Charles Stenholm, RIP

Dr. Malcolm Cross

The passing of former U. S. Representative Charles Stenholm is to be mourned.  So too is the apparent passing of the sort of politics Congressman Stenholm both practiced and symbolized.

Congressman Stenholm’s life and legacy should be of special interest to Tarleton’s faculty, staff, and students.  Mr. Stenholm earned an associate’s degree from Tarleton when it was a community college before going on to earn a bachelor’s degree and pursue a career of ranching, teaching, lobbying on behalf of agricultural interests, service in Congress from 1979 to 2005, and finally service on Tarleton’s faculty.  A replica of his congressional office is on the second floor of the OA Grant building.  It’s well worth visiting.

Although a lifelong Democrat, Congressman Stenholm put principle above partisanship.  He initially supported much of President Reagan’s fiscal and social policy agenda while also voting to impeach President Clinton.

But while the Congressman had the courage of his convictions, he was no fanatic.  He also had the courage to change his mind publicly on a given issue if he concluded his initial views were wrong.  A believer in fiscal responsibility, Congressman Stenholm came to regret his early support of the Reagan tax cuts after seeing the ensuing deficit and debt begin to spiral out of control.  He became a forceful opponent of tax cuts if they were to further worsen the deficit and debt, and a leading advocate of the addition of a balanced budget amendment to the U. S. Constitution.

Throughout his service in Congress, Representative Stenholm was always willing to reach across the aisle to try to fashion bipartisan solutions to pressing problems.  He thereby practiced a form of politics emphasizing fact and reason in decision making while rejecting the demonization of those who might disagree with him.  He was at all times a man of goodwill who recognized the goodwill of others as well.

Unfortunately, Congressman Stenholm’s career in public office fell prey to growing partisanship.  In 2003 the Republican-dominated Texas legislature redrew congressional district boundaries to gerrymander the Congressman and other Democratic representatives from Texas out of office.  In 2004 he was defeated for re-election, being rejected not by the voters who had selected him in every congressional election since 1978, but by voters in a new district created specifically to produce a Republican.  The United States Congress thereby lost one of its best members of Congress.

But at least Congress’s loss was Tarleton’s gain.  Congressman Stenholm returned to Tarleton to teach courses in our College of Agriculture.  And as Head of the Department of Social Sciences, I was pleased and proud to authorize the receipt of political science credit as well for those students fortunate enough to study under his tutelage.

Those who mourn the passing of Congressman Stenholm at least have the consolation of knowing he had not only a long life but a life well-lived as he practiced the politics of reason, bipartisanship, and decency.  But those who decry the growing partisanship, polarization, and bitterness which characterize partisan politics today can only wonder whether we’ll ever see the likes of a Charles Stenholm again.  Such a public servant cannot come too soon.  Or will he (or she) come too late?  Only time will tell. 

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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