Congressmember Sam Farr (born July 4, 1941) represented California’s Central Coast in the United States House of Representatives for twenty-three years until his retirement from office in 2016. Farr also served six years as a member of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and twelve years in the California State Assembly. This oral history, a transcript of twenty-five hours of interviews conducted by Irene Reti, director of the UCSC Library’s Regional History Project, during the period immediately before and after Farr’s retirement from Congress, covers Farr’s political career and much of his personal history.
Sam Farr was born into a family that extends back five generations in California. His father’s grandfather was the brother of Senator William Sharon, who arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. On his mother’s (Janet Haskins) side, Farr also has deep California roots; his mother’s father, Sam Haskins, was a regent for the University of California and a prominent liberal lawyer in Los Angeles. Sam’s father, Fred Farr, was an attorney and served as a California state senator from Carmel from 1955 to 1966. He was the first Democrat in forty-three years elected to represent the Central Coast. Senator Fred Farr was a pioneer in both social justice and environmental protection and well-known on the national political scene.
While Farr was inspired by both of his parents, he had no early aspirations for a career in legislative politics like his father. He was mostly raised in Carmel, California (after the family spent some time on the East Coast and in Puerto Rico) before it became an expensive tourist town. The young Sam Farr discovered a love for the natural environment while roaming through the hills and along the beaches of the Monterey Peninsula and Carmel Valley. His mother gave him a love for the outdoors and for gardening. At Carmel High School, he found a mentor in his biology teacher, Enid Larson. His life plan at that time was to study biology in college and return to Carmel to teach high school. Farr struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia during his youth and later became a passionate advocate for people with this then-unrecognized disability. He graduated from Carmel High School in 1959 and journeyed north to earn his BA in biology at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
After graduation, Farr served in the Peace Corps in Medellín, Colombia in 1964, where he honed community development skills, in an experience that was to be one of the most formative of his life. But it was also while he was in the Peace Corps that Farr’s life was forever altered by two terrible tragedies that afflicted his family. The first was the unexpected death of his mother from cancer; the second was a horrendous horseback riding accident that killed his sister, Nancy, while the family was visiting Sam in Colombia. In this oral history, Farr speaks with candor and remarkable emotional courage about the effect these two events had on his trajectory. This was the point where he had an epiphany and decided to dedicate himself to fighting the war on poverty through a career in public service, a path that eventually led him to a career as a U.S. congressmember.
After a brief stint in law school at Santa Clara University, Farr worked as professional staff in the California Assembly for the next decade. He served under the longtime legislative analyst Alan Post, helping write cost-effectiveness studies of categorical education programs. Later he became staff to the Constitutional Revision Commission. While he was a staffer, in 1972 Farr helped organize a groundbreaking and now legendary coastal bike ride from San Francisco to San Diego, to raise awareness and support for Proposition 20, the Coastal Zone Conservation Act, which resulted in the California Coastal Commission.
Farr was developing valuable experience as a staffer in the California State Legislature, but he yearned to return to Carmel and serve in local politics. That opportunity presented itself in 1975, when there was a sudden vacancy on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors which needed to be filled by an appointment from then-governor Jerry Brown. With humor and love, Sam tells the story of how he ended up (successfully) vying with his father for that appointment. The next year (1976) he ran for official election to secure that office. Farr served as a Monterey County Supervisor, representing District 5 from 1975 to 1980. As a supervisor, he helped accomplished many things, including writing the Master Plan for Big Sur; developing the Carmel Highlands Master Plan; the Pebble Beach Master Plan; and the Master Plan for the Carmel Valley. Farr also chaired the Monterey Bay regional planning body, LAFCO [Local Agency Formation Commission] and spearheaded the creation of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, leading a historic breakthrough in the regionalization of water management in California. During this period, Farr formed a powerful organizational alliance across the bay with Santa Cruz activists, including Santa Cruz County Supervisor Gary Patton, to stop oil drilling on the Central Coast. This alliance later blossomed into the groundbreaking effort to create the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
In 1980, another chapter began when Farr was elected to the California State Assembly, representing the 27th Assembly District. While in the assembly, Farr authored the 1990 California Organic Standards Act (COFA), which established standards for organic food production and sales in California. This groundbreaking legislation became one of the models for the National Organic Program’s federal organic standards and is one of the reasons why the international organic farming movement considers Sam Farr one of its heroes. While in the assembly, Farr also wrote one of the country’s strictest oil spill liability laws and the California Ocean Resources Management Act (CORMA).
Both the Humane Society and PETA have honored Farr for his lifelong work on behalf of animal rights; while in the assembly he worked on a bill banning certain types of steel-jawed animal traps; a bill increasing state regulations on the transportation of horses to slaughterhouses; and a bill banning the purchase of dogs in California from puppy mills. During Farr’s period in the California State Assembly he also worked on issues such as banning corporal punishment in public schools; requiring the labeling of all agricultural products sold in California by their country of origin; and authorizing the installation of ignition interlock (“Breathalyzer”) devices in automobiles operated by drivers with DUI convictions. In this section of the oral history, Farr also reflects on changes during that period of California electoral politics and shares his firsthand impressions of Governors Jerry Brown, Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian, and Pete Wilson, as well as Speaker of the House Willie Brown.
An unexpected opportunity arose in 1993 when Congressmember Leon Panetta, who was representing Farr’s district in the U.S. House of Representatives, was tapped by the incoming Clinton administration to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget. After days of deliberation, Farr decided to run in the special election. As state assemblymember, Farr was already deeply involved in the Fort Ord Resuse Authority (FORA), which had been targeted for closure by the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) Commission in 1991. Part of Farr’s motivation for running for Congress was that he believed that as a U.S. congressmember he would be better able to help secure a university on the site of Fort Ord. Farr would indeed be successful in this endeavor; in 1994 California State University, Monterey Bay opened on the site, an institution that is near and dear to him today. He had other visions for Fort Ord as well, some of which were realized and some of which were not, and discusses Fort Ord extensively in this narrative.
This oral history provides a colorful, up-close, and sometimes painful view of the myriad of complex issues Congress engaged with during the twelve terms Farr served, including (but certainly not restricted to) the North American Free Trade Agreement, gay marriage, the terrorist acts of 9/11; the war in Iraq, the passage of Obamacare, immigration rights, organic farming standards, the U.S. relationship with Cuba, ongoing controversies over gun control, and ocean and land conservation.
One of Farr’s most lasting legacies will be his leadership in the area of ocean conservation. He authored many bills on behalf of ocean health, including the Oceans Conservation, Education, and National Strategy for the 21st Century Act (“OCEANS 21”) which recommended having a national policy on the oceans similar to the national policies set forth in the Clean Air Act. He shares his fond recollections of the groundbreaking White House Conference on the Oceans which took place in Monterey, California on the steps of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Farr authored the Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act, to establish a program of research and other activities to aid the recovery of the southern sea otter. Through his sponsorship of the Marine Debris Act Amendments of 2012, Farr created a NOAA program that uses innovative solutions to protect marine ecosystems and coastal communities from the hazards of marine debris. He introduced the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act of 2015, to establish an Ocean Acidification Advisory Board of diverse experts to analyze and help guide policy on this important ocean issue. Farr was also a founding member and chair of the House Oceans Caucus. Both the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center have honored Farr’s lifelong contributions to ocean conservation.
On shore, Farr leaves quite an extensive legacy of parks he helped establish on the Central Coast, including Pinnacles National Park, created from the former Pinnacles National Monument by legislation introduced by Farr into Congress in 2012, and signed into law by President Barack Obama in January of 2013. Someone once asked Farr what he wanted to be remembered for and he replied, “I guess, if you look at all the parks I created as a supervisor, parks I created as a state legislator, and parks I created, including a national park, as a congressman—I’m the parks guy. The John Muir of the Central Coast.”