Inside D.C.

“Mr. Chairman” de la Garza Passes

As lawmakers continue to refine their skills at partisanship and political dogmatism; as “gridlock” remains the most common adjective used by voters to describe Congress, American agriculture broadly lost a true statesman this week with the passing of retired Rep. Eligio “Kika” de la Garza (D, TX) at the age of 89.  He chaired the House Agriculture Committee for 15 of its most challenging years during the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, enacting four farm bills with nary a hiccup.

We called him “Kika” when he wasn’t around, and “Mr. Chairman” when he was.

As word spread through Washington, DC, Kika had died, one friend and colleague remarked, “Ah the good old days when working out a compromise was an honorable deed…”  Kika often repeated two aphorisms: “A good compromise is a deal where both sides walk away unhappy,” and my personal favorite, “politics is the art of the possible,” which when translated into real world speak means without negotiation and compromise, both sides lose.

It was this philosophy and spirit with which de la Garza led the House Ag Committee through seven congresses and four omnibus farm program packages.  The diminutive Hispanic lawmaker, who was a conservative Democrat and a bit of a budget hawk, spent 32 years in the House.  He was renowned for inspiring a strong bipartisan spirit within the ag committee by reminding members, particularly freshmen, that everybody eats so there’s no GOP or Democrat about the issues in front of the committee.  This approach allowed him to hammer together compromises that protected and promoted farmers and ranchers while protecting consumers, deals that appealed to both urban and rural members, deals that would be politically impossible in other House committees.

Kika took over the ag committee just as national agriculture was entering one of its worst economic downturns in history, earning his reputation as a champion for farmers and ranchers.  When the Reagan administration tried to slash ag support payments in 1981, de la Garza fought for a compromise that led to saving the programs and the full House approving his first Farm Bill as committee chair – by two votes.  He dubbed himself “Landslide Kika.”

de La Garza was the first Mexican-American to represent the 15th District of Texas, and was one of the first Hispanics elected to the House from that state.  He was one of three House members to found the Hispanic Caucus, and he’s credited with rolling U.S.-Mexican trade into the then evolving North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Tributes to de la Garza as a House member and a man poured into his home in McAllen, Texas, this week, along with condolences to his wife, Lucille, often referred to as “Mama.”

Said Rep. Mike Conaway (R, TX), current chair of the House Agriculture Committee: “Kika de la Garza was a true public servant in every sense of the word. He made a lasting impact.  I have long admired his commitment to bringing together food producers and the average consumer – a worthy cause I aspire to continue…”

“Kika was my first chairman when I came to Congress in 1981,” said Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN), former chair and current ag committee ranking member.  “Kika was one of the original farm bill coalition leaders, bringing churches, nutrition groups and labor unions together with farm groups to support the four farm bills enacted during his time in Congress.”

No one knew Kika the man and the politician better than Sen. Pat Roberts (R, KS), sitting chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Roberts is the only member of Congress to chair both House and Senate ag panels.

When the GOP took control of the House after the 1994 elections, Roberts, who was a House member in 1994, switched jobs with de la Garza. For a while, Kika remained as committee ranking member, and retired a few years later.

“Out of respect, we never called him the Ranking Member,” Roberts said. “We called him Chairman Emeritus.  Kika served with distinction and provided great leadership for all of agriculture.  He was not only my chairman, but a colleague and a close personal friend.  Our relationship was a classic example of how members could work across the aisle.”

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