Obituaries

Robert Farmer, 78, legendary fund-raiser for Democratic presidential campaigns

Mr. Farmer was the national treasurer for the presidential campaigns of four Democrats.
Globe photo/File
Mr. Farmer was the national treasurer for the presidential campaigns of four Democrats.

At one point during the 1988 Dukakis presidential campaign, Bob Farmer sat in a hotel suite with a wealthy donor, who placed a substantial check on the table. “I didn’t want to appear too anxious. I didn’t reach for the check,” Mr. Farmer recalled later. “There was a pause and the man said: ‘I have a question for you. Is this hello or is this goodbye?’ ”

He need not have asked. “Goodbye” was a seldom-used word in Mr. Farmer’s world of fund-raising, where one encounter led to the next, and often to dozens more meetings and calls. A legendary Democratic Party fund-raiser — “mastermind of the Dukakis success,” as one New York Times headline put it — Mr. Farmer was the national treasurer for the presidential campaigns of John Glenn, Michael S. Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and John Kerry.

“He was one of the best fund-raisers I ever had, certainly, and that we ever had as a party,” Dukakis said. “He said a lot of this has to do with friendships, mutual obligations. It’s not all about ideology or quids for the quos — all of that stuff. He had a network of people he was close to. There were genuine friendships.”

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Mr. Farmer, who also had served as US consul general to Bermuda in the mid-1990s, died Saturday in Miami of pancreatic cancer. He was 78 and previously had lived in Brookline for many years.

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“Bob Farmer was a kind, generous man, a loyal friend, and a passionate advocate for the causes he believed in,” Clinton said by e-mail. “He was an uncommonly gifted political fund-raiser who could talk an owl out of a tree. I’ll always be grateful that he joined my 1992 campaign. His efforts were critical to our victory.”

Raising the practice of networking to an art form, Mr. Farmer set party fund-raising records for presidential candidates, and between campaigns he served as treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Governors Association.

“Bob was an incredibly creative, entertaining, intelligent person who was passionate about politics, passionate about making a difference,” Kerry said. “And he chose the path of fund-raising, and he broke new ground.”

Setting ambitious benchmarks for himself and others, he refused to give up. John Sasso, a former top aide to Dukakis, recalled a day in 1988 when Mr. Farmer set a personal objective of raising $1 million in a 24-hour period. At midnight, Sasso walked in to find him still making calls. “He said, ‘It’s only 9 o’clock on the West Coast,’” Sasso said. “He was not going to leave that office until he attained his goals.”

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In days when faxes were commonplace, Mr. Farmer sent cheerful messages by the dozen and dispatched messengers with personal invitations for meetings. He turned the phone into a musical instrument upon which he played an irresistible tune. “He was kind of the pied piper of modern networking fund-raising,” Kerry said. Before the advent of Mr. Farmer and a few others like him, fund-raising held scant appeal to many who participated in politics. “Not a lot of people wanted to do that all the time,” Kerry said. “It became more fashionable because Bob was so successful.”

Mr. Farmer turned fund-raising into a competition among those he brought into each campaign. In 1992, for example, collecting the most money could earn a reward such as a ride with Clinton from Logan Airport to a Boston event.

One-on-one contact with potential donors was essential, he stressed.

“No one will write a check for $1,000 unless asked,” he told the Globe in 1992 as he sipped a Pepsi. “The reason people give is because they don’t want to say no to people who ask them. Fund-raising is a very personal business.”

The middle of three brothers, Robert A. Farmer grew up in Lakewood, Ohio. His father, Sterling, was vice president of a company that mined and distributed foundry sand from the upper Great Lakes. His mother, the former Eleanor Sandberg, was a homemaker.

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Mr. Farmer graduated from University School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where he played piano and led a band. “Bob stood out with his leadership and engaging personality from a young age,” said his brother, Brent of Cambridge.

In 1960, Mr. Farmer graduated from Dartmouth College, and subsequently took time off from Harvard Law School, from which he also graduated, to found an education publishing company. The business flourished, providing the financial independence to enter the world of politics, first with the 1980 presidential campaign of Republican-turned-independent John Anderson. Mr. Farmer sent a $1,000 contribution and a note offering assistance and soon discovered his talent for campaign funding.

Not long after that race, he arranged to meet with Dukakis, the then-former and future Massachusetts governor who was planning a campaign to return to his State House office. “He was a remarkable guy in so many ways,” Dukakis said of Mr. Farmer, whose fund-raising in 1982 far overshadowed efforts in earlier campaigns.

“He always thought about other people first. He was so thoughtful all the time,” added Kitty Dukakis, who credited Mr. Farmer’s organizational skills with helping her efforts in the 1980s to secure immigration rights for Cambodian refugees.

Mr. Farmer sold most of his publishing interests in the early 1980s. Through the years, his business affiliations included serving as senior vice president of the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Cassidy and Associates, as vice chairman of International Data Group, and as chairman of Charlesbridge, a children’s publishing company in Watertown run by his brother, Brent.

In the late-1970s, Mr. Farmer sponsored two brothers who were refugees from Vietnam and adopted one of them, Thieu Nguyen. “He was a very affectionate and loving father,” said Nguyen, who lives in West Roxbury and added that in Mr. Farmer’s later years, he preferred “to stay with us and visit with the grandkids and play with them” on trips from Miami to Boston.

“His family was always first and foremost in his life,” said Tom Winston, whom Mr. Farmer married in 2013, after they had been a couple for 13 years. “He had a natural gift for being the inclusive guy. Everyone always felt very special in his presence.”

Mr. Farmer spoke in 2000 to The Advocate, an LGBT-interest publication, about being gay and a high-ranking official in presidential campaigns in an era when many gays and lesbians concealed their sexual orientation so they could take part in national politics.

“I’m doing this interview to help young gay people somewhere feel more comfortable about who they are,” he said. “It would be great if I could make it a little easier to be gay and participate openly in politics.”

Clinton, who appointed Mr. Farmer to the Bermuda post, said he was “grateful that our friendship survived life out of politics. In our last talks, I could tell that Bob was preparing to leave this life with the same sense of love, good humor, and appreciation he brought to every day of it.”

In addition to his husband, son, and brother, Mr. Farmer leaves three grandchildren. Celebrations of his life will be announced for Boston and Florida.

Much as Mr. Farmer loved fund-raising, he conceded that it was never as easy as he made it look. “My life is filled with stress. I deflect stress with humor,” he recalled in a 1989 Globe interview, and often the anecdotes he told were at his own expense.

“The other day, after seeing my name in the newspaper and hearing it on television, my secretary told me The New York Times was on the telephone,” he said. “I stopped a meeting to take the call and the voice at the other end said, ‘Mr. Farmer, would you consider taking a 60-day subscription?’ I burst out laughing.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan. marquard@globe.com.