Mighty Muffy: RIP Susan Farmer

Sep 16, 2013

Susan Farmer, who in 1982 became the first women elected to statewide office in Rhode Island when as a Republican she ousted a longtime Democratic incumbent to become secretary of state, has died after a protracted battle with cancer. She was 71.

An energetic campaigner, Farmer was one of a group of Republican women elected in the early 1980s as Republicans who had been mentored by former U.S.  Sen. John Chafee. In an era when the Rhode Island  Democratic Party was run by Irish-American and Italian-American men who did not look kindly on female candidates, Republicans were the party of women’s issues, including abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. 

Farmer was the first elected statewide, but Republican Claudine Schneider, a Farmer ally, won election to U.S. House from the 2nd District in 1980. And the GOP’s Arlene Violet, a former Roman Catholic nun, was elected attorney general in 1984.

Farmer lost her first run for secretary of state narrowly in 1980 to longtime Democratic incumbent Robert Burns,  then won her 1982 election against Democrat Victoria Lederberg, who would later become a Rhode Island Supreme Court justice.

As secretary of state, Farmer jousted vigorously with the Democratic Statehouse establishment, battling the General Assembly over patronage and attempting to bring the office into the modern era. She took over a patronage-clotted office, fired 14 longtime employees when she took office in early 1983 and spent her time reforming state election laws and cleaning up the state voter registration rolls by purging voters who had died or moved out of state.

A liberal Republican from Providence’s East Side, Farmer was often caricatured as ``Muffy,’’ the quintessential WASP tennis playing museum trustee wife with blond tresses who got into politics because she was bored.  She played along, joking with reporters and voters alike.

But she was a woman who took any job she had very seriously but never herself. Before she ran for statewide office, she had been active in the liberal Republican side of anti-Vietnam War politics, supporting former California U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey's anti-war presidential quest.

She was universally known as `Susie.' She had a grand appreciation of life's absurdities and usually had a fine comeback line for any gibe. Farmer was one of those few politicians at home at the Hope Club or at Logan's Tap on the South side of Providence. She was an earthy and empathic  campaigner.

Farmer ran for lieutenant governor in 1986, losing a close race to Democratic incumbent Richard Licht. After that loss she became ceo of Channel 36, Rhode Island’s  public television station. In that role she raised the profile of the station, raised a ton of money to help the station and put more focus on public affairs programs, starting the political roundtable program, `Lively Experiment.’

Her smarts and charm made it difficult for Rhode Island's corporate and good government groups  to say no to her fund-raising entireties.

Farmer was ceo of Channel 36 for 17 years, retiring in 2004. In her later years, her friends and acquaintances alike admired the grit and honesty with which she faced cancer. She made many trips to the Dana Farber Cancer center in Boston and recorded her various drug trials on her social network Facebook page.

Farmer was close to both John Chafee and his son, Gov. Lincoln Chafee. The younger Chafee appointed her to the state Board of Elections, of which she was a member at her death.

She was married to Malcolm Farmer III, a prominent Providence lawyer from an old Yankee family. ``Mac’’ Farmer, as he is known, was deeply involved in Rhode Island politics and philanthropic endeavors; he was the last Republican to serve on the Providence City Council. They were known in Providence circles as simply ` Mac and Susie.'

Until her death, Farmer was very active in women’s and educational issues. She was one of a group of women from the Women's Fund of Rhode Island who pushed her friend Gov. Chafee to appoint more women to state commissions and executive level Statehouse jobs.

The Farmers were reportedly the prototypes for the fictional Dwyer family in their friend Geoffrey Wolff’s 1980s novel `Providence.’

Once, during a local parade in West Warwick she was accosted by a fellow who had obviously had too much to drink. He yelled, ``Hey Susie Farmah, I’d love to get into your jeans.’’

Farmer looked over at him, gently patted her blue-jeaned derriere, and shouted back, ``I’d love to be able to get into my jeans too.’’ She marched resolutely on.