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Large GOP field of candidates set to battle for open seat on Texas Railroad Commission in 2014

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October 24, 2013

Texas

By Greg Janetka

AUSTIN, Texas: With incumbent Barry Smitherman (R) running for Attorney General, a slew of Republicans have jumped in the race to replace him on the Texas Railroad Commission, a regulatory body that oversees the oil and gas industries in the state. The primary is in March 2014, some four and a half months away, but the December 9 filing deadline is creeping close. So far six Republicans have thrown their hats into the ring. The total stood at seven until earlier this week when state Rep. Stefani Carter withdrew, saying she would seek re-election to the House instead.[1]

Who are these candidates and why is a seat on a commission that is all but unknown outside of the state so coveted? First let's look at the incumbents. Smitherman was appointed to the role in July 2011 after the seat was left vacant by Michael Williams, who left to run for U.S. House and, failing, was named Texas Commissioner of Education in 2012. Smitherman, the current Chair of the three-member commission, previously served on the Texas Public Utility Commission for some seven years. Alongside him serve Christi Craddick (R), elected in 2012, and David Porter (R), elected in 2010.

None of the three has yet to serve three-years on a body that elects members for six-year terms. This fact has rankled oil and gas industry leaders, who are frustrated by what they see as constant turnover in an office that has been treated by most as a stopover rather than a destination.[2] Because of that, one of the early issues in the campaign has been assuring voters that they would serve out their entire term.[3]

So who's in the running? The following six Republicans have declared their intentions:

  • Becky Berger - An oil geologist, Berger unsuccessfully ran for the commission in 2012, coming in third in the primary.[4]
  • Malachi Boyuls - An oil and gas investor and former regulatory attorney, Boyuls said he is focused on the business and finance sides of oil and gas.[5]
  • Ray Keller - A former state representative, Keller recently retired from a career in the public safety sales industry.[6]
  • Joe Pool, Jr. - An attorney, Pool has served as an Oil & Gas consultant for a number of companies and law firms, and has been an Oil & Gas Operator.[7]
  • Wayne Christian - A financial planner, Christian served in the state House from 1997-2013. He was defeated in the primary in his 2012 bid for re-election.[8]
  • Ryan Sitton - An oilfield engineer and small business owner, Sitton unsuccessfully ran for the state house in 2012.[9]

Also potentially running is Libertarian Mark Miller and Independent Billy Wayne Engle Jr.. No Democrat has declared an intention to run.

What will set the candidates apart remains to be seen. In a poll of government and political insiders by The Texas Weekly/Texas Tribune in mid-August, a full 44 percent of respondents said they did not know who would win the Republican Primary. Carter, who recently dropped out of running, led with 23 percent, followed by Keller with 15 percent, Boyuls with 14 percent, and Berger with 4 percent. Some of the responses included, "No one wins. We all lose," "Who are these people?" and "Nobody in Texas knows anything about any of these folks."[10]

The importance of the agency, however, is known to insiders. Scott Anderson, an energy policy expert at the Environmental Defense Fund said, “Generally speaking, the Railroad Commission is the most influential oil and gas commission in the country. Most of the time, when the agency speaks, other agencies tend to listen." Incumbent Craddick has called the commission, “probably the most important agency in the state," going on to say, "We’re kind of the industry standard.”[11]

Yet, the question remains, how do you get voters to care about the race? Perhaps more importantly for voters, how do you get donors to care? In the 2012 election, Smitherman raised an astounding $4,085,092 while Craddick took in $2,850,058. Out of 94 state executives elected across the country that year, they were ranked number 7 and 13 respectively in terms of total fundraising. With only so much money for GOP donors to spread around and name recognition low, candidates will have to find a way to set themselves apart from the crowd.

The primary will take place on March 4, 2014, with a runoff, if necessary, on May 27. The general election is November 4, 2014.

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