Former Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, a conservative Texas Democrat who was a leading architect of agricultural policy in the late 20th century and into the 21st, died unexpectedly Wednesday at his home in Granbury, Texas. He was 84. 

Stenholm, who was also a leading advocate of a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget, represented a large swath of west Texas for 26 years before he was defeated in 2004 as the result of a GOP redistricting plan.

Stenholm’s congressional career was marked by his passionate advocacy of modern farm production and a firm conservative belief in limiting the growth of government spending. He had a major role in shaping and passing every farm bill during his 13 terms in Congress between 1979 and 2005.

He was ranking member on the House Ag Committee when he teamed up with Chairman Larry Combest, a Republican who represented a neighboring west Texas district, to win passage of the 2002 farm bill with a new countercyclical support program for commodities, undoing a key element of the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” bill.

Stenholm was “loved on both sides of the aisle,” former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman told Agri-Pulse on Thursday.

“He was true to his vision about needing to control the federal deficit, even if that impacted agriculture. Charlie called them as he saw them. He wasn't just out to put his finger up in the air and figure out what necessarily people wanted out there,” said Glickman, a Democratic former Kansas congressman who served with Stenholm on House Ag.

He was a leading voice in legislation that rescued the Farm Credit System from financial difficulty during the farm crisis of the 1980s and mandated its reorganization. Stenholm also helped develop legislation that reorganized USDA during the Clinton administration and had a significant role in legislation that reformed the federal crop insurance system.

In writings and interviews in recent years, Stenholm lamented the loss of bipartisanship in Congress.

“You can have the greatest idea since sliced bread, as we say, you can be 100% right. But unless you can convince 217 of your colleagues your solution is good, and then 61 senators, and then a president, pardon the grammar, but it ain't gonna happen,” Stenholm said in an October 2022 video interview posted by the House Ag Committee.

“So I learned and I learned real quickly, Republicans were not my enemy, except during elections, then that we were opponents, not enemies. … I looked for anybody that would agree with me, and I looked for others to agree with.”

He said the country wouldn't be facing its mounting debt, if the balanced-budget amendment had passed.

He regretted not pushing for an increase in the federal minimum wage - he described the current $7.25-an-hour requirement as "ridiculous" - and addressing issues of racial discrimination, including in farm programs. 

“I wish I had paid a little more attention and done a little bit more in trying to be supportive of (the late Rep.) John Lewis and some of the things that he tried to do in the House,” Stenholm said.

Stenholm was not above playing hard ball when he had to on House Ag. During negotiations with the Senate on the 2002 farm bill, Stenholm joined Combest in walking out of the talks one day when they felt the Senate Ag chairman, Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was being intransigent on crop subsidy issues. The action led Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to intervene in the negotiations.  

His time in office ended as a result of the growth in the Republican vote in rural Texas and congressional redistricting by the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature in 2003 that split his former district among four districts with Republican majorities. He chose to run in a newly-drawn 19th district that was dominated by Lubbock and included most of the territory then represented by Rep. Randy Neugebauer, a Republican who defeated Stenholm in the November 2004 election.

From 2005 through 2018, Stenholm remained in Washington as a lobbyist and senior policy adviser with the Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz law and lobbying firm that focuses on food, drug, and agriculture interests before Congress and federal agencies. He represented several agricultural clients including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the horse meat industry as it fought unsuccessfully to stop legislation that made horse slaughter illegal.

After returning to Texas in 2018, Stenholm became an adjunct professor at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, teaching agricultural policy, and a popular public speaker and a prolific commentator on social media.

In a talk to the Rolling Plains Cotton Producers in 2020, he acknowledged that redistricting cost him his seat in Congress and called for the creation of a nonpartisan mechanism to draw new legislative and congressional district lines after every decennial census.

That, he said, may make the government more responsive. “We have to get away from safe Republican districts and safe Democratic districts, where your only opposition comes in the primaries,” he said, according to the Abilene Reporter-News. “That empowers the crazy right and the crazy left.”

Stenholm also took a leadership role with the Farm Foundation after his congressional service, moderating many of its forums at the National Press Club that sought to promote dialogue and greater understanding of farm and food issues. In an interview posted by the Farm Foundation, cited the challenge of rising food demand, forecast to double by 2050.

“How this demand is to be met while protecting natural resources poses significant challenges. There are no simple or singular answers,” he said, adding that the Farm Foundation dialogue project was designed to promote conversations needed to begin addressing challenges and seek “the building blocks for solutions.”

Stenholm was often mentioned as a potential secretary of agriculture but was never nominated. In retirement he was a board member of several organizations including the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Concord Coalition. Among several awards, he was inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame in 1998.

The owner and operator of a 2,000-acre cotton and cattle farm and the executive of rural cooperatives, Stenholm began a career in agricultural programs and politics as an appointed member of the Texas State Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (now the Farm Service Agency) committee during the administration of former President Jimmy Carter.

Following graduation from Texas Tech University, he taught vocational agriculture, became executive vice president of the Rolling Plains Cotton Growers Association and was president of the Texas Rural Electric Cooperative Association. He launched his electoral career in 1978, winning a seven-way primary in what was then a heavily Democratic 17th congressional district to succeed a longtime member who retired.

He is survived by his wife, Cynthia, and children Chris, Carey and Courtney.

House Ag Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., and ranking Democrat David Scott of Georgia, issued a joint statement:

“We are saddened to learn of the passing of Congressman Charles Stenholm, a distinguished public servant who dedicated more than 26 years of his life to the people of Texas and the United States. Charlie had an intimate understanding of American agriculture and a lifelong commitment to supporting rural communities. He will be greatly missed by many. Our hearts go out to his wife Cindy and his family. They will be in our prayers.”

Marshall Matz of OFW Law said Stenholm “was passionate about rural America, the farm bill and the ever-growing national debt” and was “much respected on both sides of the political aisle.”

Glickman said Stenholm was someone “Jefferson and Hamilton and the Founding Fathers had in mind (as the) kind of member of Congress they would want to represent this country.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who served with Stenholm on House Ag, said in a statement that he was “a true southern gentleman. Farmers and ranchers in Kansas, Texas and the country are better off then and today because Charlie cared, worked and brought aggies together for the good of all.”

Spencer Chase and Sara Wyant contributed to this report. 

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