WHEN Texas state Rep. Lena Guerrero was a teen-ager, she worked with her eight brothers and sisters in the west Texas cornfields, earning 45 to 60 cents an hour to help support her widowed mother. ``They never sprayed on us, but crop dusting was quite commonly viewed from where we stood,'' Ms. Guerrero says. ``There was no way of us knowing what had been sprayed.''
Today, this Austin Democrat is a key defender of state Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. She fought and lost a battle to preserve Mr. Hightower's power to regulate pesticide use in Texas.
Guerrero says her farmworker days are ``a motivating factor for me to remain involved. Perhaps I can make contributions toward a more efficient way to grow crops without harming the public.''
Mr. Hightower, a fiery, liberal Democrat with a national reputation as a populist and an agricultural innovator, has suffered a major political defeat in his own state.
The commissioner has staved off a threat by political opponents to do away with his agency. But his power to control Texas pesticides has been taken away.
The Texas Legislature must review and pass legislation to continue state agencies every 12 years. Hightower's political opponents - the Texas Farm Bureau, the Texas Agricultural Chemicals Association, and farmers unhappy with his liberal politics - used the review this year as an opportunity to sideswipe the commissioner.
They did so with the blessings of conservative Republican Gov. William Clements, whom Hightower once referred to as ``bi-ignorant'' rather than bilingual.
The Texas Legislature has approved a bill to continue the Agriculture Department with Hightower as its head. But despite the pleas of Guerrero, its House of Representatives sponsor, pesticide regulation will be taken over by a nine-member board.
Guerrero says she believes the tide of public opinion is slowly rising to support Hightower's position on pesticides and health, even in Texas.
``I really think the public doesn't want to have to worry about biting into something that will hurt them, or having to peel it before they eat it,'' Guerrero says.
Hightower says the controversy has been produced and directed by the chemical industry because ``Texas has done more than any other state in putting forward good protections on pesticide exposure,'' he says.
Ironically, Hightower, whom consumer groups describe as one of the nation's leading advocates for sensible controls, springs from the same soil that is home to the largest industrial chemical complex in the world.
Two-thirds of the nation's major petrochemical companies are located along the Texas Gulf Coast between Corpus Christi and Louisiana, representing a $40 billion capital investment, according to the Texas Chemical Council.
``Texas is the largest pesticide manufacturer in the United States, and the second largest pesticide user, after California,'' Hightower says. ``The kind of actions we take here get the attention of all the major chemical companies. It is because our state government has been so aggressive on this issue that the chemical lobby has been so aggressive in trying to undo our efforts.''
``The petrochemical industry is used to running the show in Texas, and it is not used to being challenged. But we have a different era in Texas, and Hightower has been willing to stand up to the chemical companies,'' says Rebecca Lightsey of the Texas Consumer Association. ``The chemical companies are concerned not only about what's going to happen to their market in Texas, but what other states might do when they see Hightower's programs are indeed successful. This is a direct financial threat to the chemical industry.''
Some of Hightower's friends blame his problems partly on the fact that he appears to be more at home with the national press and urban consumer advocates than the good 'ol boys of the Texas Legislature.
``Jim Hightower is probably one of the most visible, highly publicized politicians of our time. He's probably more well known than our governor,'' says State Rep. Dudley Harrison of Sanderson, a Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee. ``But his image is just not good with the farmer.'' Some Texas farmers ``feel like they're being ignored. Rather than ride in a parade in Cuero, he was at the Las Vegas, Nevada, National Conference on rural health-care issues,'' Mr. Harrison says.
Hightower, who has pushed diversification of agriculture into such areas as Texas wines, blueberries, herbs, and organic produce, did not make himself popular with conservative wheat and cotton farmers when he endorsed Jesse Jackson for president. He angered producers when he suggested Texas could supply hormone-free beef to Europe.
But Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, a millionaire Democrat from Houston, says Hightower should have been ``commended, not criticized'' for suggesting Texas could sell hormone-free meat to Europe.
``Almost every day some new evidence comes out about how polluted our environment is, whether it's by pesticides or acid rain or air emissions,'' Mr. Hobby says. ``Hightower has done a very good job. He's done it in a rather abrasive way, but I think his stand on pesticides is absolutely right.''