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.”
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.
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.”
As part of a small but growing group of “New Populists"--a movement that includes two dozen members of Congress and a large handful of elected officials in other states--Hightower helped found the New Populist Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. One of its goals is to nudge the Democratic Party away from its middle-of-the-road conservatism, he said.
“The only things in the middle of the road are the yellow line and dead armadillos,” warned Hightower in one speech, saying in another: “Pundits tell us the Democrats have to attract yuppies if they are going to win, Democrats got to put on little happy faces like Ronnie Reagan does, put on a new suit of Republican clothes. Well that’s like trying to put socks on a rooster. It just ain’t going to work.”
That kind of rhetoric is pure Hightower and helps to cultivate his role as a country cousin, a role he relishes and plays to the hilt, pouring on the jokes and corn pone along with fiery rhetoric.
Unheard of Appearance
Speaking to a United Farm Workers Convention--an unheard of appearance for an agriculture commissioner in any state--Hightower supported the union’s struggle, saying: “If the door’s not open, kick it open. Liberty isn’t given, it’s taken.” The words are his rustic version of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ line: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
Although the slightly built Hightower wears 10-gallon hats and cowboy boots, he looks more like a small-town college professor than the Marlboro Man. A native Texan, his suits, ties and political savvy are right out of Washington, D.C., where he spent several muckraking years as a political activist talking 19th-Century Populism.
As Hightower rode along the back-Texas highways, talking one-on-one to a reporter about the 1982 election, the corn pone and jokes disappeared from his rhetoric--almost--and an articulate, quiet-spoken politician emerged. He agreed that he had been lucky, the political tides were in his favor and that he had had an inept opponent who did little more than “run around with a straw in his mouth humming ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy.’ ”
As for the future, he is candidly ambitious, hoping that, given one more term as agriculture commissioner to broaden his political base, he can then run for the U.S. Senate or governor.
He will talk about gardening--cultivating native Texas plants in his suburban Austin yard is a favored pastime--but volunteers little else about his personal life, leaving the impression of a man who holds himself to himself. Even when surrounded by aides, local politicians, reporters and hangers-on, he appears to be a alone in the crowd.
Whether bumping through a thunderstorm on a commercial airliner on his way to give a talk to United Auto Workers in the Midwest or traveling in a motor home on the stump in rural Texas, Hightower is often alone, at work on a speech, honing the rustic phrases, working over every joke. His staff--which includes many women, blacks and Latinos--seems to take no offense when he snaps orders or irritably silences an argumentative aide with the icy words, “I’ve already decided that issue.”
When the plane lands or the motor home stops and he walks into a big union hall or a cafe in a little Texas town, he warms to the audience, obviously enjoying the chance to explain his programs and lambaste big business and big government.
Cold Tater and Wait
“While the fat cats have been eating porterhouse steak and sopping up all of the gravy, they are tellin’ people like you and me to take an old cold tater and wait,” he told an A. Phillip Randolph Institute audience last summer. “But I’m filled up to here with the trickle-down theory of government, government by country club, taking money and power from people like you and me and turning it over to the fat cats . . . to bust our unions, bankrupt our farmers, squeeze our small-business competitors out.”
Hightower is perhaps the most colorful of the New Populists who disagree with “liberal Band-Aid” food-stamp safety-net solutions to socioeconomic problems. They say they favor a free-enterprising, capitalistic system in which the government ensures that both workers and small entrepreneurs get a “fair shake” through open competition.
Hightower says he came by his Populism early, explaining that he grew up in the Red River Valley town of Denison “in a family of small-town businesspeople, farmers, firemen, truck drivers,” who said they were conservatives but who “were opposed to big oil and big government. I learned that if you scratch a conservative oftentimes you find a progressive human being.”
After studying government at North Texas State College and taking some graduate work at Columbia University, Hightower went to Washington during the Kennedy years to work for the late Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Tex.). While there he founded the Agribusiness Accountability Project, a privately funded Nader-esque organization set up to investigate conglomerate influence over the nation’s food supply.
Two books came out of the project, “Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times"--an expose of agribusiness influence over the tax-supported land grant college system--and “Eat Your Heart Out"--an indictment of conglomerate control over the nation’s food supply. Both books were denounced by agribusiness as one-sided, biased attacks on agriculture.
Hightower returned to Austin in 1976 to edit the iconoclastic, left-leaning Texas Observer and warned its readers that they were in for “a heavy dose of Populism,” the kind of Populism that grew out of the 19th-Century agrarian revolt against the economic concentrations of power that controlled markets and the railroads.
According to Hightower, New Populism is rooted in those old Texas Populist traditions and its energy comes from a political harnessing of the anger and frustration that still run deep through the American people, feelings that are expressed in a line of a Bob Wills song: “The little bee sucks the blossom, the big bee gets the honey, little man picks the cotton, big man gets the money.”
The Corporate Giant
The “big man” isn’t the cotton or grain farmer, it’s the corporate giant that controls processing and marketing of those crops, or the auto manufacturer or steel-making giant that cut wages and lay off workers to increase profits; that’s Hightower’s message and he carries it wherever he can find an audience.
Since his election, speaking invitations have come in from across the country, from unions, progressive political groups, consumer organizations, even the National Press Club. Hightower stumps for politicians in other states and when he’s in Chicago he has a standing invitation to appear on Studs Terkel’s radio show.
The Democratic Central Committee not only invited him to address its 1984 national convention, it asked him to help reshape the party’s national farm policy. “Farmers are mired in a full-fledged depression . . . (300,000) have gone out of business and the rest are on the brink of broke,” Hightower says to anyone who will listen, arguing that the Reagan approach--reducing farm support prices--will only drive more small farmers out of business. The Democrats’ Farm Policy Reform Act would guarantee market prices equal to the cost of production. Production would be controlled to curtail market supplies, driving prices up. With supply and demand more in balance, the government would no longer have to spend billions storing surplus produce, Hightower contends.
Back home in Texas, Hightower has reshaped and decentralized the agriculture department staff of 580, putting more production, processing and marketing experts in the field offices to help farmers stay in business. He likes to brag about the results.
“High Plains (Texas) onion growers were only gettin’ eight cents a pound . . . selling their onions to a St. Louis processor . . . who turned them into onion rings and shipped them back to Texas . . . at $1.43 a box, wholesale. Now you don’t need a Ph.D. in high finance to figure who comes out on the short end of that one.”
“But we can handle that onion-ring processing ourselves,” he tells farmers, explaining that the department pushed through legislation authorizing the sale of agricultural development bonds to raise up to $10 million of investment capital per project for farmers interested in developing their own processing plants for onion rings, or any other product.
The department has helped 1,000 growers create 32 urban “farmers’ markets” to sell their produce directly to consumers in the cities, increasing farm profits by 30%, he notes. Other farmers are being assisted in the formation of marketing cooperatives that give them the volume to compete against large-scale farms in the big, wholesale markets.
Two years ago 103 Kroger stores in the Houston area were stocking Florida watermelons while black farmers in nearby Hempstead were selling only half of their melon crop along the roadside and getting only a penny a pound. Assisted by the department, these growers formed the Hempstead Small-Farmers Co-op. They now sell every melon they grow to Kroger and the price is seven cents a pound. A Kroger spokesman said: “These are the best melons we’ve ever had, they give us a competitive edge.”
Hightower also points out: “Texas is the only state to negotiate its own international trade program,” explaining that red-tape-cutting agreements between his department and Mexico allow grain farmers to sell their crops directly to Mexican buyers, rather than having to market through big international trading companies. “Our farmers get the benefit of eliminating the big middlemen.”
Because he talks free enterprise and tries to help farmers, yet regulates the use of pesticides and aggressively supports unions, Hightower is an enigma to most of Texas agriculture. Texas Farm Bureau officials consider him an enemy of “commercial agriculture,” but the Texas Corn Growers Assn. has the opposite view.
“If we had other ag commissioners in the United States as dedicated to decent (federal) farm legislation and to helping farmers, agriculture wouldn’t be in this mess today,” said corn grower Carl King, president of the association. “The big grain conglomerates call the shots in the Reagan Administration. They want cheap grain to ship overseas. Hightower is on our side of the fence, pushing for higher prices.”
Not long after taking office, Hightower administratively imposed pesticide use regulations requiring applicators and farmers to notify workers and their neighbors in advance when and where the deadly chemicals were to be used. Both the farm bureau and the Texas Agriculture Chemical Assn. protested vigorously, to little avail.
So these big farm organizations, backed by dozens of others, took their complaints to the legislature, seeking not only to undo the Hightower regulations, but to eliminate his elected position as well. Authority to regulate pesticides was to be taken away from the department and its budget would have been severely cut.
It was the first test of Hightower’s political strength after the election. The battle was bruising and the vote close, but Hightower prevailed. A farm bureau lobbyist summed up the results: “There’s just one game in town. Its called hard ball and them that’s got the most points win. Hightower had the most points.”
Sen. Brown, who carried the primary bill, said: “Hightower got the Mexican-American Caucus and the Liberal Caucus on his side . . . instead of working to try and find a compromise involving farmers, labor, environmentalists, all of those involved, he got (the bill) killed. It was pure politics.”
The 31 members of the Mexican-American Caucus are a young, politically sophisticated group of rural and urban Latino professional people who cut their political teeth in the La Raza Unida movement of the late 1960s, helping put Mexican-American majorities in control of city and county offices all across South Texas.
“Hightower stands with us,” said Rep. Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen). “He won’t buckle under on important issues. . . . He is able to articulate very well the feelings, emotions and problems that people have and that scares the status-quo politicians. . . . That is one of the reasons they tried to strip him of his power . . . and that is why we supported him.”
Neither Farm Bureau lobbyist Joe Maley nor Jon Fisher, spokesman for the Texas Agriculture Chemical Assn., wanted to talk about Hightower, even off the record. They agreed he is controversial and they believe he will be reelected, but they shy away from assessing the job he is doing.
Out in the small Texas towns individual Anglo farmers aren’t so reticent. Some like him, many are skeptical and suspicious of the man they consider an outsider, a city slicker who fired so many old-timers, replacing them with minorities, women and other outsiders. Several farmers angrily pointed out that the new commissioner supports Cesar Chavez and represents ethnic minorities, not farmers.
A black farmer near Houston had another view. “He eliminated white supremacy in the Texas Agriculture Department,” said watermelon and corn-grower Maurice Owens, adding: “I’ll do everything I can to get him elected again. Without Hightower, the (Hemstead) cooperative would never have been organized.” Owens is a founder of the cooperative.
State Sen. Bill Sarpalius, (D-Amarillo), doesn’t like Hightower and considered running against him, but withdrew from the race saying: “It would be difficult for me to raise $1 million and that’s what it will take to beat him. Even then it’d be difficult.”