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Agriculture can still elect a governor

Hugh Weathers is commissioner of agriculture in South Carolina. In addition to being a really good commissioner, he and his brother Landy run a highly successful farming operation near Bowman, S.C.

From time to time I visit with Hugh and/or Landy to get their insights on some issue or another being faced by South Carolina farmers. The last question I asked Commissioner Weathers is the only one I’ve asked him that left him momentarily speechless — for a politician that’s sometimes difficult to do.

Sitting in a crowded room, eating a fine lunch of prime rib, baked potato and salad, I asked Hugh right out of the blue, “Are you going to follow Ron Sparks lead and run for governor once your term is up as commissioner of agriculture.”

Barely avoiding choking on his sweet tea, Hugh’s first response was, “I’ll probably have a hard time running for the state line, much less the state house.” After regaining a little color, Commissioner Weathers expressed the obvious, “anything’s possible in politics, but governor hasn’t been high on my agenda.”

A more serious conversation about Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture Ron Sparks’ run for governor ensued.

Commissioner Sparks is ending two terms as Alabama’s ag commissioner and by law cannot run again for that office.

In the Democratic Primary in Alabama, Commissioner Sparks pulled something of an upset by trouncing his opponent for the Democratic Party nomination for governor. That Sparks won was something of an upset. That he won with nearly two-thirds of the vote was a considerable upset.

This fall Commissioner Sparks will be running against Robert Bentley, who recently won a run-off election in which he and his opponent seemed hell-bent to character assassinate one another well beyond political recognition.

Bentley, a retired medical doctor, was even more of a surprise winner, beating Republican front-runner — since early on in the election process — Bradley Byrne. Still, Alabama is a Republican state and most folks probably think Dr. Bentley was elected governor, rather than Republican candidate for governor.

Political experts have overlooked and under-estimated Commissioner Sparks in the past. I’m far from a political expert, but in his first race for Alabama commissioner back in 2002, I helped a friend and former Auburn University colleague who was opposing Sparks. To my knowledge none of the media outlets, or any of the self-appointed political experts in the state, gave Sparks any chance of winning, but he did.

In the past eight years, he has proven to be a great champion for agriculture. I’ve heard him say on more than one occasion, “Alabama farmers are my family.” I’ve worked with Commissioner Sparks on several projects over the years and have gotten to know him fairly well.

He’s never mentioned that I supported his opponent. In fact, my friend, his one-time political opponent worked for Sparks for a number of years after the election. That may not say much about his political abilities, but it speaks volumes about Commissioner Sparks’ personal character.

I don’t know if Commissioner Sparks will become Governor Sparks — much, much stranger things have happened before in Alabama politics. I do hope that everyone in Alabama associated with agriculture and a good percentage of those who eat farmer-grown food and wear farmer-grown fiber will vote for him, too.

On a personal level, it would be nice to know the governor on a first name basis. On a much more important level, agriculture in the state would not be ignored, nor treated with anything less than first class attention should Commissioner Sparks pull the upset.

If an aggie can get elected governor in Alabama, why can’t other states do it, too?

I was mostly joking with Hugh Weathers, when I asked him that near choke-provoking question about running for governor. In reality, I think he would make a great governor as would his colleague, Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler in North Carolina.

I’m sure there are many highly qualified people with agricultural backgrounds who would make strong candidates and outstanding public servants — I just don’t know where these folks can be found.

The reality is that agriculture no longer has the political base necessary to elect government officials — certainly not at the state level. However, we do have plenty of political leaders who could get elected and who would give agriculture its well-earned place at the political table.

At least one agricultural group, the North Carolina Farm Bureau has not only echoed the voices of many ag groups about the need for a stronger political voice, they offer a course in political training for any aggie looking to run for office at any level. It may be politics 101, but it is a start.

Ron Sparks may not get elected in Alabama, but it is an effort and a political effort that will clearly bring agriculture to the forefront in at least one Southeastern gubernatorial race.

An old Chinese proverb states, the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. The political recovery and restoration of agriculture as a viable social and economic consideration in state elections starts with the election of one highly visible politician. Hopefully, my friend Ron Sparks will take that first big step.


TAGS: Legislative
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