Hightower Chooses a Populist Agenda

By Elaine Davenport

Vol. 11, No. 2, 1989, pp. 4-5

Jim Hightower has a way forward for the Democrat. Party. In order to pursue his strategy, Hightower has decided to run for re-election as Texas Agriculture Commissioner rather than challenging Republican Phil Gramm for a U.S. Senate seat in 1990, as was expected.

"While a run against Gramm might put me in the Senate, and while it would be good fun for me, campaigns are necessarily egocentric, leaving little behind in the way of a cohesive base that could elect not just me but others, ultimately to form a populist majority and produce populist politics," Hightower wrote in The Nation, February 6, 1989. "And while I might be able to gather as much as $10 million, I would have to spend more time in the living rooms of the wealthy raising money than I could out in the communities raising issues, raising hopes and raising hell."

Hightower wants to form a party within a party--a populist alliance that begins in Texas and spreads to the rest of the country. He wants nothing less than to "change the way politics is conducted," starting with the Texas Democratic Party, and let that serve as a national model.

To do so, he proposes to rally progressive, populist forces already in place, expanding the concept that he and his staff have practiced within the Texas Department of Agriculture for the past six years. That has been to work "shoulder to shoulder with local communities to protect the environment and health of people associated with agriculture," says Hightower. "We are challenging ourselves and the


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state's farmers to build a diversified, consumer-oriented, sustainable agriculture. We have tapped the aspirations of everyday people, removing barriers to their economic endeavors and freeing their enterprise for the benefit of Texas. With the support of the legislature and the help of other agricultural institutions, we have offered the simple tools of self-help to build food processing facilities, to sell everything from grain sorghum to honey in the international market, to open up the $3 billion dollar-a-year organic foods market to Texas producers, to assure safer pesticide practices, to protect communities from toxic waste contamination--in general, to give people the means to get hold of their own destiny."

Something akin to the old Farmer-Labor Party with an infusion of modern technology, the new alliance would encompass speakers' bureaus, small-donor solicitation programs, policy development centers, campaign training, a network of progressive and populist elected officials in all areas, and a candidate recruitment program. Hightower is already talking with the state AFL-CIO, the association of trial lawyers and community organizations throughout the state, and seeking advice from organizations outside Texas such as the Legislative Electoral Action Project in Connecticut and Citizen Action in Chicago.

While running against Phil Gramm in 1990 would have been "more fun than eating ice cream naked," Hightower has decided to eschew high-dollar, high-profile politics and "put my political capital into the more fundamental task of plowing the ground, scattering the seeds and nurturing the growth of a broad-based, grass-roots populist politics out of which a progressive government can arise."

The question, says Hightower, is not whether the Democratic Party should go to the left or to the right, but whether it will go again to people themselves.

Elaine Davenport is a freelance reporter and audio producer who divides her time between Austin, Texas, and London, England.