Texans Wrangle Over State Agriculture Seat

SOME political campaigns fling mud. In Texas, they're fighting over control of the dirt. Seeking a third term as Agriculture Commissioner is Jim Hightower, a Democrat who promotes specialty crops such as Christmas trees and catfish - crops he says have more growth potential than wheat.

His consumer-oriented marketing strategies and environmental awareness have made him one of Texas' most popular grass-roots politicians, with support on both sides of the party line.

But Mr. Hightower's innovative ideas have met some strong opposition. The Republican candidate, state Rep. Rick Perry, a fifth-generation farmer and rancher from north-central Texas, feels Hightower's focus on niche marketing has neglected - even insulted - the backbone of Texas agriculture: cattle, cotton, and grains.

Meanwhile, Hightower has labeled Mr. Perry the hand-picked candidate of the Texas chemical and pesticide lobbies.

Perry, a recent Republican convert, is supported by a number of Democratic ranchers who have denounced Hightower, a former journalist, as a professional politician with no agriculture background. Many also see Hightower's antipesticide stance - including a nationally recognized organic-farming program - as a threat.

Resentment of Hightower peaked in late 1988, when Hightower shipped hormone-free Texas beef to Europe after the European Community (EC) banned imports of hormone-treated beef. Perry says Texas cattle raisers feel Hightower should have defended the hormone-treated beef.

Experts have said ``there is absolutely no detrimental effect to the us of hormones,'' Perry says. ``When the Texas Ag Commissioner broke ranks ... he did not come out and say `Texas beef is unsafe,' but he did leave that question mark in the air.''

Hightower says his move was to test whether the EC's concern was health or building new trade barriers against American beef. Today, the EC still imports hormone-free beef from Texas.

Hightower's maverick moves get him in ``more hot water than a Lipton tea bag,'' he says. He has been investigated by the USDA for alleged misuse of funds. So far he has been cleared of all charges.

``They keep catching us with our pants up,'' Hightower says.

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