Passing the torch: Watts reflects on nearly 3 decades as Nelson Co. judge-executive

Nelson County Judge Executive Dean Watts gives a presentation during a Fiscal Court meeting. (File photo).

Nelson County Gazette / WBRT Radio

Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021 — Nelson County Judge Executive Dean Watts made it crystal clear after winning his last election in 2018: This will be his last term at the head of county government.

People who know Watts say he’s implied that me might not run for re-election from one election season to the other in past years, but Watts said that — until now — he’s never definitely said he wouldn’t seek re-election.

“My wife Katie may have said it several times, but I never said it,” Watts quipped.

At the end his term as judge-executive at the end of 2022, Watts will have served for 28 years. Magistrate Bernard Ice is also planning to retire at the end of his term. He will have served more than 30 years.

“I never dreamed I would be here this long,” he said. “I thought maybe a term or two.”

His career as judge really was a second career; he had worked for the Shapira family for 20 years before that.

“I have enjoyed both jobs and still enjoy coming to the office today,” he said. “But I have felt myself winding down a little bit, and I think you have to look for some youth to lead the county. I’m hope that by coming out now and talking about, some younger people will start thinking about leadership roles in our county.”

THE COUNTY’S GROWTH. When discussing the county’s growth in both population and economic development during his tenure, Watts credited everyone he had working around him for their contributions in moving the county forward.

Some of the projects the county has completed helped fuel additional growth. Extending water lines further out into the county paved the way for more home construction in later years, and improved residents’ quality of life.

“None of these things could be done without a good team effort,” he said. “It takes a good team, and over the years I think we’ve had a good team that’s been pretty successful.”

As judge executive, he may present projects and plans, but the credit for making things happen really lies with the magistrates and the county’s dedicated employees, he explained.

“I’ve been blessed with having key people in the key positions over the years,” he said.

One of the biggest goals as an elected official has been to help attract jobs that can provide residents with a good living.

Evidence of the fruit of the community’s economic growth line Watt’s office walls in the form of plaques and photos from groundbreaking ceremonies over the years.

“I can go through all of [those photos] and know that they’ve all changed people’s lives for the better.”

Judge Executive Dean Watts answers questions during past Nelson Fiscal Court meeting (File photo)

HIS LONGEVITY. Watts attributed his longevity to the fact he’s governed politically from the center, not the left or the right. Watts said he has constituents on both sides of the political spectrum who sometimes voice their displeasure at his willingness to consider to the views of the other side.

Early in his political career, he said he tried to please everyone. “I learned that you can’t always do that, so I learned to try to meet people in the middle, and that’s worked pretty well.”

Watts also said that he works hard to listen to constituents who have issues, direct them to resources when needed, and he returns everyone’s phone calls. He may not have tell them what they want to hear, but they know their concerns were heard and someone cares enough to respond.

“And one more thing,” he said with a grin quoting President George H.W., “No new taxes!”

CITY VS. COUNTY. City and county government have had a good working relationship in recent years, a fact Watts attributed that to the Mayor Dick Heaton’s knowledge and skill as a good businessman. Watts said that the two men understand the needs of their constituents.

“Rural residents have a different thought process than city residents, and I think we have to recognize and respect those difference.”

A LIFE IN POLITICS. “I learned early on in life that getting mad and saying things you wish you hadn’t said later wasn’t a good way to handle any situation,” he said. “Venting out loud isn’t good, and I’ve matured out of doing that. I also quit watching commentary on CNN and Fox News,” he quipped.

Watts said that when he is out in the community he’s often stopped by constituents who wish to talk. He admitted that it can be a frustration to his family, “but I enjoy it — I enjoy it to a fault that my family gets agitated sometimes by how much time I spend talking.”

Watts talking with members of the media during the event to announce plans for the Bardstown Bourbon Company.

BOURBON GROWTH. Watts said the county has been blessed by the explosive growth of the bourbon industry, which includes both the arrival of new distilleries and the expansion and increased community investment of existing distilleries.

“Those are all good paying jobs too,” he said.

One change in recent years he’s observed is the diversification of bourbon companies. Years ago, the only thing they did was make bourbon; today, many bourbon companies are diversified and produce, warehouse or create a variety of spirits.

“If bourbon’s popularity declines, that diversity will allow those distilleries to remain strong in our community.”

WHO WILL SEEK THE OFFICE? While it is too early to talk about candidates who may wish to seek to replace Watts in the 2022 election, Watts offered this advice: “Don’t think about running for this office if you don’t want a fulltime job.”

He suggested that anyone who is interested in serving take the time and learn what all the different departments in county government do.

“I’ll be glad to work with any potential candidate and meet with them and talk with them about it,” he said. “It’s one thing to get elected; its another thing to grab a tiger by the tail — and when you do get elected, you’re going to have that tiger by the tail.”


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