Tuesday, September 01, 2009

“I think I can inspire people in this state that are disgusted with politics, that are disgusted with politicians..."

Rancher aims to be governor


Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2009

One of the last times I saw Hank Gilbert, he was staring out the window of a campaign bus that had another candidate's name on it, bemoaning the fact that he'd missed his wife's birthday and remarking how the cows dotting the dusk-lit landscape made him lonesome for home.

A few days later, after the burly Tyler-area rancher had lost that 2006 Democratic bid for Texas agriculture commissioner, I'd have bet he was done with politics. I was wrong.

It had somehow seeped into his blood, like Grizzly chewing tobacco and barnyard metaphors. (Gilbert recently summed up his pleasure with progress in his anti-toll road efforts like this: “I am as happy as a hog taking a bath in a pond of slop.”)

Dull speech did it

Last week, Gilbert announced plans to embark on yet another Quixotic political adventure, this one even more ambitious: He's running for governor.

He had every intention of running for agriculture commissioner again, he said, probably sharing a ticket with Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Tom Schieffer, but thought the better of it after hearing the Fort Worth businessman speak.

There was no spark, Gilbert said. And that's precisely what the 49-year-old cowboy campaigner does best.

Gilbert, who calls himself a “true Southern fiscal conservative Democrat,” or “what everybody in this state used to be,” isn't your typical ill-funded, long-shot candidate. His speaking style is an eloquent mesh of populist conviction and folksy irreverence. No canned, sterile speeches here. The man knows how to whip up a crowd and he knows it.

“I think I can inspire people in this state that are disgusted with politics, that are disgusted with politicians, that are maybe feeling a little downtrodden and left out in society,” Gilbert told me.

“So, what do you think you are? The cowboy Obama?” I asked him during the phone interview last week.

“No, no,” he responded, laughing, and then went on to list a few “great differences of opinion” he has with the president, from bank bailouts to the specifics of health care reform.

Not that Gilbert doesn't strongly support reform in general. In fact, health care is one of the issues on which Gilbert may identify more closely with average voters than other candidates.

Like nearly 6 million other Texans, Gilbert and his family, including his wife and two teenaged sons, don't have health insurance. He said pre-existing conditions that he, his wife and one of his sons have caused their insurance company to drop them long ago.

“When we finally did get insurance, when both of our children were small, the insurance premium was over $1,800 a month, with a $5,000 deductible and only 60 percent coverage,” he said. “It's not worth it. It's easier to roll the dice and hope to God and pray every night that nothing terrible happens. And if it does, you pay cash for it.”

He said he'd address the problem on the state level by appointing insurance commissioners based on qualifications instead of political connections, who would demand fairness in the industry.

Term limits, no TAKS

Education and term limits are other priorities. He wants to kill the TAKS test and limit statewide officeholders to two terms, saying he's willing to sign a pledge on his own service: “If I can't get it done in eight years, then you should have fired me in four.”

What Gilbert is lacking in legislative experience, he says he'll makeup in common sense. Plus, he says, he's learned a lot over the past couple of years, campaigning in Austin and across the state against the Trans-Texas Corridor and all other things toll road.

If he didn't learn anything else in '06, he said he learned that his worst fear was true: “a common man cannot run for state government” unless you have people willing to invest an “insane amount of money” in your race.

6 cents a vote

Still, he hopes to convince donors that he's a good investment. He was the second-highest Democratic vote-getter in 2006.

“Rick Perry spent almost $25 million in '06 to my $100,000. And when you look at the total vote count, I beat him by 43,000 votes statewide. His votes cost almost $14.50 a vote and mine cost 6 cents,” Gilbert said with a chuckle.

Gilbert says he plans on running a civil primary race, but can make no promises in the general, when he believes he'd face Gov. Rick Perry: “The first time he chunks that mud, eew-wee! I'm like a pig at the trough. It's going to be on.”

© 2009 Houston Chronicle: www.chron.com

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