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Texas' New-Style Agriculture Commissioner : Jim Hightower Carries His Message of a New Populist Movement Nationwide

December 19, 1985|RONALD B. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Tex. — Three years ago few Texans could name the state's agriculture commissioner, an obscure elected post that usually went to a someone friendly to the state's big farmers. The job was without much power and had little importance, outside of agriculture.

Then along came Jim Hightower, a young, tub-thumping Democrat who was equally at ease preaching Populism in black churches, stumping for Latino votes in the barrios of south Texas or talking with rich and powerful Democrats in Dallas and Houston.

Since his election, Hightower has rewritten the Democratic Party's national farm policies, attacked the Reagan Administration's handling of the farm crisis in a give-'em-hell speech to the party's National Convention in San Francisco and now he's flying around the country, giving speeches in Chicago, Des Moines and in Washington to the National Press Club.

His message: "Agriculture is in a world of hurt." Farmers are facing economic conditions more severe than those of the 1930s and the Republicans have only made conditions worse: "Ronald Reagan promised us a seven-course dinner, but all we got was a six pack and a possum."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday December 23, 1985 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 4 Column 1 View Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
An article about Texas' agricultural commissioner in View on Dec. 19 incorrectly referred to former Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Tex.) as "the late." Yarborough, 82, is an attorney in Austin, Tex.

Seldom has such a low-profile office produced such a high-profile politician.

Hightower uses the farmers' plight allegorically, letting their problems symbolize those faced by small businessmen, blue-collar workers and all of the other "powerless" groups he is trying to reach through the New Populist movement he helped found.

At first conservative agribusinessmen in Texas didn't know what to make of a political maverick who went around saying: "too few people control all the money and power, leaving the rest of us with very little of either."

Margin of Victory

But a majority of the voters liked what they heard. Hightower won by a 60% margin, making him the top vote-getter in the 1982 election. He immediately started overhauling the $20-million-a-year Texas Agriculture Department, promising to make it more responsive not only to farmers, but consumers and farm workers as well.

He quickly ran into a big political fight. Bills were introduced in the Legislature to reduce his authority and cut his budget. Some wanted to take the job out of politics (as most states have done) so that Hightower couldn't be reelected.

"The only connection this guy has ever had with agriculture was watching (the TV show) 'Hee-Haw.' His background is journalism," said state Sen. Buster Brown (R-Lake Jackson). "He ran for the railroad commission (1980) and lost, then turned around and ran for agriculture commissioner . . . his interest isn't agriculture. Politics is his game."

Other critics say his down-home style is only a "crude" effort to attract media attention. Some call him a "hippie"--a serious insult in Texas--because he opposed the Vietnam War and openly lives with Susan DeMarco, his activist co-worker for 13 years, a woman whose administrative talents he openly admires and praises.

However, most of his opponents talk on verbal tiptoes when discussing Hightower, pointing out that he is in power and their chances of defeating him in 1986 are slim because of his popularity among urban voters and minorities. "He is our agriculture commissioner. We have to work with him," explained S. M. True, president of the Texas Farm Bureau Federation.

Acknowledges Background

Hightower acknowledges that he has no practical farm background, although he has written extensively about agribusiness. He ran, he said, because he was looking for a pulpit from which he could speak out on a wide range of issues, and he wanted a chance to create programs that would help small farmers compete profitably in the market place.

His election is as much a measure of the changing political times in Texas as it is a mirror of his political abilities, most observers agree. It also shows how a candidate can single out an obscure, statewide office and, once elected, shape it to meet his or her political goals.

"Jim wants to be a part of the progressive movement and that's a gamble because Texas is not a liberal state," said George Christian, press secretary to the late President Lyndon B. Johnson and now a powerful conservative lobbyist who puts some distance between himself and Hightower by adding: "I'm way to the right of Jim, politically . . . but I admire him."

What sets Hightower apart in Christian's view is that he is attempting to broaden the traditional liberal constituency of the Great Society by putting together "a workable apparatus among groups that constituted the old Texas Populist movement . . . the small farmers, rural poor, Mexican-Americans, blacks, the urban have-nots and not-have-enoughs."

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