The Dramatic Story of Lexington's Closest Mayoral Election
FOSTER PETTIT could have lived the life of a Bluegrass snob, tracing his roots to before Henry Clay’s day - but that wasn’t who he was. Affectionate, bright and caring, Foster showed respect for fellow citizens of every class. He delayed building his law practice for reform politics—in the Legislature as a Democratic House member and in 1971, as the last mayor of Lexington’s old government, before merger, when it was riven by warring factions.
In 1972, Foster led the effort to merge the city and county governments, and merger passed by a sweeping margin. Though a civic hero, he faced tough competition to become the first mayor of the new government. The 1973 general election night totals gave victory to the challenger by less than one vote per precinct – but the recount held a surprise…
Finished days before his death in 2014, Foster’s story paints a vivid picture of Lexington politics over 40 years ago, and reveals how many fundamental features of current-day Lexington truly hung in the balance in this closest election in the city’s history.
The Spider Election will be featured at the 2015 Kentucky Book Fair on November 14, 2015. Al Smith wrote the Foreword and Linda Blackford wrote the Afterword and both will sign books at The Morris Book Shop on Sunday November 29th from 2pm - 4pm.
Foster had a spirit and enthusiasm and energy that were just so genuine. He was a leader, and yet he was everyman, who walked comfortably alongside each of us. His leadership in creating the merged city-county government transformed Lexington from a sleepy college town to a growing city. He loved Lexington's history, yet he realized early on that the choice was to grow and thrive or to decay and decline ... and he always made the right choice.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray
Foster Pettit was the kind of citizen that doesn't come around that often. He was descended from early Lexington settlers but was forward looking. He served his hometown in many public capacities over a long and fruitful career, always handling himself with dignity and elegance. His contributions were many, accomplished with class and humility. Foster left this world having earned the genuine respect and admiration of his fellow man. A tremendous legacy indeed.— Ben Chandler, Executive Director of the Kentucky Humanities Council and former 6th District Congressman
Foster Pettit’s leadership and devotion to public service made Lexington and the Commonwealth a better place for us all and for future generations. His lasting influence is present throughout our community, but none more impactful than his support for the merger into the nonpartisan Lexington Fayette Urban County Government. Foster Pettit – always the gentleman. — Larry J. Hopkins, former Member of Congress
When I think about the people responsible for making Lexington the modern, progressive city it is today, the first name that comes to mind is Foster Pettit. A cornerstone to Lexington’s success in recent years has been its non-partisan, merged government, of which Pettit was one of the chief architects. His family roots went back to the city’s earliest days, but Foster’s eye was always on the future. He was a tireless advocate for Lexington’s history, culture and progress. His vision and leadership were invaluable, and his compassion and good humor made him a cherished friend to many. — Tom Eblen, columnist, Lexington Herald-Leader
Foster Petit will go down as one of Lexington's all time great citizens. He was always upbeat and positive about the future of Lexington which owes so much to the role he played. We worked closely together on the formation of the Lexington Tourist and Convention Bureau which then led to the building of the Lexington Center which included Rupp Arena. In that time and in the years that followed, I never saw him loose his cool or not be thinking about the next positive move for Lexington. One of the best human beings I have ever encountered. — Jim Host
Foster Pettit was an honorable man. Ned Breathitt once said to me, “you don’t get to know more than a few honorable men in a lifetime.” Because he was honorable, Foster was able to change things in his community. He could get other good men to help. He could get men to change their minds. He could get other honorable men to lead. He could, and did, change his world for the better. He led this Community through Urban Renewal, helping to restore a tired and dirty downtown to health. He convinced us to adopt urban government and then became its first Mayor under the new regime. As Mayor he had the triumph of getting people who didn’t like each other to sit down together on an all volunteer board and use their unique gifts to create Rupp Arena/Lexington Center, which has become a national basketball icon and a center of renewal for downtown Lexington. It was a dream-come-true for his community, and a brilliant success, due in large part to Foster’s participation and leadership. He also took part in unpopular endeavors, such as Lexington’s bid to buy the water company, just because he thought it was right. An honorable man indeed. — Thomas P. Dupree, Sr
Al Smith published his memoir Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism, an account of his years in journalism through newspapers, radio and television, including over fifty years in Kentucky. For thirty-three years Al was the host of “Comment on Kentucky” on KET, the longest running public affairs programs on PBS. Al worked for two presidents in Washington as chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission and was acclaimed a “National Rural Hero" for his efforts in journalism.
Linda Blackford has been a reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader for 18 years, where she has covered education at all levels statewide as well as investigative stories on government-supported institutions. She has degrees from the University of Virginia and from Columbia University School of Journalism. She has been a regular panelist on KET’s Comment on Kentucky, and she lives in Lexington with her husband and three sons.
An unedited Interview of former Mayor Foster Pettit by Arthur Rouse, Video Editing Service about the Lexington Center and Rupp Arena - Click here - Foster Pettit Interview
The Spider Election in 1972, and its importance (and good gossip.) The key role the book's author, former mayor and legislator H. Foster Pettit, played in the well-being Lexington-Fayette County experience today. Food and elections. Lexington Farmers Market origins. Accelerating Appalachia seeking applicants. With guests Gregory Pettit, who finished his father's book; Pam Miller, former mayor and first woman elected to political office in Lexington; and Accelerating Appalachia founder Sara Day Evans. Hot Water Cornbread, January 26, 2016. Ouita Michel, Chris Michel and Rona Roberts
Foster Pettit was a great man, a great leader and a great friend.
His 1973 mayoral election win by 54 votes is a classic but more importantly it solidified the merger movement in Lexington, ensuring the city would grow and develop into the thriving community it is today. His service as a Democratic state house member was an inspiration to me and helped encourage my run for the state legislature in 1974. Foster’s vision and love for his family, friends and community will be felt for generations to come.
– Governor Steve Beshear
Foster Pettit was a maverick in politics which is why he accomplished so much as Mayor of Lexington.
He was a great asset and fit perfectly in our non political business Governors cabinet. I had great respect for him as a friend as well as a public servant. We just need more independent thinkers like Foster in public service. My kind of guy!
– Governor John Y. Brown, Jr.
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