A Cunningham in Congress – but it’s Joe, not Bill


A Kentucky Cunningham may yet make it to Congress, but from South Carolina.

Joe Cunningham of Charleston is the Democratic hopeful in the Palmetto State’s First Congressional District. His dad, Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham, considered going after the Bluegrass State’s First District seat in the 1980s.

Bill Cunningham, the justice

Justice Bill Cunningham (photo by Leon Roberts [Public domain] via <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Justice_Bill_Cunningham,_Kentucky_Supreme_Court,_addresses_his_personal_experience_with_the_Army_Corps_of_Engineers_and_its_locks_and_dams_160820-A-EO110-007.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a>)
Justice Bill Cunningham (photo by Leon Roberts [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons)
Bill Cunningham, who lives in Kuttawa with his wife Paula, isn’t sorry he spurned a shot at Washington.

“No regrets whatsoever,” said Bill. “Those guys sleep in their offices.”

The justice slumbers at his home near Lake Barkley when he’s not on the bench in Frankfort.

Bill Cunningham was Eddyville city attorney, Eddyville prison public defender, commonwealth’s attorney, and circuit judge in his native western Kentucky before voters promoted him to the state’s highest court in 2006.

But three decades ago, more than a few district Democrats encouraged the judge to mount a primary challenge against Rep. Carroll Hubbard of Mayfield.

Bill Cunningham pondered a run but demurred.

“He was considered to be unbeatable back then,” said Cunningham, who also writes books on Kentucky history. “That, combined with my growing family, turned me off.”

Bill and Paula Cunningham reared five sons. Joe is the youngest.

Joe Cunningham, the candidate

Candidate Joe Cunningham (campaign photo)
Candidate Joe Cunningham (campaign photo)

Joe Cunningham is taking on Republican state Sen. Katie Arrington, 47, in a district that hasn’t gone Democratic in years. (Congressman James Clyburn of Columbia, the state capital, is the lone South Carolina Democratic lawmaker in Washington.)

“Joe faces the same challenge I faced with Carroll Hubbard, but he doesn’t scare as easily as I do,” Bill Cunningham chuckled.

Arrington upset incumbent Mark Sanford in the June three-way GOP primary. Joe Cunningham easily outdistanced a fellow Democrat.

Cunningham is a moderate. Arrington is a hard-right Trump loyalist who bragged that she’d be “the Kellyanne Conway of the Congress.”

Cunningham told The Huffington Post, “My opponent Katie Arrington wants to go to Congress to serve Donald Trump. I want to go to Congress to serve the Lowcountry.”

“Lowcountry over Party” is a Joe Cunningham campaign slogan.

Though dogged by a sex scandal, Sanford, a former governor, beat Elizabeth Colbert-Busch for the seat in a 2013 special election. Her brother hosts The Late Show with Steven Colbert on CBS-TV.

Cunningham has conferred with Colbert-Busch but not with her celebrity sibling. “When I first started looking at taking this plunge, I reached out to people who had run before.

“She was helpful with what things worked and didn’t work for her. But there are a few layers between Steven Colbert and me.”

Growing up in Kentucky, Joe Cunningham had his sights set on politics, his dad recalled.

“When he graduated from Lyon County High School, he asked me what he needed to study to be a politician,” Bill Cunningham said. “How many 17- or 18-year-old kids ask that?”

Bill replied that Jimmy Carter was an engineer and Ronald Reagan a movie star.

Son Joe doesn’t remember querying dad about a political career. “He’s got a great memory, so I don’t doubt it’s true. But I took the long way ’round into politics.”

Joe Cunningham is an ocean-engineer-turned-attorney who co-owns a yoga studio with his wife, Amanda. The couple has a baby son, Boone.

Despite South Carolina’s deep Republican Red hue, a victory by Boone’s dad next Tuesday might not be mission impossible.

Cunningham has raised more money than his opponent. In August, the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee agreed to spend money on Cunningham as part of its “Red to Blue” program, which is aimed at ousting Republicans thought to be vulnerable, The State newspaper reported.

The Charleston Post and Courier and other newspapers have endorsed Cunningham in the race, which polls show is neck-and neck:

The First District encompasses Charleston and also sprawls along the Atlantic seaboard.

Cunningham’s website says Bill and Paula Cunningham reared their son “to stand up and fight whenever he saw injustice in the world.” It also promises that the transplanted Kentuckian “will be a pragmatic voice” in Washington.


Berry Craig
Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of five books on the Civil War in Kentucky. The last one, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is Kentucky’s Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media in the Civil War. His critically-acclaimed Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, also from the University Press, has been reprinted in paperback.