Honoring Kentucky Women: Crit Luallen
By: Jennie Leavell, Kentucky Democratic Party volunteer
President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980, as National Women’s History Week. The proclamation stated, “From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation. Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.” The sentiment grew and eight years later, Congress declared March National Women’s History Month in perpetuity. As a result, a special presidential proclamation is issued every year that honors the extraordinary achievements of American women.
There is one woman in our midst who towers above others in her contribution to Kentucky state government. Eugenia Crittenden Blackburn (Crit) Luallen is one of Kentucky’s most experienced and respected public leaders. Built on a foundation of competence and integrity, Luallen has served seven governors at the top of the ladder and was twice elected to statewide office.
It was 1974 and the Kentucky Democratic Party headquarters had just opened in Frankfort when Luallen graduated from Centre College and was looking for her first job. Governor Wendell Ford’s office hired her to work in the mailroom. It was there that she became fascinated with politics, where enthusiastic and optimistic young people were encouraged to do public service with the promise that each person could make a difference. Men were in leadership positions and candidates were mostly men. Luallen didn’t give it a second thought. She worked harder, learned as much as possible and knocked on all the right doors. Then Martha Layne Collins was elected governor, serving from 1983 to 1987. She was the first woman to hold the office and the only one to date. Luallen believes that Governor Collins helped to break down barriers for women who take public office in Kentucky. She also cites Emerge Kentucky as integral to helping women today who aspire to attain public office. Emerge Kentucky is an organization that helps women to run for office while honing their skills to win. Thirty-five alumnae have been elected to office and the class of 2019 has 30 women from 16 counties. According to Luallen, “Women today don’t feel as intimidated by the challenges they face.”
Luallen was elected the state’s Auditor of Public Accounts in 2003 and re-elected in 2007. Prior to that, she served nearly seven years as Secretary of the Governor’s Executive Cabinet, the highest appointed position in Kentucky state government. Other offices appointed and held include State Budget Director, Secretary of Finance, Secretary of Tourism, and Commissioner of the Department of the Arts. She also worked in the private sector as President of the Greater Louisville Economic Development Partnership, a regional economic development agency. In 2009 she was named Public Official of the Year by the Washington, D.C.-based magazine Governing for her positive impact on government in Kentucky.
Appointed by Governor Steve Beshear (2007-2015) as Kentucky’s 56th Lieutenant Governor, Luallen was front and center to enhanced programs that built a stronger Kentucky through job creation and expanded access to health care. As Lt. Governor, she chaired kyhealthnow, an initiative to develop strategies and track progress toward a healthier Kentucky.
She’s seen a lot. As auditor, she uncovered millions of dollars in fraud, sending 120 cases to law enforcement. This resulted in 34 public officials (from both the democratic and republican parties) being prosecuted. Under the administration of Gov. Paul Patton, 1995-2003, Luallen was essentially the government’s chief operating officer. During this tenure, she ushered through a budget compromise with Republican Senate President David Williams, leading the fight for higher education reform legislation. Both were hard fought battles.
“The proudest moment of my career was the passage of the historic Higher Education Reform legislation of 1997,” Luallen wrote. “Which created the Kentucky Community and Technical College System established long term goals for increasing educational attainment and allocated significant new funding to our public colleges and universities. I was serving as Secretary of the Executive Cabinet and coordinated the team which developed and helped pass the legislation.”
Jack Conway, former attorney general and Louisville attorney, was Luallen’s deputy cabinet secretary in the Patton administration. He stated in Louisville Magazine that Luallen never got full credit for helping forge the UPS deal among government, academic institutions and the large corporations. Likewise Al Cross, veteran Courier-Journal political observer, cites Luallen’s backstage negotiating skills during the 2000 tax reforms, where she helped bust a legislative logjam.
In a political world where there is much noise, Luallen seems to be a quiet exception. Her accomplishments may not be readily identifiable or stamped with her name on them but clearly, Luallen is at home getting initiatives accomplished, not garnering the accolades and attaining fame. Currently, Luallen serves on five boards, including those of Centre College, the James Graham Brown Foundation, and Community Trust Bank. Still active in Democratic politics, she continues to host numerous events for candidates at her historic home near Frankfort.
When asked what issues Kentucky Democrats should be highlighting for the next few elections, Luallen responded, “Democrats must have a message that resonates with hardworking Kentuckians across the state…that we are the party which supports access to health care, the creation of quality jobs and an unfailing commitment to education at all levels. It is through those policies that every Kentuckians can have opportunities for a better future.”
“The current leadership in Frankfort and Washington gives Democrats the opportunity to point out the stark differences in the two parties. Their record includes assaults on public education and our teachers, the dismantling of historic health care reforms and tax policies that benefit the wealthy at the expense of working families. We believe that every Kentuckian should have the opportunity to succeed and that good health and a quality education are the lifelines to that success.”
Deep down, all in all, Luallen believes that government has a vital role in making people’s lives better. “There is a clear distinction between democrats and republicans on this issue,” she says. “I believe the essential value of government is its capacity to lift people up and provide opportunity and security where there was none before. Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill, Pell Grants, the Affordable Care Act: the list goes on. That’s why I’m a Democrat: to provide an environment where people can participate in the American dream.”