WASHINGTON, March 13, 2017 – Former Congressman Eligio “Kika” de la Garza, who represented the 15th District of Texas for 32 years, died today at the age of 89.
The colorful South Texas Democrat became chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in 1981 – near the beginning of a prolonged and difficult U.S. farm crisis. He remained at the helm until Republicans took control of the House of Representatives after the 1994 elections. He stayed on the committee as ranking member for one term and retired at the end of 1996.
"Kika de la Garza was a good man, very effective congressman, valued friend, and a champion of opportunity and social justice. I'll miss him,” noted former President Bill Clinton on Twitter today.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who served as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee after Kika’s tenure, tweeted that, “out of respect, we never called him the ranking member. 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,” Roberts said. “Agriculture has lost a great friend and leader.”
He was well known for opening committee meetings and speeches with his “submarine” story, describing his tour of a nuclear submarine. He asked an admiral how long he could keep the nuclear sub down under the water and the punch line was always “as long as my men have food.”
“He liked to tell that story because it showed why agriculture was so important,” recalls former Committee Staff Director H.R. Bert Peña, now a partner at Troutman Sanders.
One long-time observer of the congressional agriculture panels said that de la Garza, as chairman of the House Ag committee “mastered the art of bringing the committee together on a bill that could command a majority vote on the floor of an urban-dominated House.
“On more than one occasion, he would persuade interest groups – as he did memorably when dairy lobby groups were sharply divided – to get into a room and negotiate until they reached a compromise all sides could support.”
De la Garza graduated from Mission High School in Hidalgo County, Texas, and at the age of 17 enlisted in the Navy, where he served two years. He later served as an Army artillery officer during the Korean War and earned a law degree. De la Garza was a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1952 to 1964. After serving as a state legislator, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1965 and served until 1996.
Mike McLeod, now a principal at McLeod, Watkinson and Miller, described de la Garza as a “warm human being who cared about all of the agriculture community.”
In a prepared statement, current District 15 Congressional Representative Vicente Gonzalez reflected on de la Garza's passing. He said de la Garza represented the district “with distinction and honor.”
“The Rio Grande Valley has lost a statesman, public servant, husband, father, grandfather and friend, but his legacy will live on," Gonzalez said. "It is a privilege to follow in the footsteps of a man who empowered our rural areas and lifted up the Hispanic community. Lorena and I offer our most sincere condolences to his wife, Lucille, their children, and grandchildren at this difficult time."
He resided in McAllen, Texas, with his wife Lucille until he passed away today.
(Contributing Editor Jim Webster contributed to this report.)
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