In short, Jim Hightower is just the sort of guy this country needs these days.
Author of the recently released paperback If The Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates, Hightower will be guest of honor at a fundraiser for the Primavera Foundation, a local non-profit that provides work and housing programs for low-income Tucsonans, on Saturday, May 5, at downtown's Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
Hightower, whose newspaper column has run in the Tucson Weekly since the mid-1990s, was raised in Dennison, Texas, in a family of hard-scrabble tenant farmers, truck drivers and railroad men. After an eight-year stint as Texas agricultural commissioner ended in 1991, Hightower launched a radio show. Although it was cancelled by whichever corporate overlord owned ABC Radio at the time, Hightower still does brief radio commentaries that air in 60 markets nationwide.
As a son of the Lone Star state, he's been watching our new president ever since W. wrangled his way into the governor's mansion. He suspects W. might have a sex scandal of his own brewing in the Oval Office.
"He's an absolute corporate wet dream," says Hightower. "As governor, just about any corporate executive who has a fantasy could make it come true by making contributions to George W. Our experience in Texas in being played out in Washington--the same pattern of Bush literally putting forward the legislative agenda of those who put the money in his pockets."
Hightower says he's heard the Bush song-and-dance before, when W. declared Texas had a surplus in the state budget and insisted on a big tax cut.
"The result of that is that Texas is down the ditch," says Hightower. "There's a $700 million shortfall this year 'cause he took the money and gave it away."
Hightower says he's equally skeptical that the forecasted national surplus will appear. "The real issue is how we're going to spend the money that we have," he says. "Bush will continue to shove it into corporate welfare and the Pentagon and Star Wars and trade scams rather than into health care and affordable housing and the things that people really need."
Although he held office as a Democrat, Hightower is an equal-opportunity basher. He complains that both the Democrats and Republicans have sold out. "At the national level, both parties have become money parties," says Hightower. "Wall Street doesn't need two parties and we the people need at least one."
He's urging folks to get involved on the local level, with non-political organizations and alternative political parties like the Greens. Unlike some Democrats and pundits, he's not one to blame Ralph Nader for Al Gore's loss.
"That's just out of frustration, which is understandable, because nobody with a progressive bone in their bodies could want this box of rocks to be in the White House," Hightower says. "There's a natural inclination to lash out, but we're lashing out at ourselves by assailing Nader."
He blames Gore's failure to run an inspiring campaign. "We have to build a new politics in this country that represents the work-a-day people," he says. "Not just dealing with the few hundred missing ballots in Florida, but the 100 million missing ballots in America. That's how many people didn't vote."
People have become disassociated with politics, he says, because "politics has become dissociated with them. It doesn't talk about these kitchen-table issues that affect people. There's an affordable housing crisis across America. That's not just homeless and poor people, it's now a matter of the middle class and schoolteachers and firefighters and police officers not being able to live in the cities where they work."
Even before the recent economic downturn, Hightower says, things weren't that great for many working Americans. "We hear a lot about jobs but not about wages," he says. "Bill Clinton used to talk about 23 million new jobs he created and a waitress could say, 'I know, I've got three of them.' "
While wages remain low for many Americans, corporations are still looking to move jobs south of the border as part of what Hightower calls "globaloney--it extends more power to global corporations and literally takes power from we the people, subverts our very sovereignty through NAFTA and the WTO and now the FTAA that is under assault even as we speak."
Hightower has nothing but praise for the Primavera Foundation, which oversees the twin operations of Primavera Services and Primavera Builders. Launched in 1985, Primavera Services provides emergency shelter, transitional housing and job placement programs. For the last eight years, Primavera Builders has helped people in need, from out-of-work adults to at-risk kids, develop construction skills by building houses for low-income people.
"Jim Hightower addresses many issues that are similar to what Primavera advocates," says Kate Hiller, director of development for the organization. "He talks about what's happen happening to the common worker in America today, and we're looking at what's happening to the common person here in Tucson who's facing poverty and homelessness."
The foundation, which is supported by private contributions, grants, and local, state and federal funds, has a $4.5 million budget this year. Hiller says that's a tight purse, given that the need for Primavera's services continues to be acute. She estimates that not only are there 2,000 people on the streets of Tucson every night, but that many people who have roofs over their heads still live on the edge of a financial precipice. Roughly half the households in Tucson earn less than $28,000, and nearly one-fourth bring in less than $15,000. A depressing 15 percent of Tucsonans live below the federal poverty line, including about one-third of Tucson's single moms.
"There's a stereotype of who the homeless person is, but there's a whole gamut of people who are homeless and they all have different needs," says Hiller. "What we do here at Primavera is look at the person and say what does this person need? Maybe they're fine with shelter but need a job, or have a job but have substandard housing."
Hiller says people in poverty face challenges that keep them from getting ahead, from predatory lending at outfits that provide loans until payday to car salesmen that stick them with outrageous interest rates. Day laborers often see tiny paydays when unscrupulous employers charge them a long list of fees.
"They get a job and they walk away with a small paycheck, because they've been charged for transportation, they've been charged for gloves, they've been charged to cash their check," Hiller says. "There's this whole assault on impoverished people that makes it hard to get ahead."
Primavera Works counters that assault - it contracts with businesses to provide workers by the day, week, or longer. Primavera provides transportation and payment, setting aside some wages to help people make a transition to a more stable living standard.
Hightower sees groups like Primavera as vital to the country's future.
"That's what we have to encourage and that's what I urge the progressive movement itself to do: to decamp out of Washington and get out in the grassroots, where ordinary folks are doing so many extraordinary things," he says.