It is easy to laugh at the last year of Richie Farmer scandals, as they have included some of the oddest facts in recent memory. Whether it is the expensive hotel rooms for the Sweet 16, the missing fax machines and VCRs from his office, the hiring of his girlfriend for a paid state post or the latest report of Richie shooting a deer from a state vehicle, the most obvious reaction to the Farmer scandals is one of laughter at their sheer absurdity. Jokes about “Richie Farmer stole my ____” followed by some worthless piece of equipment will be a staple of KSR for years to come. But in addition the laughter, to me there is another reaction as well and that is sadness at Richie’s plight. For me, and countless others of similar backgrounds throughout the state, Richie Farmer was not just the name attached to gas pumps and recited in Kentucky Proud commercials. He was a one-time childhood hero who represented more than just a placeholder in a particular political office. No matter what happens with the Auditor’s report and scandal, that Richie Farmer is gone forever and is the true victim of Richie’s misdeeds.
As a kid, Richie Farmer represented what I wanted to be. Like me, he grew up in Eastern Kentucky, he the pride of Clay County with a silky smooth jumper. Along with so many in the mountains, at the age of 14, he looked 35 and weathered. A mustache and thick chest hair is not common on most high school basketball talents, but for Richie, it was part of the swag. He was as popular a high school basketball player as the state has ever seen, taking his team to back-to-back state championship games and engaging in two legendary battles with Ballard and Allan Houston. Some of my earliest basketball memories are of watching Farmer’s teams play in Middlesboro and listening to his high school tournament games on the radio with my grandfather. Farmer was proof for us in the mountains that someone from the area could succeed at the highest levels. When Eddie Sutton gave in and offered Richie a scholarship to Kentucky, it felt as if the entire mountain region had been validated as Farmer (along with Pelphrey and Feldhaus) would be able to show what we could do when given the chance. The famous Cats Pause yearbook with a Freshman Richie Farmer on the cover was on the coffee table of every family in the area, and the area took pride in the mountain boy who made it good.
Everyone knows how Richie’s career progressed at Kentucky and his post-basketball success in politics followed what we all thought was his natural career arc. The amazingly popular young basketball star was on the path to being its popular Governor as well, injecting the state with optimism and pride. While most knew that Farmer didn’t “deserve” to be Governor based on qualifications, it seemed a natural destiny for someone whose life often seemed to have the Midas touch. We all heard the rumors at the time…Richie wasn’t really all that nice of a guy, his arrogance made him difficult to be around, he liked to drink more than he should, etc. But we all chose to ignore such talk, and focus instead on the positive. Every time I met Farmer, he was never anything but nice to me and I always found him to be an engaging personality. Yes, Richie might be a good old boy with his share of problems, but who amongst us has not sinned? If we were going to have an imperfect politician in office with personal problems, at least it would be “our” imperfect politician, one whose glory days were at least worth reminiscing. We knew the idea of Richie as Governor would be somewhat of a joke, but it was a joke that we could not only all live with, but it was one that we would be in on as well. Richie as Governor represented us knowingly smiling at our excesses, while embracing them just the same.
Now unfortunately, Richie is just a joke. Farmer has not only embarrassed himself, he has embarrassed the state that loved him so. It’s not just that Richie made mistakes, as those can happen to anyone, but it’s that Richie’s mistakes seem a direct repudiation of who we thought he was. All of Farmer’s problems are grounded in unbelievable hubris. The portrait that the Auditor’s report paints is of a man who believed his life had no boundaries. The idea of being a public servant, of being a man of the people, seems to be completely foreign to the once humble son of Clay County. We see a new Richie that used state employees solely for his own personal whim, from building basketball courts at his house, to taking him on shopping trips to cleaning up after he illegally shot deer. State money was utilized for his own personal and family gain, ranging from hotel rooms to insignificant gift baskets. The combination of arrogance and sheer pettiness in the violations, which include silliness like taking computer upgrades given to his employees and instead using them for his own personal electronic collection, is extraordinary. The Richie Farmer that inhabited the Agriculture Commissioner’s seat was a person with no respect for the office and a sense of entitlement that we have rarely seen. This wasn’t an isolated mistake or a personal weakness…it was a man who thought himself above the law and his constituents on every level.
This is why Richie Farmer’s downfall disappoints me so. I have long since become immune to scandals involving politicians. Most in office, like the rest of us in society, have some issue that under heightened public scrutiny, comes to light and can lead to embarrassing problems. I am a big believer in the “judge not, lest ye be judged” philosophy that leaves me hesitant to make moral conclusions on others, especially when their sins are common and known only due to the public spotlight. But the Richie Farmer story is slightly different. What is clear now is the Richie Farmer that I idolized simply did not exist. The humble Clay County mountain boy, who seemed to represent the best of the Eastern Kentucky Appalachian culture was a figment of my imagination. For all the times I rooted for him at Clay County, in college in Lexington, while his jersey was being retired in Rupp and even during his various election victories (that actually went against my personal political loyalties), it turns out I had it all wrong. Instead of our best traits that I projected upon him, Richie’s showcase of arrogance and entitlement actually represented some of our worst. More than any particular abuse of government funds, that realization is the unfortunate legacy of the end of Richie Farmer’s political career.