Page 23


clarifications to the law, is all. LoVoi seemed to feel more than slightly betrayed. She had helped Seidlits in his campaign last fall, traveling in his district and upholding him as a consumers’ champion. And now this. His bill would be up for a hearing later in the day in the House State Affairs committee and she was preparing to blast away at it. Even without LoVoi’s tip-off, it would have been a good bet there was going to be some public interest vs. insurance lobbyist action, judging from the sight of the “tortmobile” parked conspicuously near the Capitol’s north entrance at the corner of 14th and Colorado. The tortmobile is a traveling exhibit on a trailer attached to the sea-foam-green ’57 Chevrolet wagon belonging to Tom Smith of Public Citizen. The exhibit consists of a dissected Ford pickup, showing the placement of the . gasoline tank directly behind the driver’s seat. The point is clear enough: some products are designed by idiots. And accidents happen. And people are maimed. The tort-mobile made several appearances last session, when the insurance industry made its big push for “tort reform.” There were a few threads left untied from last session, and the industry had apparently decided Curtis Seidlits was the man to tie them. But before Seidlits’s Son of Tort Reform was introduced in committee, there would first come a reckoning with March 20 as National Agriculture Day. I don’t know how the rest of the nation observed it, but Ag Day in Texas had the sound of a clanging bell, marking the opening round of what is shaping up to be a titanic political bout between the populist element and the reactionary element of the state’s agricultural sector. In one corner is the commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, Jim Hightower. In the other is the Texas Farm Bureau, egged on by other agribusiness interests. On this the 70th day, the bill to extend the life of the Ag Department as presently structured was. due to be heard in the Senate. Also, the Farm Bureau was scheduled to convene in Waco to call for Hightower’s head. The shape this clash was taking would not ‘have been predictable as little as four months ago. Before the beginning of the legislative session, political observers assumed Hightower’s reign at the Ag Department was about to end, as he was expected to run for higher office. Hightower had been at odds with the state’s beef producers during the winter, chiefly because he didn’t parrot the conventional industry line when questions were raised by European importers about the wholesomeness of hormoneinjected American beef. Hightower’s offense was to suggest that if Europeans wanted natural beef that had been raised without artificial growth hormones, there were Texas cattle raisers who would be happy to provide it. But other cattle raisers would have preferred that the state’s chief agriculture official had told the Europeans to go to hell. Nevertheless, the issue might have blown over if Hightower’s detractors could have rested assured that he would be gone before long, off to fight a quixotic battle against Republican Senator Phil Gramm. It was not to be. In January, a week before the opening of the session, Hightower announced that he would seek another term as ag commissioner in 1990. To leaders of the Farm Bureau and the state’s agribusiness and chemical industries the thought of another four years with Hightower at the helm was too much. They turned up the heat politically by trumping up the beef hormone issue. Farm Bureau leader S.M. True called on Hightower to resign his office. “Could it be that the Farm Bureau is trying to protect their investment?” Most likely, it was the chemical lobby that was first to realize the extraordinary possibilities this session held out to Hightower’s enemies. For this happened to be the year the Ag Department was up for the once-every-twelve-years Sunset Review process, and the Texas Chemical Council had already been planning to make the legislature a staging ground for a war over Hightower’s regulation of agricultural pesticides. But they might have said to their allies at the Farm Bureau why stop there? Why not use this rare opportunity when the very continuation of the agency was in the hands of the legislature and a Republican governor would sit in final judgement to inflict more serious damage? Such conditions might not be in place again for another generation. Suddenly the Farm Bureau’s leadership, as if by divine inspiration, realized that Texas farmers would be better served by an agriculture commissioner who is appointed by the governor rather than elected by the people. This revelation came at a somewhat inconvenient time, given that a statewide conference of Farm Bureau delegates had. met in Corpus Christi in December and resolved that they were in favor of an elected ag commissioner. But no matter. The Farm Bureau would meet in Waco at a specially called meeting on March 20 with a select group of members and they would reconsider the issue. MEANWHILE AT THE Capitol, Hightower’s supporters had organ ized a counter-event. At 9:30 a.m., five farm and ranch leaders held a press conference to declare their support for an elected commissioner of agriculture. Joe Rankin, president of the Texas Farmers’ Union, told a small group of reporters that conservative farm groups are trying to get rid of Hightower simply because they disagree with him. “We can’t ‘sunset’ this right to vote,” he said. Harold Bob Bennett, a board member of the Texas Corn Growers Association, derided the Farm Bureau’s attempts to present itself as the voice of agriculture. \(He wore a button that said “Sunset the Farm an insurance company, first and foremost,” he said. Bennett said that the largest concentrations of Farm Bureau membership are in urban areas, and he distributed a list showing 1985 figures for the top 30 counties in Farm Bureau membership. Leading the members and Collin County \(suburban company documents for 1988 show the Farm Bureau holds $1.2 million worth ‘of stock in Syntex Co., a Panamanian firm that produces the artificial growth hormone used in most Texas feedlots. By raising the beef hormone issue, “maybe could it be that the Farm Bureau is trying to protect their investment?” he asked. Mike Levi, a rancher from Spicewood, also spoke up for Hightower, praising the ag commissioner’s efforts to help market Texas goods. “I like to see an aggressive marketer in that position,” he said. “Historically that hasn’t been the case.” He attributed the move to get rid of Hightower as an opportunistic move by “vested interests.” Recalling the representative of the poultry industry who ran against Hightower in 1986, Levi said, “If they’d been successful in getting their poultry lobbyist in there, do you think they’d be trying to do away with this position? Hell no, they wouldn’t.” After statements by a leader with the American Agriculture Movement and a member of the Texas Nurseryman’s Association, the pro-Hightower entourage took their show on the road or rather to the air, flying to Waco, Corpus Christi, and McAllen to hold more press conferences. On my way over to the Senate chamber, I ran into Dee Simpson, labor lobbyist, advocate of farmworker causes, Capitol philosophizer, master of the cryptic halfsentence. At this hour of the morning he was not loquacious. But he reached into his valise and pulled out a bumper sticker that said: THE TEXAS FARM BUREAU IS IN BED WITH THE CHEMICAL COUNCIL. “That’s a long message for one bumper sticker,” I noted. “There you ahhhrre,” he said, drifting away. 4 APRIL 7, 1989