Robert A. Farmer, a top Democratic Party fundraiser who was national party treasurer and also served as national treasurer for the presidential campaigns of John Glenn, Michael S. Dukakis, Bill Clinton and John Kerry, died July 22 at a hospital in Miami. He was 78.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his husband, Tom Winston.
Farmer was said to have been one of the political fundraising luminaries of his generation.
In 1991 he resigned after three years as national treasurer of the Democratic Party to become the chief fundraiser of then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton’s 1992 bid for the presidency. “He could talk an owl out of a tree,” Clinton told the Boston Globe. As president, Clinton appointed Farmer consul general to Bermuda.
As the widely reputed “father of soft money,” Farmer targeted money not subject to the same regulations and limitations as gifts to specific candidates or campaigns. This would be money for such activities as voter registration drives; party administration; or state organizations that may have supported a specific candidate, but nevertheless had the trappings of neutrality.
A former publisher of educational books, Farmer sold his business in 1983. Over the next three decades, according to his brother, Brent Farmer, he “flunked retirement” several times. He worked for Sen. Glenn, D-Ohio, in the Democratic presidential primary of 1984 and became national treasurer for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the presidential election of 1988.
In that race, he presided over a fundraising operation that netted $90 million, parity at last with the Republican fundraising operation that had traditionally dominated the political money sweepstakes. It also made Farmer one of the preeminent stars of the political fundraising field.
Robert Alan Farmer was born in Cleveland on Sept. 20, 1938. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1960 and from Harvard Law School in 1965. While in law school he established an educational publishing company that drew on the talents of the myriad graduate students in the Boston area to publish educational books.
After selling his publishing business, Farmer held several corporate directorships in fields of educational publishing, lobbying and technology. But he was mainly known to the public as a political fundraiser.
He was low-key but persistent and unrelenting in his quest for money, and he always relied on personal contact - by telephone or face-to-face - and never letters. If he was turned down, he’d call back later. If he was turned down again, he’d call again. He’d typically end a conversation with a donor with an exclamation such as, “You’re a great American!”
He operated on the maxim the more people were involved, the better. He wanted benefactors to feel they belonged to something: the greater the contribution, the greater the belonging. Donors were asked to find more donors. A giver of $10,000 would be asked to find 10 more givers of $10,000 each. In his view, this was preferable to one donor of $100,000.
From 1994 to 1999, Farmer served as Clinton’s consul general to Bermuda, a rank similar to that of ambassador. The next year, he came out as a gay man in the Advocate, an LGBT magazine. He and Winston were together for 18 years before marrying in 2013.
In 1979, during the exodus of Vietnamese “boat people,” Farmer took two brothers into his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, from a Malaysian refugee camp. They were Hieu and Thieu Nguyen. Thieu, the younger brother, was later adopted by Farmer.
Beside his husband, of Miami, survivors include Thieu Nguyen of West Roxbury, Massachusetts; a brother; and three grandchildren.
Farmer’s last campaign was Kerry’s 2004 unsuccessful run against incumbent president George W. Bush. “He was kind of a pied piper of modern networking fundraising,” Kerry said of Farmer to the Globe.
In Farmer’s obituary published in the Royal Gazette of Bermuda, the newspaper wrote of him that “no other consul general - and certainly no other Bermudian public figure in recent times - has managed to make so many friends and such a wide range of contacts throughout Bermuda.”
Or as Farmer once put it, “I kept us out of war.”