'I Do Not Choose to Run': Raising Issues, Hope and Hell

Article excerpt

Jim Hightower, the Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, has emerged as a national leader of the loose alliance of populist and progressive forces -based in cities, suburbs and farmlands - that became a critical component of Democratic Party politics during the campaigns of 1988. In some ways he is a white, rural political analogue to Jesse Jackson: Both men seek to organize the same broad base, according to similar principles, for a common agenda. The two, of course, have quite different core constituencies, which must be merged for the success of the alliance. Last March, with Jackson by his side on the floor of the Texas Senate, Hightower became the first- and only- white elected state official in the country to endorse Jackson's candidacy for President.

For two years, Hightower has been gearing up for a run against conservative Republican Senator Phil Gramm, whose first term ends next year. But on January 5, in a reversal that startled Texans and populist activists around the nation, Hightower announced a change in plans. His reasons, and his analysis of the political process, are valuable and competling beyond their specific regional significance.

While I was growing up in Denison, Texas, our Congressman was the old populist Democrat Sam Rayburn. Mr. Sam once said something that has stuck with me: "Every now and then a politician ought to do something just because it's right."

I promise not to make a habit of it, but I have recently made a personal political choice just because I think it is the right thing to do. It might not, prove best for my political career -who knows? But it fits me comfortably, and I think it is the right decision in light of the larger values and goals that brought me into politics in the first place. My life's work -ftom my service as an aide to Ralph Yarborough in the U.S. Senate to my editorship of The Texas Observer, from the speeches that I give to the initiatives I make as Texas Commissioner of Agriculture -has been to be an advocate of populist principles and to try to make both political and economic democracy a possibility for the many. As I looked toward the 1990 elections, the dilemma that I faced was how I could best remain true to this long-term political effort. My decision was to run for re-election as Agriculture Commissioner and to apply my political energies toward building a Texaswide populist Democratic alliance.

The natural step for me, however, seemed to be to take on Phil Gramm in the Senate race. My supporters assumed that I would, I assumed it, and so did Gramm. It is the kind of good/evil, handsome/ugly fight that gets my juices flowing, and while I would have started as an underdog candidate challenging an incumbent Senator, I had a fair shot at winning. Polls show that my name identification and voter approval rating put me in his league. He can raise $15 million or more, but Democratic contributors all across the country were eager enough about the match that I was in danger of raising $8 million to $10 million myself. It looked as though I could avoid a costly primary fight, and Democratic activists were wildly enthusiastic about my effort. Press coverage would have been bigger than at a Super Bowl. I think I know how to run a campaign that would have driven Gramm crazy (admittedly a short ride for Phil). And, most important, despite the conventional wisdom, Gramm is vulnerable because his record is a product of his right-wing ideology rather than of common sense and the needs of Texans. The people of our state will be less than charmed to learn that Gramm has:

* voted against legislation to provide catastrophic health insurance for aging Americans;

* led the fight against giving American workers sixty days' notice before their plant is closed and they are put out of work;

* fought the extension of unemployment benefits and retraining programs to laid-off workers in the oil and gas industry;

* opposed the Clean Water Act;

* led the fight against emergency shelter and food assistance for homeless families;

* consistently voted against funding for shelters to harbor victims of domestic violence;

* voted against the 1988 Hunger Prevention Act. …