Charlie Stenholm has announced he will run for Congress in Texas' newly drawn 19th District, setting up a potential race with Republican incumbent Randy Neugebauer of Lubbock.

We have never taken sides in political races, but, if we did, I would have to endorse Stenholm. It's not that we have anything against Rep. Neugebauer, who appears to be an able replacement for his predecessor, Larry Combest. But we're not sure farmers can afford to lose Stenholm.

Last year, the whole nation got a chuckle when a group of Democratic legislators fled Texas so the state senate would not have a quorum for a vote on a congressional redistricting plan.

Now farmers in west Texas and across the Cotton Belt are faced with the serious side of that legislation — the potential loss of a congressman who played a major role in the passage of the 2002 farm bill, the law that may have kept some of them in business.

When farmers planted last spring, many were afraid it might be their last crop. Three straight years of low prices and drought or bad harvest weather had growers on the ropes.

The 2002 farm bill's promise of counter-cyclical payments and marketing loan gains if prices remained low gave lenders assurances growers would be able to repay part of their crop loan if they financed them.

As everyone knows, most crops were good, prices improved and the government will save a lot of money on POP and counter-cyclical payments this year. But many farmers might not be enjoying their good fortune if not for the safety net provided by the 2002 farm bill.

That those provisions were written and survived all the months of debate on the farm was largely the work of Reps. Combest, then chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and Stenholm, the ranking Democrat.

Stenholm, who lives in Abilene, has represented the 17th Congressional District for 26 years. The redistricting plan eliminates the 17th District and moves Abilene into the new 19th District seat held by Rep. Neugebauer.

Stenholm told reporters attending the Beltwide Cotton Conference in San Antonio that he believed his seat was targeted for elimination because he and Combest “stood up to Tom DeLay and the President” to get the 2002 farm bill passed. (Majority Leader DeLay wrote the redistricting plan.)

As the National Cotton Council's John Maguire said at the Beltwide, cotton farmers will need every experienced voice they can muster to withstand the challenges farmers face in Congress.

Although agriculture has Thad Cochran of Mississippi chairing the Senate Agriculture Committee, it faces the loss of six key Cotton Belt senators, including John Breaux of Louisiana, to retirement this year. Six other Cotton Belt senators are serving their first term.

It's a shame that west Texans may have to choose between Stenholm and a man they just elected last spring, but it could be an even bigger one if Stenholm is not returned to Congress.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com