Richie Farmer determined to bounce back after tough year

trying year marked by unflattering publicity

jbrammer@herald-leader.comOctober 19, 2011 

  • Richie Farmer

    Party: Republican

    Born: August 25, 1969

    Residence: Frankfort

    Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Kentucky

    Occupation: Kentucky commissioner of agriculture

    Elected office: Commissioner of agriculture (2003-present)

    Family: Wife, Rebecca; three children

    Web site: WilliamsFarmer.com

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of stories about candidates for lieutenant governor.

FRANKFORT — Of all his 42 years, this one has been the toughest for Richie Farmer.

"I'd be lying if I said anything different," said the Kentucky basketball icon who is about to wrap up eight years as state agriculture commissioner and is hoping to become Kentucky's next lieutenant governor.

Farmer has endured personal upheaval and public pillorying while running on a ticket this year with Republican gubernatorial nominee David Williams.

As his wife of 13 years filed for divorce this spring, the media and Democrats dogged Farmer with questions about spending in his state office. The controversial purchases range from refrigerators and televisions to hotel stays and conference trips. He claims all of them were appropriate to his job.

While his office's signature program, Kentucky Proud, has been praised for dramatically increasing the visibility of Kentucky-grown farm products, political opponents say the program spent too much money promoting Farmer.

The $2 million program spends about $765,000 a year on advertising, including TV ads that feature Farmer and other members of the "Unforgettables," the University of Kentucky's 1991-92 basketball team.

In 2006, Kentucky Proud spent more than $4,200 for 550 bobbleheads fashioned in the likeness of Farmer that were given away at the boys' and girls' Sweet 16 high school basketball tournaments. The dolls, each 7" tall, show a smiling Farmer dressed in a suit with a red tie. The commissioner, who started shaving when he was 12, is seen with his trademark moustache.

The dolls contain the inscription "Kentucky Proud" on the front. A copy of Farmer's signature is on the back.

The Kentucky Proud program also spent about $155,000 over several years for promotional signs at Rupp Arena and $572 in 2008 for six directors' chairs with the Kentucky Proud logo for members of the "Unforgettables" team.

"It has greatly helped the Department of Agriculture to use the commissioner's popularity as a UK basketball star," said department spokesman Bill Clary. "If the commissioner were Bob Smith, an accountant, we probably wouldn't do as much basketball promotion."

Farmer also points out that the agriculture department's staffing has dropped from about 325 employees when he started in 2004 to about 255 today. The department's operating budget has been cut eight times under Farmer.

"I have 30 percent less budget now than when I started," he said.

Spending aside, Farmer's office is now under investigation by the Kentucky Personnel Board after two political appointees were given merit-system jobs that would protect them from being fired after Farmer leaves office. Farmer reversed the appointments this summer, but the investigation continues.

Democrats have had a field day with Farmer's public woes.

"Richie Farmer has lost any credibility he had on being a responsible steward of taxpayers' money," said state Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon.

Farmer's private life also is difficult.

Rebecca Farmer filed for divorce in early April. She said in a court document that he had limited her access to the couple's money and she wants custody of their three sons.

A trial is scheduled for Nov. 22, two weeks after the Nov. 8 general election. Recent polls show Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and his running mate, former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson with a wide lead in the race.

'Proving people wrong'

Times are tough for Richard "Richie" Dwight Farmer II, but he expects to bounce back.

All his life, he says, people have told him he didn't have what it takes to succeed.

Play big-time college basketball? No way, some said. He was too small at 5-foot-11.

Be state agriculture commissioner? No experience, some said.

Now, critics contend Farmer is not ready or worthy of being a heartbeat away from the governor's office.

At a Republican rally in Lexington last month with Williams, Farmer grew serious when he told the crowd, "For my whole life, I've been told what I couldn't do."

Then he smiled, and said, "And I've got a lot of enjoyment out of proving people wrong."

Farmer remains resolved that he can help Williams lead Kentucky.

"I'm running because this state has given so much to me. I want to give more back and I think I can do that as lieutenant governor," he said in a recent interview in his Frankfort office.

That can-do attitude has served him well.

"Richie Farmer was not the quickest player I've ever seen but he was an All-Star," said Bobby Keith, his Clay County High School basketball coach. "He was the best player in the nation as a senior."

Keith called Farmer "a special person who has done more with what he's got than anyone I know. He thinks he's a winner and he ends up as a winner."

It's too bad, said the coach, that the media are focusing on "whether Farmer spent a dollar or two too much on a TV or whatever. What's important is that he has represented the state well as agriculture commissioner."

From jock to politician

Farmer was born in Manchester, the second of three children. His father, Richard, worked as a transportation manager for Shamrock Coal Co. and is now in the insurance business. Farmer's mother, Virginia, has been a stay-at-home mom.

He started on the high school basketball team as a seventh grader. In 1988, Farmer was named Mr. Basketball in the state. He played shooting guard for UK from 1988 to 1992.

After getting a bachelor's degree from UK with a double major in agricultural economics and agribusiness management, Farmer became an investment planner in Clay County.

In 2003, state Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, helped recruit Farmer to run for commissioner of agriculture.

Stivers said Farmer now would make an excellent lieutenant governor.

"The truth of it is that many sell Richie short, thinking he has a jock mentality, and laughing at his accent, but Richie Farmer has proven himself to be a competent public official," Stivers said.

"He's as qualified to be lieutenant governor as Daniel Mongiardo," Stivers said, referring to the current Democratic lieutenant governor.

Farmer admits he was "nervous" when he jumped into politics. "I never dreamed that I would be a politician."

In his 2003 campaign against Democrat Alice Baesler, a Department of Agriculture employee and wife of former Lexington Mayor Scotty Baesler, Farmer took more than 55 percent of the vote while emphasizing his basketball history.

Kentucky Proud

The agriculture department has an annual budget of about $30 million, about $23 million of which comes from the state's General Fund.

The department's two primary duties are regulation — inspecting a host of items from gasoline pumps and amusement rides to the harvesting of wild ginseng — and promotion of agriculture.

Early on as agriculture commissioner, Farmer built a motor fuels testing lab in Frankfort .

"Now we can do many more tests by random sampling across the state," Clary said.

But Farmer's "big deal, what he talks about most," said Clary, is Kentucky Proud.

Former Commissioner Billy Ray Smith started the program, but Farmer oversaw its expansion from fewer than 30 participating members in 2004 to more than 2,800 now, Clary said. Members include farms, restaurants and schools..

Deanna Elmore, a spokeswoman for Ale-8-One Bottling in Winchester, said the company is now marketing Ale-8-One salsa with the Kentucky Proud logo.

"Farmer has done a very good job with this," Elmore said. "He has surrounded himself with good people — just what a good manager should do."

Sen. David Givens, a Greensburg Republican who heads the Senate agriculture committee, said he was "skeptical" about Farmer when he was first elected commissioner.

"I'm now plenty impressed," Givens said. "His administrative ability is way much more than I expected, and Kentucky Proud is the best money the state can spend."

Givens' Democratic counterpart in the House, Rep. Tom McKee of Cynthiana, said he has no problems with the way Kentucky Proud has fared under Farmer.

Marshall Coyle, a Bath County farmer and former president of the Kentucky Farm Bureau, said Farmer has "done an outstanding job as commissioner. He's a hard worker who is easy to work with."

What's next?

Looking ahead, Farmer said he would like to continue his efforts to promote the state and its economic development if he becomes Kentucky's next lieutenant governor.

If he loses the election, he does not know what he will do for a living. "I still have my insurance license," he said. "I've enjoyed marketing."

And his love for basketball is still there. He acknowledged that his "dream job" would be UK's athletics director.

"Nothing against (current UK athletics director) Mitch Barnhart," he quickly added.

"At the end of the day, we're all Kentuckians. Just let me do something to help Kentucky."

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