Richie Farmer turning out to be defense liability


Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer is struggling in the press. (Ed Reinke/AP)

Kentucky state Senate President David Williams (R), also known as the “Bully from Burkseville,” was running for governor. He brought on Farmer, the state’s agriculture commissioner and popular former basketball star at the University of Kentucky, to run for lieutenant governor on his ticket. (In Kentucky, the governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket.)

But with the GOP primary approaching on May 17, it’s Farmer who’s attracting all the negative attention from the press.

“We all thought him getting Farmer as a running mate was a coup,” says Trey Grayson, a former Kentucky Secretary of State and now the director at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. “People who don’t ordinarily pay a lot of attention to politics pay attention when Richie Farmer is around.” But, he added: “When you get the rock star, you get some of the rock star baggage.”

The “rock star baggage” to which Grayson is referring?

* Farmer billed the state $359 a night to stay in a hotel suite during a high school basketball tournament in Lexington — 24 miles from his home.

* In 2010, he spent about $445,000 on 19 new vehicles for his department.

* When Gov. Steve Beshear (D), instituted furloughs in state government , Farmer was the only constitutional officer to refuse. (He later reversed his stance, saying he was “sorry that I did not come to this conclusion sooner.")

* Just today it came out that he failed to pay taxes on his personal use of a state vehicle for the past six years, despite repeated warnings from auditors.

On top of all that, Farmer’s wife recently filed for divorce, saying he gives her no access to their finances.

“Richie Farmer owes his electoral success to his former career as a University of Kentucky basketball basketball player,”said Transylvania University professor Don Dugi. “He certainly doesn’t owe it to his intellectual prowess. He’s about as dumb as a brick.” [Editors note: The Williams’ campaign took issue with this characterization and strategist Scott Jennings issued this response: “Certainly, the level of political discourse in this country is elevated by the learned Mr. Dugi’s pompous insults. Commissioner Farmer has a degree from the University of Kentucky and achieved a double-major in Agriculture Economics and Agribusiness Management. Mr. Dugi reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘critic’ who is too ‘cold and timid’ to be in the arena himself, but rather spends his time criticizing those who are bold enough to put their name on a ballot and actually stand for election.”]

That basketball history, however, carries a lot of weight in Kentucky. Farmer was one of the members of the 1992 team known as “The Unforgettables.” (Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods and John Pelphrey were the others “Unforgettables”.) They lost to Duke in the NCAA Tournament that year on Christian Laettner’s miracle buzzer beater.

And, despite Farmer’s PR problems polls suggest he and Williams have little to worry about in the coming primary as businessman Phil Moffett and Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw trail the frontrunners by a wide margin.

Combine that with the fact that Williams/Farmer have drastically outspent their rivals — the airwaves are blanketed with their ads — and it seems unlikely that an upset is in the offing.

Where Farmer’s bad press could have some political impact is in the general election against Beshear this fall. (Kentucky is one of three states that regularly elects its governors in the off-year).

The Williams campaign argues that these stories aren’t enough to hurt them, especially since Farmer has a record of reducing costs in the agriculture department (including travel expenditures). They point to the success of Kentucky Proud, an agriculture department program that promotes local products.

“They are trying every trick in the book to distract from the very easy to understand difference between Farmer, who has succeeded at economic development, and Beshear, who has failed at it,” said Williams campaign strategist Scott Jennings.

And, Republicans note that many voters won’t start paying attention until after the Kentucky Derby, which is set for this weekend, and these stories will be a distant memory by then.

But Beshear is still far ahead in polls and generally popular. If Williams and Farmers want to unseat him, they can’t afford these continued distractions.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.

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