While the Nov.4 general elections this year will decide who will be the new Texas Agriculture Commissioner for the next four years, the long road to election actually started in mid-December when candidates were required to file their letters of intent.
But early primary voting starts this week, Feb. 18, and by early estimates one of the five Republicans or one of the three Democrats to win their respective primaries on Mar. 4 (or May 27 if a primary runoff is required) will be named front runner for the job.
Eleven candidates have filed to run for the ag commissioner's post, five Republican candidates, three candidates facing off in the Democratic party primary, two Libertarians and one Green Party candidate.
While we haven't heard a great deal from the independent candidates who still have a couple of months before they start campaigning, we have compiled a list of the Republican and Democratic party candidates who are facing primary elections in the days ahead.
Current Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples will be running a different race this year, deciding to hang up his ag hat in hopes of a bigger prize, the hat worn by the Texas' Lt. Governor, leaving the office of ag commissioner up for grabs.
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While the race for Texas Agriculture Commissioner is not always a hotly contested one, especially in recent elections, a large field of candidates is vying for the job this time around and that collection includes candidates with interesting backgrounds and some powerful endorsements, possibly setting the contest up for a colorful run.
The Office of Texas Agriculture Commissioner is a job and title not taken lightly. Texas is the second largest agriculture-producing state behind California. An officer of the Plural Executive Branch in Texas, of which the ag commissioner is one, comes with great responsibility along with the management of a department with an annual budget of just under $600 million.
The ag commissioner's primary duty is, of course, directing, managing and operating the Texas Department of Agriculture. He/she is responsible for exercising the powers and performing the duties assigned to the department by Chapter 11 of the Texas Agricultural Code .
The commissioner is elected to a four-year term and enforces all agricultural laws in Texas. The laws cover matters as diverse as food inspection, animal quarantine, licensing, disease and pest control (including pesticide safety), and promoting exports of agriculture products grown or raised in Texas. As a legacy of its traditional duties, regulating weights and measures—as in grocery and produce scales—the department conducts annual checks on gas pumps to ensure accuracy and to protect the rights of consumers.
Texas expecting a significant race
Depending on who you talk to, the prospects for a heated race for ag commissioner are high, perhaps not as heated as the race for governor between Gregg Abbott and Wendy Davis, but one that may see some mudslinging.
The favored candidates for the ag post include, without question, the five Republicans vying for the office. But even among this group, a great deal of color may be found. The Republican candidates include Uvalde Mayor J. Allen Carnes, Joe Cotten of Plano, former state Reps. Tommy Merritt of Kilgore and Sid Miller of Stephenville, and Austin attorney Eric Opiela.
Carnes owns Winter Garden Produce in Uvalde, which grows and ships produce around the state. He recently received a major endorsement from baseball great Nolan Ryan, himself a strong Republican supporter who not so long ago hinted at making a run for the office as well. Possibly working against him, however, is Carnes’ past history as a Democratic Party supporter. But he says he has also supported Republicans in various elections and in most recent races.
Also running for the Republican nomination is former Texas Railroad Commissioner Joe Cotten of Plano. He calls himself the most conservative of the candidates and says he stands up against 'Obamanites' and is for a strong Constitution, according to his web site. Cotten is running a lightly funded, completely self-financed campaign.
Former State Rep. Tommy Merritt of Kilgore calls himself a lifelong conservative job creator. As a small business owner, he claims to have created over 1,000 new. He says he has a four-point plan on how to improve agriculture, including building on what he termed the good work of Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.
Sid Miller raises horses and prides himself in sponsoring the movement to strip Planned Parenthood of Texas of $21 million in an effort to stop abortions as part of his Right To Life campaign as a state representative. He has served six terms in the Texas House, but was accused of making loans to his campaigns and charging interest, a violation of state election laws.
Miller has admitted he loaned money to his campaign fund with interest. He also has been accused of potential discrepancies in his reports concerning stock purchases. A spokesman for Miller says the accusations are being wielded by fellow candidate J. Allen Carnes and has no merit. Miller is, however, under investigation by the Texas Ethics Commission.
Miller has also been under fire for the recent appointment of controversial rocker and outspoken hunter and ultra-conservative Ted Nugent to handle his campaign funds. Nugent came under fire and received a visit from the Secret Service in 2012 for allegedly threatening President Obama.
Last, but not least of the Republicans seeking nomination to run for Texas ag commissioner, is attorney, rancher and Tea Party favorite Eric Opiela of Karnes City. He says he is running because the agriculture industry is under assault from radical environmentalists and government bureaucrats who want to impose regulations aimed at infringing on private property rights.
Democrats in the running
On the Democratic side, three candidates seek their party's nomination for agriculture commissioner. They include Johnson County cattleman Jim Hogan, Hugh Fitzsimons III of Carrizo Springs, and—hold on to your hat—humorist and folk singer Richard “Kinky” Friedman.
Hogan says he feels he is the only candidate that understands what an agriculture commissioner really does. He says he has been following key state agriculture department officials around and asking a lot of questions in an effort to better understand the needs of the department and the industry. He also plans to visit each of the TDA regional offices to further his education about what improvements need to be made to make the department more responsive to the state's agriculture industry.
A native of San Antonio, Fitzsimons is a rancher on land that has been in his family for four generations, raising bison and cultivating wild honey. A former history teacher, Fitzsimons has based his campaign on meeting Texas’ water needs and coping with climate change, two of the biggest problems he says Texas producers will face in the years ahead.
If the introduction of rocker Ted Nugent as a campaign funds manager, accusations of ethics violations, candidates who seem more concerned about proving they are the most conservative choice rather than focusing on the serious issues facing agriculture, and a high profile endorsement from the state's most famous baseball hero isn't enough to make the upcoming race colorful, how about the entry of a well-known humorist, Kinky Friedman, who has the support of another kind of Texas hero, Texas music legend Willie Nelson?
Kinky Friedman says there should be no question about what he stands for in this election. He cites water shortages, overcrowded prisons, and border security as problems that could be addressed by the legalization of marijuana and the freedom of Texas farmers to grow industrial hemp.
Is he kidding?
Friedman says hardly. He says both Colorado and Washington State lawmakers have paved the way for Texas to solve problems associated with its troubled state budget by legalizing pot and taxing it to raise in excess of $600 million a year, more than the Texas Agriculture Department's annual budget. He says additional relief will be realized because it will largely eliminate the problems associated with border security as it relates to the smuggling of illegal drugs and will also relieve the Texas prison and court system by legalizing an agricultural product that was legal in the United States for nearly 200 years.
Also, Friedman points to the legalization of Texas farmers growing industrial hemp as a way to conserve water as hemp requires considerably less water than cotton, for example.
The stage is set for an interesting election
At first glance it may appear as though Friedman is either joking or has lost his senses. But it is important to note that while the majority, if not all, of the other candidates for agriculture commissioner disagree with Friedman's ideas about the legalization issue, there has been a great deal of open talk on the Texas political front that brings the question into the spotlight.
For instance, Republican Gov. Rick Perry, addressing the World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland, recently said that he signed laws putting the state on the path to decriminalization and suggested that all states have the right to decide how to handle the marijuana issue, according to the U.S. 10th Amendment.
In addition, Democratic candidate for Governor, Wendy Davis, recently suggested it may be time to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize its recreational use.
Friedman says he realizes his idea is "out there." But he suggested it is just a matter of time before other states follow the lead of Colorado and Washington and if action isn't taken soon, "Texas will be the dinosaur dragged in by the tail."
Critics, of course, point out that it has been a number of years since any Democrat has been elected to the executive branch of state government in Texas, but even the most critical admit there may be openings for Democratic candidates in a year when making progress against growing problems could bring relief to those suffering from the status quo state government.