A week before RNC, Texas populist Jim Hightower comes to Tampa
TAMPA — A protest of sorts will occupy the western edge of downtown Saturday — one week before the GOP descends upon Tampa for the Republican National Convention.
It won’t be the Occupy Movement that’ll be assembling, however, but fans and devotees of Jim Hightower, a populist radio commentator and syndicated columnist from Texas who will speak at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts Center.
The event, called The Free Speech Zone, runs from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., and will raise money for community radio station WMNF (88.5).
Hightower knows a thing or two about Republicans and how the party has come to dominate southern politics. He served as Texas Agriculture Commissioner from 1983 to 1991, but was ousted by a then-unknown state representative named Rick Perry. Both had been Democrats in 1988, but Perry switched parties and defeated Hightower two years later with the help of a young political consultant named Karl Rove.
Hightower, 69, hasn’t vanished since getting bounced from office. He’s become a best-selling author and a leading voice among populist progressives. In a 15-minute phone interview, we asked him his take on the current political climate.
You’re something of a rarity these days. A Southern white man who is a liberal. Why are there so few of you left?
There’s more of us than you think. It’s just that there are so few of us voting. The fact is, the people in Texas haven’t turned right wing or Republican. The problem is that the Democratic Party has stopped talking about the pocket book issues that working stiffs care about: good wages and health care for all. They have been weaker on these issues than Canadian hot sauce. And if the Democrats don’t plant the flag of FDR and LBJ, then the people won’t see the flag. So they won’t vote or they’ll vote on emotional issues like gun control.
So what’s the problem with Democrats?
They are tied to the same corporate interests that the Republicans are. You have weasely Democrats in Congress criticizing Obama for pointing out how Romney has made his fortune. They don’t push hard for campaign finance.
What are progressives to do?
Progressives are beginning to rise up and be heard. Just look at the campaigns for the U.S. Senate by Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin) and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts). There’s a Progressive Caucus in Congress that is very promising, with (U.S. reps) Raul Grijalva of Tucson and Keith Ellison of Minneapolis. They’re developing a grass roots congressional delegation that’s on the move. Those are increasingly the kind of Democrats who are getting elected. One other possibility is the growing effort to push back against the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision.
Where does President Barack Obama fall in all of this?
At least Obama is out there saying billionaires shouldn’t be paying the same taxes as their secretaries. But he’s a Bill Clinton with better rhetoric. He doesn’t really want to rock the boat regarding the fundamental issue of money and power in politics.
Do you think you have a special insight into the modern Republican Party because of how you lost in 1990?
They’ve become nutty. They just nominated a guy to the U.S. Senate (Ted Cruz, Texas) and one of his top concerns is that the United Nations will be taking over our golf courses. That’s so wacky.
At what point, though, do you have to blame the electorate for who is getting voted into office?
We’ve been having elections without campaigns that matter. There’s no one out there talking about real issues. The issue isn’t jobs, it’s wages. Until we start talking about those kinds of things, I don’t find it useful to blame the people voting. It’s a sane reaction, not to drop out, but to be slightly cynical of what politics has become. It’s about money, and that leaves most Americans left out. That why I say let’s have campaigns with some gut level messages and policies that we can deliver.
Rick Scott went fishing with Rick Perry the other day and appears to have a serious man crush on him. Any advice for our governor?
Yeah, stay away.
As you’ll be giving your speech on Saturday, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s VP pick will be attending a Treasure Island reception with some of the wealthiest GOP and conservative contributors in Florida. Do you feel outgunned by the flood of money entering this year’s presidential contest?
They have the fat cats, but we have the alley cats. We have to organize the alley cats to come forth and rally around campaign reform. They’re ready to do that, but they don’t have a lever to pull.