for the remaining employees by an average of 34 percent. [47] He cut the executive office staff from ninety-seven to thirty and sold seven of the state's eight government airplanes. [47]

Brown appointed a group of insurance experts to study the state's policies and put them out for bid, ultimately saving $2 million. [51] He also required competitive bids from banks where state funds were deposited; the extra interest generated by this process generated an additional $50 million in revenue to the general fund. [52] He opened communications and contacts with Japan, setting the stage for future economic relations between that country and Kentucky. [52] Among his other accomplishments as governor were the implementation of competitive bidding for government contracts and passage of a weight-distance tax on trucks. [39]

Lt. Gov. Martha Layne Collins acted as governor for more than 500 days of Brown's term. Martha Layne Collins, governor of Kentucky, Nov 8, 1986.jpg
Lt. Gov. Martha Layne Collins acted as governor for more than 500 days of Brown's term.

Brown was less involved with the legislative process than previous governors. [6] For example, he did not attempt to influence the choice of legislative leadership, while most previous governors had practically hand-selected the presiding officers in each house. [6] During one of the two legislative sessions of his term, he went on vacation. [39] Consequently, many of his legislative recommendations were not enacted. [6] Among his failed proposals were a multi-county banking law, a flat rate income tax, professional negotiations for teachers, and a constitutional amendment to allow a governor to be elected to successive terms. [6] In all, Brown was out of the state – leaving Lieutenant Governor Martha Layne Collins as acting governor – for more than five hundred days during his four-year term. [39] As noted by Kentucky historian Lowell H. Harrison, Brown's hands-off approach allowed the legislature to gain power relative to the governor for the first time in Kentucky history, a trend which continued into the terms of his successors. [39]

During his term, Brown served as co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission and chair of the Southern States' Energy Board. [1] In May 1981, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Kentucky, and in May 1982, he was the recipient of the Father of the Year award. [13] In September 1983, the national Democratic Party named him Democrat of the Year, and he was later made the party's lifetime Honorary Treasurer. [1]

In 1982, Brown was briefly hospitalized for hypertension, and near the end of his term, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery. [37] While recovering from the surgery, Brown suffered a rare pulmonary disease, keeping him hospitalized for weeks, during part of which time he was comatose. [53] He had no pulse for a period of time, and one of his lungs partially collapsed. [54] Brown's office tried to conceal the seriousness of his condition, drawing fire from the press. [39] Following his recovery, he gave up smoking and took up jogging. [53]

In Kentucky's Governors, Brown biographer Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau said of his administration: "There were no scandals. Neither he nor any of his people were accused of corruption." [53] Scandal did touch Brown personally, however, as well as some of his close associates. In 1981, he was investigated for withdrawing $1.3 million in personal cash from the All American Bank of Miami. [55] The bank failed to report the transaction to the Internal Revenue Service as required by law. [55] When the Federal Bureau of Investigation probed the matter in 1983, Brown claimed he withdrew the money to cover gambling debts he ran up during "one bad night gambling" in Las Vegas. [55] Brown, who was not the focus of the FBI's investigation, later recanted that statement. [55]

Some of Brown's associates were involved with a Lexington cocaine and gun-smuggling ring called "The Company". [56] James P. Lambert, an associate of Brown's since they attended the University of Kentucky together, was indicted on more than 60 drug charges. [57] Phone records also showed calls from the governor's mansion to several individuals eventually convicted of drug charges in connection with the investigation. [58]

Later political career

On March 15, 1984, Brown filed as a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Walter "Dee" Huddleston just hours before the filing deadline. [53] Six weeks later, on April 27, he withdrew his candidacy, citing the effects of his serious illness and surgery from the previous year. [53]

In 1987, Brown again ran for governor, entering a crowded Democratic primary that included Lieutenant Governor Steve Beshear, former governor Julian Carroll, Grady Stumbo, and political newcomer Wallace Wilkinson. [59] He entered the race late – filing his candidacy papers in late February before the primary election in late May. [60] When Brown approached the state capitol to file his papers, Beshear met him outside the filing office and challenged him to an impromptu debate, but Brown declined. [60] As Brown quickly became the frontrunner, Beshear attacked his lavish lifestyle in a series of campaign ads, one of which was based on the popular television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous . [61] Other ads by Beshear played up Brown's ties to James P. Lambert, while still others claimed that Brown would raise taxes. [61] [62] Brown refuted Beshear's claims in ads of his own, and the battle between Beshear and Brown opened an opportunity for Wilkinson – who distinguished himself from the field by advocating for a state lottery – to make a late surge. [59] [62] He defeated Brown, his closest competitor, by a margin of 58,000 votes. [59]

Later life

Following his unsuccessful run for the governorship in 1987, Brown resumed his career in the restaurant industry. He started the Chicken Grill restaurant in Louisville and helped his wife, Phyllis, launch Chicken By George, a line of boneless, skinless chicken breast products designed for sale in supermarkets and preparation at home. [63] In 1988, Hormel made Chicken By George one of its subsidiaries. [63] Brown expanded several other restaurants including Miami Subs, Texas Roadhouse, and Roadhouse Grill. [53] None of these ventures matched the success he experienced early in his career. [6]

Singer Kenny Rogers collaborated with Brown to launch Kenny Rogers Roasters in 1991. WIKI KENNY ROGERS.jpg
Singer Kenny Rogers collaborated with Brown to launch Kenny Rogers Roasters in 1991.

In 1991, Brown formed a partnership with recording artist Kenny Rogers, co-founding and serving as CEO of Kenny Rogers Roasters, an international chain of wood-roasted chicken restaurants. [18] The founding of Kenny Rogers Roasters was part of a larger movement in the restaurant industry toward healthier, take-home offerings. [64] Roasters immediately found itself in competition with Boston Chicken (later known as Boston Market) and several smaller roasted chicken chains. [64] Kentucky Fried Chicken also introduced a roasted chicken line of products called Rotisserie Gold to compete with Roasters and Boston Chicken. [64] In December 1992, Clucker's, a smaller player in the roasted chicken market, sued Kenny Rogers Roasters, claiming the chain had copied its recipes and menus. [65] The lawsuit continued until Roasters purchased a majority stake in Cluckers in August 1994. [65] Brown then took Roasters public and grew it to a chain of more than 1,000 restaurants before selling his interest in the franchise to the Malaysia-based Berjaya Group in 1996. [66]

Brown and his wife Phyllis separated in August 1995. [67] Phyllis filed for divorce in Kentucky in 1996, but withdrew the petition amid settlement talks with her husband. [67] After Brown reportedly cut off much of his wife's financial support, she filed a second divorce petition in 1997, this time in Broward County, Florida where her husband was living at the time. [67] After a brief legal fight over whether the proceedings should take place in Kentucky or Florida, the divorce became final in 1998. [67] [68] Later that year, he married former Mrs. Kentucky Jill Louise Roach, 27 years his junior, but they divorced in 2003 for reasons not released. When asked why they divorced he stated "I do have great love for Jill, but something which cannot be overlooked has come up in our marriage. I will always love her and her children, but it seems a divorce is our only option now." [68]

In 1997, Brown agreed to be co-chairman of Governor Paul E. Patton's Council on Domestic Violence along with Patton's wife, Judi. [69] Brown said he had always been interested in curbing domestic violence, but his interest became personal after he discovered that his sister, Betty "Boo" McCann, had been a victim. [69] In 2003, Patton renamed Kentucky Route 9 as the "John Y. Brown Jr. AA Highway". [70] The "AA" designation comes from the fact that the highway originally connected the cities of Alexandria and Ashland. [70]

Brown Jr. in 2011 John Y. Brown, Jr..jpg
Brown Jr. in 2011

In late 2006, Brown partnered with actress Suzanne Somers to open a do-it-yourself meal preparation store called Suzanne's Kitchen. The flagship store opened in Tates Creek Centre in Lexington, and a second store was opened in New Jersey. Brown intended to build the business into a chain, but five months after the Lexington location opened, both stores closed. Brown said he wanted to "revamp the whole format to get something even more convenient" and promised to re-open both stores at some unspecified future date. [71] Investor John Shannon Bouchillon sued Brown and Somers, claiming they had deceived him both before and after his investment of $400,000. [72] The case against Brown was dropped before it went to trial. In 2011, a Fayette County, Kentucky judge dismissed the suit against Somers for lack of evidence. [72]

Brown refused to serve on the inaugural committee of his old political foe, Steve Beshear, when Beshear was elected governor in 2007. All of Kentucky's living former Democratic governors were invited to participate, and each accepted the invitation with the exception of Brown. Of his refusal, Brown stated "I don't respect him. I don't want to be part of it. I'm not really interested in being politically correct." Referring to the 1987 Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign, Brown continued, "He said things that were not true, like we had raised taxes. I just never respected him after that." [73] However, when Beshear was reelected in 2011, Brown did serve as inauguration co-chair with the other former governors. [74]

In 2008, Brown was named to the University of Kentucky College of Law Alumni Association's Hall of Fame. [38] In a press release, the association cited Brown's success at Kentucky Fried Chicken, his political career, and his help in establishing the university's Sanders–Brown Center on Aging as reasons for his induction. [38] The center is named in honor of Harland Sanders and Brown's father. [38] Brown divided his time between homes in Lexington, Kentucky, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. [53]


Brown died at a hospital in Lexington on November 22, 2022, at age 88. [75] He had been dealing with health complications derived from COVID-19 since the summer. [20] [76] His casket lay in state in the Kentucky Capitol's rotunda for two days starting on November 29, 2022. [77] [78] His funeral was held at the Kentucky Capitol on November 30. [79] [80] Brown would be buried in the Lexington Cemetery. [79]

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General and cited references

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Further reading

John Y. Brown Jr.
John Y. Brown Jr. (KY).png
Brown during his term as governor, 1978-82
55th Governor of Kentucky
In office
December 11, 1979 December 13, 1983
Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for Governor of Kentucky
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chair of the Democratic Governors Association
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Governor of Kentucky
Succeeded by