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Considerations before casting a vote

Let’s lay it out there, fellow Arkansans: if polls are accurate, we are about to give Sen. Blanche Lincoln the boot. The belief that she voted with the Obama agenda too often, tangled up with a morose economy, anti-incumbency fervor and a damaging primary challenge could be her political undoing.

I’m not a Democrat, nor an apologist for Sen. Lincoln. I certainly haven’t been happy with all of her votes.

But even so, a Lincoln defeat seems counterintuitive considering over a third of the state’s economy is tied to farming and Lincoln, as the first Arkansan and woman to serve as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is undeniably in the best position to provide farm-friendly legislation and extinguish threats.

And there are many threats lined up against agriculture. A chief worry: a new farm bill will soon be written and those who hate farm programs are sharpening their teeth in anticipation.

Of the entire Arkansas delegation, current or potential, Lincoln is in the best position to thwart them. That is fact.

It gained her little traction, but last fall Lincoln also stood against cap-and-trade legislation -- a stew of bureaucracy and misinformation concerning its ability to solve global warming -- being pushed by her party. The next Congress is guaranteed to face another round of such.

Again, of the entire Arkansas delegation, current or potential, Lincoln is in the best position to thwart that push. That is fact.

The most recent committee hearing Lincoln chaired was, essentially, a forum to call out the EPA’s top dogs for regulatory aggression towards agriculture. Lincoln was perfectly willing and capable of verbally whuppin’ up on Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator and fellow Democrat.

For more, see EPA

Maybe Lincoln’s detractors are right when claiming she votes too often with Obama. But claims that she’s unwilling to dig in her heels and stand up to fellow Democrats are simply untrue.

In late October, after expressing shock at the possibility Lincoln could lose, a congressional liaison for a national agricultural group told me her appeal isn’t just regional. “We’ve had a great relationship with Sen. Lincoln for years. She’s been there for agriculture – of all stripes, shapes and sizes – throughout. She’s been strong not only with traditional farm policy issues but environmental, as well. The regulatory issues coming out of the EPA these days are very challenging.”

A major commodity organization representative said, “It’s a huge opportunity for agriculture for not just Arkansas, but across the country. It’s a huge deal with Sen. Lincoln chairing that committee given her background with agriculture, her knowledge in working with the industry. She understands the difficulties and economics of production agriculture. It’s a tremendous asset.”

And holding that committee gavel means Lincoln is better able to bring home the bacon. It’s currently popular to decry efforts by legislators to provide programs and funds back home. Those complaints, too, may be legitimate. But with the way the D.C. game is now played, that money is going to go somewhere. Since that’s the case, I’d prefer to hold my nose and let Arkansas benefit.

It’s worth remembering that Arkansas, with a relatively small population and tax base, pulls in more federal funds than it pays out in taxes. That is largely due to our congressional delegation – and Lincoln is the most powerful amongst them.

I love my state. Arkansas is rich in many ways – fertile soils, beautiful and varied landscapes, an incredible musical and cultural heritage, great Southern food – but our treasure isn’t counted in coins. The truth is too many of us are poor and our state infrastructure needs improving.

Is voting Lincoln out really the best way to remedy what ails us? I’ll think long and hard about that before pulling the lever next week. And I’d be asking myself the same question if she was a Republican.

Recently, Sen. Lincoln spoke with me while she drove to a campaign event. Among her comments:

On her background…

“I make no bones about it: I’ve got a strong focus on production agriculture. I come from it, from a farming family.

“My focus has always been on crops and agricultural products (produced) in Arkansas and across the South. That’s true, whether it involves row crops we grow – which are capital-intensive and I have a particular understanding of rice and cotton, poultry, cattle and forestry.

“Arkansas is a great example of all the things done in production agriculture. Particularly in our row crops, most of our state knows but the rest of the country doesn’t understand the cotton and rice industries as much. They don’t understand the capital investment that Southern producers are required to make to just harvest a crop. Getting crops in and out is a big investment. That’s completely different from other parts of the nation.

“I think there’s no doubt that (for the 2012 farm bill) Southern agriculture will have a target on its back. Direct payments” will be under special scrutiny. “The House (Ag Committee) chairman (Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson) isn’t particularly fond of direct payments.

“A lot of my opponent’s supporters in this election – his colleagues and others in Washington – oppose direct payments. That’s especially true of those on the House Ag Committee. That’s an issue that people should understand and that it’s a big target.”

A lot of Americans seem to take agriculture for granted…

“We talk about jobs and the need to put our economy back on track. The most recent news I’ve heard this morning is that the trade deficit is up.

“The only place we have a trade surplus is in agriculture! That’s a great place for us to continue to grow jobs and continue to produce, as I always say, the safest, most abundant supply of food and fiber in the world.

“We could open up more markets and I harp on trade a lot. But it’s a great opportunity – a missed opportunity in many ways when you think about what we could do in places like Columbia, Panama and, certainly, Cuba. Open up trade with Korea.”

On agriculture’s role in job creation…

“Job creation and the economy are critical for everyone. Agriculture has a tremendous role to play in that whether through exports, making sure we keep the price of food down for Americans, making sure we maintain the domestic supply of food and fiber. All of those are essential.

“It’s also important to note that agriculture has a huge role to play with renewable fuels. We need to make sure we have a seat at that table.

“I led the fight against the (Obama) administration’s cap-and-trade initiative. It disadvantaged Southern agriculture. … There are a lot of (legislators from both parties) that have a different view.  

“The safety net programs are critical for producers. They have so much uncertainty from the EPA. It isn’t just uncertainty from tax law or trade markets, but also in terms of regulations. That’s huge on producers’ minds.”

On promised and continuing independence…

I’ve been willing to stand up for farmers against (unfriendly) interests. … I’ll continue to be an independent voice for production agriculture. It’s been a while since we’ve had someone at the helm of the Senate Ag Committee who has focused on production agriculture. As you know, that’s our focus while we maintain all the other jurisdictions. The fact we were able to pass a unanimous consent nutrition bill indicates we’re (also dealing with) nutrition, conservation, rural development and energy.

“But, for years, production agriculture hasn’t had the voice it should have. I think we’ve done a good job. Just in the one year (I’ve been chairman) we’ve put that voice back in place.”

For an interview with Lincoln's opponent, see Rep. John Boozman

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