A seasoned political observer told me he believed that Doug Zabel and Mark Ritchie of Minnesota are today the two best strategists for progressive politics in the country. What they are generating in the Farm Belt, he said, is probably the only progressive political operation that will have any impact on national politics by the next presidential election. Doug Zabel was raised in Iowa, went to SMU in the ’60s, and has lived and worked in Texas since that time. He has worked for Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower and a number of other Texas Democratic officeholders and is currently working for the campaigns of Gerald McCathern, who is running against Republican Congressman Larry Combest of Lubbock; Doug Hughes of Missouri; Congressman John Bryant of Dallas; Hightower; and several Democratic judges in Dallas. He is also a founder of the League of Rural Voters, which sponsors non-partisan voter education and get-out-the-vote campaigns in the Farm Belt. 1 ,managed to corner Zabel for a few . minutes at Dirty ‘s Kumbak Place onGuadalupe Street in Austin in order to talk about the United Farmers and Ranchers Congress and the Harkin farm bill, of which he is a principal architect. “The Farmers and Ranchers Congress \(T. O. , “was a monumental, history-making meeting, but it didn’t have the national press we needed. What was interesting was 40 percent or more of the delegates were members of the Farm Bureau. That’s an indication that the rank-and-file membership doesn’t agree with the policies of the Farm Bureau leaders. The Farm Bureau members from one state even went back home to their state Farm Bureau meeting and passed the resolutions of the [Farmers and Ranchers] Congress. I think you’ll hear a lot of that.” One of the principal reasons for convening the congress was to use it as a springboard for a farm bill that would restructure federal farm policy in order to save the U.S. family farm.. Sponsored by Tom Harkin of Iowa in the Senate and Dick Gephardt, among others, in the House, the bill provides farmers with a means of controlling their own production and, thereby, raising prices. It means federal farm subsidies could, within a short time, be eliminated. It also includes incentives for big producers to cut back production. Without the incentives, Zabel explained, if agriculture became profitable, the big agribusiness corporations would run the price of land out of sight. “This way we have a better chance of recaptur ing the rural states for the Democratic party.” “This network of people that’s been developed over the last three or four years around the Harkin bill,” Zabel said, “could be dynamite in electing a Democratic ticket with Harkin on it. Now Gephardt’s thinking the same thing. Hart’s signing on to the bill. So you have three presidential contenders sponsoring this bill. Jim Wright’s supportive. The idea was to introduce it this fall, get a hearing on it, and bring it back in January. “Reagan’s been bragging about the money he’s spending on farmers. He’s spending $35 billion in 1986. It’s like Henry Ford bragging about the development costs put into the Edsel. Anybody thinks the Reagan administration will keep up farm subsidies after this election with so many farm seats on the line, I’d like to sell them some Florida swampland. The Reagan administration will not spend $35 million in fiscal 1987. So for a lot of House and Senate members who aren’t going to like the Administration jerking the rug out next year, [the Harkin bill] is going to be the only option they’ve got.” “What the Northeast members like Barney Frank need to understand,” Zabel said, “is that this approach is a life-and-death struggle for rural America, and it needs the support of urban Democrats for the long-term interests of the Democratic party and, therefore, for urban Democratic constituencies as well. We knew that last year. Our strategy in ’85 was to get the Black Caucus and the urban progressive Democrats to sign on. But a strange thing happened. We found more support on the House Agriculture Committee than we figured on. So we concentrated all our efforts on that. We failed by one vote in the Ag committee, so then we had .to move to the floor.” Zabel said the ’85 Farm Bill that did pass, backed by the Reagan administration, was the most expensive farm bill in history “and will wipe out rural America if it lasts five years.” In terms of the 1986 elections, the Harkin farm proposal and the rural disaster generated by Reagan farm policy provide a scenario for a progressive Democratic comeback in the Farm Belt. “Where it’s [the Harkin farm bill] being used,” said Zabel, “it’s working. Nearly all these congressional candidates are running in districts held by Republicans. Gerald McCathern ought to have a real good shot against [Republican incumbent Larry] Combest if he gets the money. Combest is vulnerable because he sits on the House Ag Committee and never says anything. Larry Combest voted eight times against higher farm prices. Doug Seal [running against Republican Congressman Beau Boulter of Amarillo] is also coming along pretty well. “The key is these guys are all, in their own way, social conservatives. They are largely anti-abortion, probably antigun control. But what they’re running on are the economic issues, not the social issues. My argument in each of these cases is that a progressive Democrat can’t win the district. And you’re not losing anything if the Democrats win because the Republicans are to the right on social issues anyway. We’re running candidates with a possible solution to the farm crisis on the Democratic ticket. We’ve lost rural American territory staked out by Roosevelt. This way we have a better chance of recapturing the rural states for the Democratic party for twenty years or more. It’s critical for furthering the progressive economic agenda in the House. Laying the Groundwork 16 OCTOBER 10, 1986
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