Hank Gilbert: A Cowboy Can Change His Mind

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When cattle rancher Hank Gilbert ran a spirited-but-losing populist campaign for Commissioner of Agriculture in 2006, he made his lack of aspiration for higher office one of his main selling points. “Agriculture first, politics last,” was one of his campaign slogans. “That’s really the way I look at things,” he said. “I have no political ambitions whatsoever. None.” As he gave a memorably folksy address to the 2006 Democratic state convention, supporters waved signs reading “Elect Hank Gilbert for Commissioner of Agriculture: It’s the only job he wants.” The previous three Ag commissioners—Jim Hightower, Rick Perry and Susan Combs—had all run for higher office (with Republicans Perry and Combs, now state comptroller, succeeding). The Republican nominee and eventual winner in ’06, former state Sen. Todd Staples, also looked like a climber. So Gilbert made hay with his intention to focus solely on the Ag job. On his campaign site, under the heading “Straight Talk with Hank,” he elaborated on the theme: “I don’t care about politics,” he said. “You couldn’t run fast enough to throw the keys to me to the governor’s mansion. … My name is Hank Gilbert and I am running for Commissioner of Agriculture because its the only job I want.” That link was still live till last week, when Gilbert made the surprise announcement that he was running for chief politician of Texas—governor, that is. Apparently Gilbert’s had a lot of time to think out there on the ranch. And apparently he’s not overly concerned that he’ll look like a big ol’ hypocrite to the people who fell for his anti-politician rhetoric in ’06. It might not matter much. While Gilbert racked up the second-highest vote total of any Democrat in a statewide race in ’06, as R.G. Radcliffe noted prominently in his story about Gilbert’s announcement, that wasn’t saying much: He got 42 percent of the vote. And he’s still little-known statewide (though the same is true of presumed Democratic front-runner Tom Schieffer). Gilbert reportedly starts the campaign with a meager $2,342 in his coffers.  But Gilbert did impress folks on the campaign trail last time around. He’s a damn fine speaker, with a booming voice and downhome wit, as he showed at the ’06 convention when he declared of Staples: “My opponent has been in training for this particular stepping-stone. … He has tried to emulate our current fair-haired governor, who is just one notch lower in stupidity than our non-fair-haired president.” Gilbert’s also made something of a name for himself as a leading anti-toll road activist in the state, irritating the heck out of Perry’s transportation commissioners—to the point where one of them, Ted Houghton of El Paso, responded to Gilbert’s criticisms at a public hearing in March by labeling him a “bigot.” In their heated exchange, Houghton also asked Gilbert if he’d have voted for Obama’s stimulus package, to which Gilbert replied, “Probably not.” Which might give some food for thought to the Dems who’ve been cheering his gubernatorial announcement. Until last week, most folks who care about such things expected a Gilbert-Staples rematch in ’10—partly, no doubt, because they’d been taking Gilbert at his word about having no higher ambitions. It’s easy enough to see why grassroots Dems would hail Gilbert’s entry into the gubernatorial sweepstakes. He’ll be fun to watch and listen to—not exactly something you can say for the other Democratic candidates. He can speak to non-urban Democrats, which is something the party has pretty much given up on even trying to do. But a populist “anti-politician” can hardly afford to look like the worst kind of politician—one who swears up and down that he has no ambitions for the very office he ends up running for.