Posted July 28, 2006

Former congressman has tough job: protecting horse-slaughter industry

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By Dave Montgomery

McClatchy Newspapers

(MCT)

WASHINGTON - After being driven out of Congress by a Republican-led redistricting plan, former Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, embarked on a thriving career as an agricultural lobbyist.

Now he faces what some would say is a daunting if not impossible task: trying to put a positive face on a small but much-maligned industry that slaughters American horses for people to eat overseas, especially in France and Japan, where horse steaks grace many a dinner table.

Stenholm, a conservative Democrat who earned bipartisan respect in Congress for his expertise on agricultural issues, is the most visible lobbyist for three foreign-owned horse-slaughter plants fighting to kill legislation that would force them out of business.

The legislation, which appears headed to a vote in the House of Representatives by early September, has stirred an impassioned summertime debate over one of America's beloved four-legged icons.

The processing plants, in Fort Worth and Kaufman, Texas, and DeKalb, Ill., killed more than 90,000 horses last year.

More than 200 of the 435 House members are co-sponsoring the bill, backed by a broad coalition of animal-rights activists, celebrities, horse groups and rescue shelters. Legendary Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens embraces the measure, calling the slaughterhouses "a dirty little secret."

Those on the other side of the issue are mounting a counteroffensive and think Stenholm's involvement is making a difference. Both camps claim hundreds of supporters, with veterinarians and prominent horse groups on both sides.

Stenholm, who was the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee before leaving the House last year, was clearly on friendly territory Thursday when he appeared before the panel with other opponents of the measure, including ranchers and veterinarians.

"Welcome back," panel Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., greeted Stenholm as he took his place at the witness table.

The committee sided heavily with Stenholm, voting 37-3 to send the measure to the House floor with an unfavorable recommendation, after retooling it with so-called "poison pill" amendments that would seemingly guarantee its defeat.

The full House might see things differently. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has backed the original bill, sponsored by Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y. House leaders will decide in September how to proceed with the quite different bills.

Stenholm and other opponents of Sweeney's bill hope to soften the emotionalism surrounding the debate and convince lawmakers that the legislation would destroy a 100-year-old industry that offers a humane and well-regulated way to deal with unwanted horses.

Eliminating the slaughterhouses, they say, would lead to a surplus of nearly 100,000 horses a year, which would be subject to abuse and neglect. Stenholm also argued that horse owners have a "constitutionally protected right" to dispose of their horses.

Dick Koehler, the vice president of the Dutch-owned Beltex processing plant in Fort Worth, Texas, said industry representatives recruited Stenholm because of his deep background in agriculture policy after 26 years in Congress.

"Mr. Stenholm is an icon," Koehler said. "I expect to win."

Stenholm, who was a leader of the "Blue Dog" faction of conservative Democrats, was defeated for re-election in 2004 after his West Texas district was redrawn as part of a redistricting plan engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

Stenholm is now employed as a senior policy adviser with the Washington law firm of Olsson, Frank and Weeda.

He acknowledges that his current task is "a tremendous challenge" but says he's hopeful.

His adversaries say he has a hard PR job in trying to sell an industry that many Americans find appalling.

"It's tough to defend horse slaughter," said Nancy Perry, the vice president of government affairs for the Humane Society of the United States.

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2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.