Politics & Government

After easy wins, Richie Farmer on a bumpy political road

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, right, and Senate President David Williams made a campaign stop in Ashland earlier this month. Farmer is running for lieutenant governor.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, right, and Senate President David Williams made a campaign stop in Ashland earlier this month. Farmer is running for lieutenant governor.

For someone who says he once swore he'd never go into politics, Richie Farmer made it look easy in his first two campaigns for public office.

Farmer, a sharp-shooting state basketball champion from Clay County in high school and a guard on the beloved 1992 University of Kentucky team that nearly won a Final Four spot, capitalized on his status as a basketball icon to win election as agriculture commissioner in 2003 despite missing a number of campaign forums.

He cruised to a second term in 2007, leading all vote-getters even as the man at the top of his ticket, Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, lost re-election by a wide margin.

It's been a different story this year, as Farmer runs for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Senate President David L. Williams, R-Burkesville.

His wife of 13 years, Rebecca, filed for divorce in early April. She said in a document that he had limited her access to the couple's money. Farmer has asked that the divorce be dismissed.

Farmer also has faced questions about his use of taxpayers' money, including buying new vehicles when state government was strapped; spending more than $10,000 to attend a conference at a Caribbean resort with other department employees in 2010; renting an upscale suite during the 2011 state high school basketball tournament in Lexington even though he lives less than 30 miles away; and failing to pay income taxes on his personal use of a state vehicle.

Farmer initially declined to take part in a money-saving state furlough, angering workers who have had no choice about taking unpaid days.

Critics have said the spending doesn't match the Williams-Farmer campaign theme of being fiscal conservatives.

Farmer, Williams and aides have defended the spending, saying the Caribbean trip was an important networking opportunity, Farmer promoted a key agriculture program during the state tournament, and upgrading the department's vehicle fleet was cost-effective.

Farmer apologized for balking on the furlough and said he would donate six days' salary to charity. And he said he would pay what he owes for using the state SUV.

Despite the bumps, Farmer says the days when he was reluctant to get into politics are gone.

Now he wants to stay in office and push for progress, said Farmer, 41, who has three sons.

"I see so many of our bright, talented young people are having to go to other cities and other towns and other states to have opportunity," Farmer said. "And you know, I just want to try to get involved, stay involved and do what I can to make this a place where, you know, those kids can stay and live right here in this wonderful state that we have and make their dreams come true."

Farmer said if he is elected, he would want a role in helping to recruit jobs to Kentucky.

Farmer majored in agricultural economics and agribusiness management at UK, getting a degree in 1995, three years after his playing days.

He didn't grow up on a farm, but an influential teacher and coach from his youth farmed, and he recognized the importance of agriculture to the state's economy, Farmer said.

He worked in sports marketing for a time after college before returning to Clay County to go into the insurance business with his father, Richard, who had once been in the coal business. Richie Farmer said he also got his securities license and sold insurance and annuities.

People often talked to him about running for political office, Farmer said, but he wasn't interested.

His father finally convinced him, Farmer said, telling him that if he could do something to make Kentucky a better place for his sons to grow up, it would be the greatest gift he could give them.

Farmer said in a recent interview he didn't know a great deal about the duties of agriculture commissioner or the office before his 2003 race.

His tenure has been successful, however, with increases in farm sales and the growth of a signature marketing program even as the number of employees dropped by 20 percent, Farmer said.

Farmer said the Kentucky Proud program, an initiative to boost sales of farm products produced in Kentucky, has grown from a handful of participating producers to more than 2,400 during his tenure, with retail sales topping $500 million.

Farmer chose the name and logo for Kentucky Proud and helped push it, using his basketball connections to get former UK teammates to plug the program, for instance, said Michael Judge, who helped set it up.

"It's the most successful branding program that agriculture has ever done" in Kentucky, said Judge, now a lecturer at Eastern Kentucky University.

Dave Maples, executive director of the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association, said Farmer has been accessible and has consulted with him. Maples and others also said Farmer put good people in place at the department and let them do their jobs.

Farmer counted heavily on employees to get the job done, recognizing that people in the field were probably more knowledgeable than him in their areas, said Mark Farrow, a former state representative who was attorney for the department until retiring in December 2008.

"I don't consider him to be a micro-manager," Farrow said. He said Farmer was easy-going but could be tough if necessary.

Party affiliation also wasn't an issue with Farmer, said Farrow, a Democrat who started under Farmer's predecessor but stayed on under the Republican.

Farmer said his record in running the Department of Agriculture efficiently is a plus for the ticket. But he also said it would be foolish to think that the name recognition he enjoys from his days as a basketball star isn't a great asset as well.

"Everywhere I go, obviously people remember the basketball days," he said.

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