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Texans go to polls to choose Combest's successor

Voters in Texas' 19th Congressional District face a daunting task May 3 as they choose a representative to replace long-time Rep. Larry Combest. They'll select from a field of 11 or more candidates, all of whom claim to be intimately tied to both agriculture and oil and gas, the industries that drive the economy of the West Texas district, which winds from Lubbock south, below the Panhandle, and then westward to the Midland-Odessa area.

None of the candidates contacted for this article hold out any real hope of winning the election outright May 3, although several indicated their campaigns have an outside chance of avoiding a runoff.

Candidates come with a wide range of experience, from the usual contingent of lawyers to a broadcast journalist, entrepreneurs, accountants, one surgeon, real estate moguls, bankers, wives and mothers, and one who has founded and operates a mission for women and children.

One has held a state-level elective office; one was elected mayor. and several have served in Washington as congressional aides or in various government or quasi-government agencies.

All but one of the interviewed candidates will run as Republicans. That one claims to be a “conservative Democrat.”

Each candidate pledges to seek a seat on the House Agriculture Committee. All say they will oppose more payment limitations on farm programs.

Southwest Farm Press attempted to contact each candidate who remains a viable contender. Some did not return calls or e-mail queries. If we missed viable candidates, we apologize and ask that they contact us as soon as possible and we will attempt to present their views on farm policy as it relates to the 19th Congressional District of Texas.

Below, we've provided a brief look at the candidates' views on agricultural issues. Candidates are listed in the order in which they were contacted.

David Langston, a Lubbock attorney and managing partner in the Mullin, Hoard and Brown law firm, says the 19th District's economy stands on three legs — agriculture, energy, and Texas Tech University.

“The agricultural leg, however, is much stronger than the other two. Folks recall that closing Reese Airbase meant a $25 million payroll loss. That's a lot, but one hail storm across the region poses a more severe economic impact.”

Langston served as mayor of Lubbock and also worked with George Mahon in Washington as a House of Representatives Ag Committee aide. “I worked on a number of issues related to Farmers Home Administration, the old ASCS program and several farm bills.”

Langston says the farm sector needs to develop “an alliance among various associations and regions to withstand attacks on farm policy.” Sound farm policy, he says, begins with “stable prices.”

He'd like to see better cooperation between agriculture and foreign trade negotiators to protect farm interests.

“We've exported our technology to foreign countries and those countries have used that technology to compete against us.”

He cites the declining textile industry as an example of foreign trade gone awry. “Something has to change with our trade policy.”

Langston runs as a Republican and recently left the Democratic Party. “The Republican Party better represents my view for West Texas,” he says. He owns a farm south of Lubbock.

Donald May is a surgeon in Lubbock who says his broad background gives him a unique perspective as a West Texas legislator. May grew up on an Illinois farm, now operated by tenant farmers.

May says current farm legislation is “about the best farmers could hope for,” considering the faltering economy. “But we can do better. We see a lot of opportunities for agriculture.”

Some of those opportunities will be realized by a “fair trade” policy. “Fair trade is good for the economy,” May says, “but our farmers must have a level playing field. Even with NAFTA, the field is not level.

“Canada's grain trade policies trouble me. Also, other countries use chemicals not allowed in the United States. Farmers 1,000 miles south of us can use banned pesticides and then ship products into our markets with no warning label.

“If we can't use a product here, we should not allow a product in if a banned material has been used on it.”

He says European Union subsidies and China's reluctance to live up to WTO agreements hamper U.S. farmers' competitiveness.

May also points to taxation as a retarding agent for industrial growth. “Taxation hurts industry,” he says. “Corporate taxes should be low enough to attract companies into our rural communities.”

Mike Connaway, a Midland certified public accountant, says the 19th District “is better off when both our energy and agricultural industries are doing well. We need to promote both.”

Connaway says protecting the current farm law is imperative to maintain stability for farmers. “Also, we need more open trade and only support trade negotiations that agree to lower tariffs.

“And trading partners such as China must live up to their agreements. We need to develop a means to address trade compliance.”

He supports developing an ethanol industry in Texas to provide “an alternate source of energy. It's clearly in the best interests of the district, and there is no real conflict between oil and gas and ethanol production. Our oil producers will still sell every barrel of oil they can drill.”

Connaway says water continues to be a critical issue for West Texas farmers and ranchers. “This may be a state issue for now, but we need to continue to protect a landowner's water rights,” he says.

He agrees that protecting individual water rights and providing for all the state's needs will require a “coordinated effort.”

Connaway has worked as a CPA for 30 years, part of that time with PriceWaterhouse and then with his own firm in Midland. He also spent six years in banking.

Randy Neugebauer, a Lubbock banker and land developer, says the farm bill “should be preserved as passed. Payment limits are not good for our producers.”

He says modern firms depend on an economy of scale to improve efficiency. “Farmers have expanded to increase efficiency and we shouldn't penalize them for that.”

He says the Bushadministration “must put international trade on a level playing field on which all players keep their ends of the bargain. The European Union, for instance, subsidizes farmers as much as $250 per acre with tariffs that are “three to four times higher than ours.”

He says losing textile mills, more than 200 in the last 10 years, hampers the country's ability to sell “value-added products” and limits farmers' domestic market.

He says ethanol offers another opportunity to add value to crops and provide an additional market for farmers.

“We're studying the feasibility of building an ethanol plant in the area,” he says. “It would be positive for the region, a way to create jobs instead of continuing to export our young people.”

Bill Christian, Odessa, currently serves as the officer-in-charge of a Marine Corps Reserve detachment in Lubbock. He also has more than 15 years of congressional experience, having worked in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

“The first thing I'll do as congressman is listen,” he says. “I'll take suggestions from those who know what they're talking about. Then I'll take action.”

He says a robust agricultural economy is crucial to West Texas. “We have to give the farm bill a chance to work before we start dismantling it,” he says. “We can't see what's good or bad about it until we do.

Any government solution to issues will be imperfect at best, but we have to let the farm bill do what it's designed to do.”

Christian says waiting for legislation to fix problems often adds unnecessary and costly delays. “I'll work with the executive branch to find what we can do with legislation already in place, then through USDA and other agencies provide administrative relief.”

He also proposes that trade be more fair to farmers. “Farmers always seem to get the short end of the stick. We see a clear imbalance in tariffs. We have to break down barriers to open markets for our agricultural products.”

Jaimie Berryhill, Odessa, is founder and director of Mission Messiah, a center for women and women with children who have been in crisis situations. He was an entrepreneur and businessman for 30 years before founding the mission.

“A lot of people don't realize a good part of everyday life comes from agriculture,” Berryhill says.

He says farmers and ranchers are trying to survive on prices equal to or less than they were decades ago.

“We're selling cotton for 50 cents a pound and a calf for $600, prices about where they were 30 or 40 years ago, when folks could buy a pickup truck for $3,400. Now they pay $34,000.

“Farmers are backed into a corner by excessive regulations,” he says. “We need to ease up on some of the controls imposed on farmers.

“And we give away too much technology to countries who compete against us. We've given away our textile industry with no consideration for the effect it had on our farmers. We must force other countries to lift tariffs to protect our interests.”

Water poses another dilemma for the 19th District, he says. “We've suffered from drought for years. Our underground water resources are declining and we must address the problem immediately.”

He'd like to revisit a 1960s proposal that would pipe water to Texas from the Mississippi River.

Stace Williams is a Lubbock attorney who believes farmers need a sound farm policy to survive. “Farmers who irrigate cotton make form one bale to one and a half bales per acre, and at current prices they have to get subsidies to cover their investment.”

He'd like to see more farmers qualify for conservation programs that help them install drip irrigation systems.

“They'll conserve soil and water and increase yields to three to four bales.

“We know our water table is decreasing and we don't know where water for agriculture and other uses will come from.”

Williams says he's concerned that “U.S. farmers are the only ones who play by the rules in international trade. We compete with countries that pay low wages and impose high tariffs on our goods. We can't ignore farmers in trade negotiations.”

He says U.S. consumers make choices and, if informed through country of origin labeling, should buy U.S. goods.

“Building awareness among consumers is important.”

He says an ethanol facility would offer farmers an opportunity to diversify.

“I would support an ethanol incentive to build plants,” he says. “We need to look at alternative fuel sources.”

Kay Gaddy, the sole Democrat on the ballot, comes from an education and broadcast journalism background. She also worked with a “Main Street” economic development program and was a hospital marketing director.

“We can't afford to lose the family farm,' Gaddy says. “But farmers face an unclear future. Clamping down on government payments is not the way to go.

“We need to build on what Larry Combest has done and not throw the baby out with the bath water.”

She says oil and gas and agriculture are the two most important industries in the 19th District.

Tariffs, taxes and EPA regulations pose serious obstacles to U. S. agriculture and “only apply to U.S. farmers. Some companies have even moved abroad to avoid tariffs and taxes.”

The combination, she says, serves to reduce net income for U. S. farmers. “The EPA has done a lot of good for the environment, but we need some changes in regulation which flagrantly challenge common sense.”

She says water will be the key issue for West Texas farmers. “The rule of capture will come under scrutiny at some point.” She says potential for piping water from the Mississippi deserves consideration.

She would like to see changes in trade legislation. “Some changes can be made in Congress.”

Vickie Sutton, Lubbock, considers herself an environmental scientist. She has a law degree and worked on environmental issues for President George H. Bush. Currently, she is working on bio-terrorism with the Texas Tech Public Policy Program and published a book, Law and Bio-Terrorism, last year.

“Legislators must understand environmental issues,” she says, “to make certain farmers' interests are protected. I went to the White House to work on environmental concerns and realized that to be effective, you have to speak environmentalists' language.”

She says environmentalists don't consider the economic impact of their proposals.

Biotechnology critics, she says, don't understand the issues.

“Genetically modified organisms can help reduce the number of clear cut forests in developing nations.” Biotechnology “allows farmers to be more efficient, produce more on less land.”

She says water will be “the issue of the decade for Texas. We need to provide better conservation incentives for farmers. We have to put money in it.”

Sutton says the attempts to add more payment limitations to the farm program “was predicted. We want to protect farm programs, not reduce payments. Some farmers have not been able to get loans for this crop. People in Washington need to understand that.”

She says international trading partners should be held accountable for failure to live up to trade agreements.

Carl Isett, a Lubbock businessman and state representative, says he's “the only elected official” in the race. “I've been re-elected to this office because I did what I said I'd do. Now, I'm asking them to trust me to do more. I'll run on my record not on rhetoric.”

Isett says agriculture is key to the 19th District economy, “responsible for most of the jobs in the area. We produce 20 percent of the nation's cotton.”

He sees “no good reason” to add more payment limitations to the farm program.

“I'll begin fighting that immediately,” he says. “Benefits from the farm economy spread throughout the community, but burdens of regulation and trade fall on farmers' shoulders.”

He says government interference harms farmers. “The cost of regulations is a big factor,” he says, “and those costs are borne by the producer. We have to make certain we provide a favorable business environment. Farmers are good stewards of the land. Let's trust them to do what's right.”

As an accountant, he says he can tell when the economy is going well or poorly from the farmer income tax returns he tallies.

Isett says elected officials should look for ways to “make capital investment in ethanol production more attractive. We get a lot of advantages from an ethanol plant — jobs, new markets for farmers and more energy security.”

All candidates admit that replacing Larry Combest is beyond the scope of any first-year representative. They say the best they hope for is to build on the foundation Combest left and use his example as a model for bi-partisan cooperation.

Combest announced his resignation late last year, following passage of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, legislation he championed and fought for during most of his last full term in office.

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