The death of former Rep. Larry Hopkins, R-Ky., Tuesday at age 88 immediately revived memories of his near-improbable journey to Congress in 1978 — and the way his career ended so quickly 14 years later.
When reporters began covering the 29 new House Republicans elected in 1978, freshman Reps. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Dick Cheney of Wyoming, and Ron Paul of Texas, were considered the ones most likely to go places. They all did.
With his salt-and-pepper hair, a ready supply of jokes, and infectious laugh, Hopkins was universally regarded as a “good guy.” What made him a particularly interesting freshman congressman was that by any political yardstick, he should never have been in Congress.
A year before, former U.S. Marine and stockbroker Hopkins was perfectly comfortable as a state senator. After four years in the statehouse and two in the Senate, he seemed well-positioned to seek a statewide office in 1979.
Then the unexpected happened in 1978. Rep. John Breckinridge, scion of a distinguished Bluegrass State political family and a moderate Democrat, lost renomination. In a stunning upset, liberal State Sen. Tom Easterly defeated Breckinridge.
Easterly won by rolling up a big vote in his hometown of Frankfort and with strong support from organized labor. Sensing that the “union label” would not sell in the fall election, 6th District Republicans sidelined their pro forma nominee and former Democrat State Auditor Mary Loust Foust in favor of proven vote-getter Hopkins.
Hopkins’ late-starting campaign took off like an F-16 fighter. He vividly contrasted his moderate-to-conservative record with the liberalism of Easterly, as supporters of Breckinridge formed “Democrats for Hopkins” clubs.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) targeted the 6th District. With help from a big turnout in his hometown of Lexington, Hopkins beat Easterly 50% to 46% and became the 6th District’s first Republican U.S. Representative since the Civil War.
The Kentuckian served on the House Agriculture and Armed Services Committees. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) recalled how his friend Hopkins used his perch on the Armed Services panel “to reform and modernize our military” as a key mover of the Military Reorganization Act of 1987.
“My remembrance of Larry Hopkins was of a genuinely warm, kind, effective, and consequential member with a first-class staff who got things done,” Larry Casey, a top aide to two New York congressmen in the 1980s and ’90s, told Roaring Patriot. “He was one of the best members in my time on Hill. I predicted great things for him should he choose to pursue them.”
Had he remained in the House after 1994 when Republicans took control, Hopkins might easily have become chairman of either the Armed Services or Agriculture Committees in short order.
But he had grown restless and very much wanted to be governor. In 1991, Hopkins made his move but faced a last-minute primary opponent in former GOP National Committeeman Larry Forgy.
During their contest, reports came out that Hopkins’ official U.S. House biography had for years listed his military service as “U.S. Marine Corps, Korean War.” It turned out Hopkins had joined the Marines in 1954 — a year after the armistice was signed ending the Korean War.
“And once, upon arrival in Frankfort, Hopkins did refer to himself as a ‘Korean War veteran’ when he should have said ‘Korean War era veteran,'” Al Cross, former political editor of the Kentucky Courier Journal, recalled to Roaring Patriot. “So he sounded either daft or devious.” (Under the GI Bill a “Korean War Era Veteran” is someone who served in the military from June 25, 1950, to January 31, 1955.)
Forgy hit that hard, and supporters and critical newspaper editorials reminded voters that a congressman is responsible for his official biography.
Hopkins eked out a win over Forgy by 1,945 votes or 1.2% of the total.
During the fall campaign, in what was a sneak preview of things to come, it was revealed that Hopkins had 32 overdrafts at the House bank — inadvertent, he insisted — that added up to $4,035. The Republican hopeful charged that Democrats had obtained confidential information.
Democrat Lt. Gov. Brereton Jones defeated Hopkins with 64% of the vote — the worst drubbing for a Republican nominee for governor since the 1950s.
When the House Bank scandal exploded in 1992, numerous lawmakers chose to retire rather than face an electorate increasingly irate at what it considered a privileged political class. Hopkins was one of many who chose to leave Congress.
“He was the first casualty of the House bank scandal,” said Cross.
In retirement at his Lexington home, Hopkins was devoted to wife Carolyn as her health grew precarious. He proudly watched son Josh develop his skill as a TV actor and film director and daughter Shae become head of Kentucky Educational Television (KET). True to his credo that friendship always trumped politics, Hopkins endorsed Democrat Gov. Steve Beshear for reelection in 2011.
The goals of the governorship or a major House committee chairmanship eluded Larry Hopkins. But he will be remembered as, in Larry Casey’s words, “genuinely warm, kind, effective, and consequential.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Roaring Patriot. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.