Stenholm looks to influence farm bill

Charlie Stenholm’s 26-year career in the House ended at least four years earlier than he expected.

Stenholm’s plan was to retire from his district in central Texas in 2008, as long as Democrats remained in the minority. Instead, he lost his seat in 2004 after the Texas legislature cooperated with former GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) to redraw district lines in the hope of enlarging the Republican majority in Congress.

“They were very successful. You’ve got to give them credit,” said Stenholm, the former top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, who was defeated by Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) and jumped into a new career as a lobbyist on agriculture and other issues for the Washington law firm Olsson, Frank and Weeda.

The defeat prevented Stenholm from realizing his lifelong dream of becoming committee chairman, a goal he might have accomplished this year in the wake of the 2006 elections. Stenholm admits he’s thought about this, “but not very long, because it wasn’t meant to be,” he said.

Besides, Stenholm is plenty busy, as he’s been retained by a number of groups interested in affecting the next farm bill from the outside. Business definitely has increased since last November, he said.

“What a difference a day makes,” he said. “We were doing OK before, but it’s picked up now because the farm bill has picked up.”

Stenholm’s clients include the International Dairy Foods Association, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and a new client, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), which represents cattle ranchers.

“The main thing that interested us about Charlie is, we know he understands our issues as well as anyone,” the group’s vice president for government affairs, Jay Truitt, said. He describes Stenholm as a tactical thinker who will help NCBA look at policy issues affecting cattle producers in the short and long term.

For example, a growing concern for NCBA is the cost of feed, which has been skyrocketing because of surging demand for ethanol. Stenholm is also representing oil producers, including the American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, that are also worried about side effects of the ethanol boom.

“We need all the energy we can, but if you’re going to have someone being subsidized, and they are going to be able to produce profitably at less than what you can sell it for, then you’re going to have a problem,” Stenholm continued.

Few agriculture lobbyists have a better understanding of the dynamics of writing a farm bill than Stenholm. He worked on five farm bills during his tenure in Congress, including the 2002 farm bill he helped develop as the committee’s ranking Democrat.

During those years, Stenholm became a well-respected legislator recognized on both sides of the aisle for knowing when to fight it out on an issue and when to fight another day, Truitt said.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who chaired the Agriculture Committee during Stenholm’s last two years as ranking member, said he placed great value on Stenholm’s opinions. “While we didn’t always agree, his willingness to cooperate and work towards compromise was invaluable to the work of the committee,” Goodlatte wrote in an e-mail.

The new committee chairman, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) described Stenholm as a great mentor to him on the committee.

Like Peterson, Stenholm was a member and co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative Democrats that will have a key role in the current Congress, Stenholm said. “Nothing is going to happen in Congress that a majority of Blue Dogs doesn’t support,” he said. “Blue Dogs are going to be the controlling factor.”

Partly as a result, Stenholm thinks that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is the perfect leader for Democrats today, even though he voted against her nomination when she ran for the position of minority leader to succeed then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). 

He compares Pelosi leading Democrats to President Nixon going to China, saying Pelosi will be able to tell liberal Democrats when they have to give in to moderates in the caucus. A moderate or conservative Democratic leader would not be trusted to make those political calls, he suggested.

Stenholm won election to Congress in 1978 after serving as president of the Rolling Plains Cotton Growers. He said he didn’t choose his party until 1972, when he asked then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) and future President George H.W. Bush to speak at a meeting of the group.

Bentsen showed up, Bush didn’t and Stenholm became a Democrat. However, he said he later grew to have great affection for the first President Bush, and noted that as a Democrat, he was able to have influence in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

He had less influence with George W. Bush. Stenholm describes the end of his House career like this: He “got in trouble” by speaking up about the perils of deficits, which irritat`ed Karl Rove and DeLay, who targeted him for political elimination. “And they redrew the lines and I was one of the five Democrats they got rid of,” Stenholm said.

“There’s justice in this world,” Stenholm said of last year’s elections, which saw the GOP lose DeLay’s House seat. “What goes around comes around.”

Stenholm now finds himself lobbying on a farm bill with the man who chaired the committee when the last farm bill was approved in 2002. Former Rep. Larry Combest (R-Texas) is now a lobbyist for Combest, Sell and Associates.

“I would not be at all surprised if you were to see us working together on some issues sometime between now and the passage of the farm bill,” said Stenholm, who described Combest as a good friend. When the two served as the top Democrat and Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, it was the first time one state had ever held those positions. 

A little more than two years after losing his congressional seat, Stenholm lives a block away from the Verizon Center in downtown D.C. with his wife Cindy. The Stenholms enjoy being a short stroll from dozens of movie screens and tens of restaurants, and Rep. Stenholm said it was part of a deal made with his wife to remain in Washington. They return to Texas often, however, to visit their children and three grandchildren.

Another element of the deal: Stenholm, who has been rumored as a potential secretary of agriculture under either a Republican or Democratic administration, will not run for office again. He said some folks came by his office just the other day asking if he could be persuaded to do so. He told them the price was too high — divorce.