Doug Zabel

“In ‘79, Jim [Hightower] came in and hired us to do his advertising, all that stuff was for the Railroad Commission race in ‘80… (H)e ran against Jim Nugent, otherwise known as The Snake, on the Texas Railroad Commission. And Hightower got 49 percent, almost won, and it was probably the best thing that ever happened to him because he would have been stuck. As one vote, out of three, on an agency that basically mediated disputes between rich people. And by the way, that was a great fun campaign. And that was the one I think [Steve] Fromholtz did the song, as I recall, and we almost pulled it off. .. In 1984 he [Hightower] became the chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s Agriculture Council, which was, in the past, a pro forma deal, responsible for raising some money from big Agri- industry, for the party. But I took it seriously and we put together a series of hearings all around the country and invited farmers to come discuss the problems and the beginnings of, well, we were in the heart of the farm crisis by then. We talked to farmers all over the country. Then I basically sat down with some of them and came up with a commodity program. Tom Harkin eventually introduced it but I went to Washington on that deal and stayed in Harkin’s office and some in Senator Bentson’s office. I worked then with the Legislative Council of Congress, went several days to sit with them and drafted the bill. The American Ag movement and Farmers Union, bunch of other commodity groups got behind the bill and made a major push. It came up one vote short in the House Ag Committee because the Reagan administration bought off Kika de la Garza, our South Texas Congressman who was chairman of the committee. But that was really the thing that I was most involved in and cared the most about. I still look back on it as one of the better things I’ve ever been involved in. I still look back now and think if we’d pass that, rural America would look a whole lot different now, a lot of those small towns would still be around and a lot of the ones that are around would be doing a whole lot better. So that was, to me, that was a sort of a highlight of my career in public life.”

Doug Zabel ran media operations for Jim Hightower during his campaigns. He joined the media staff at the Texas Department of Agriculture, until he left for Washington to work on the 1985 Farm Bill. Just after Hightower was elected, a terrible drought hit west and south Texas. Farmers were using propane tanks strapped to their backs to burn to shoot a flame out to burn the pricks off of the prickly pear so that their cattle could eat the cactus. Those farmers were in deep trouble and some of them were having to start selling off their breeding stock. But at the same time, there was all this surplus corn stored all over the country. Overflowing and they had these bins rolling in corn and some of it was starting to go bad, get a little aflatoxin and stuff like that. And it was going to be ruined for food. Hightower contacted the US Department of Agriculture and asked that it be released to help these ranchers out their feed. They were stuck because there was nothing left on the range. And TDA got this letter back from a Deputy Secretary of Agriculture who said, ‘No, the ranchers don’t want it, and we don’t see any need to release it.’ Hightower said, “what do you mean they don’t want it? They’re desperate.” And so Zabel drafted a letter which was sent a letter directly to Secretary Block. We said, “Dear Secretary Block. We thought you would want to know that some idiot has got a hold of your stationery up there and sent us this letter.” And then we released that to the press with the quote, “That corn is going to hell and it should be going to Texas”. Doug Zabel co-founded the League of Rural Voters with Mark Ritchie. It was instrumental in building a coalition of rural interests to pass the 1987 Farm Credit Act.