Race for Agriculture Job Grows Nasty

The race for Texas agriculture commissioner is near the bottom of the statewide ballot in a year that appears to be custom-made for GOP candidates. The last thing Todd Staples wanted was for Hank Gilbert to make things interesting.

Staples is the Republican incumbent. Gilbert, the Democrat he defeated in 2006, is again the challenger. Libertarian Rick Donaldson rounds out the field. On a ballot full of contests that haven't attracted much regard from voters, political donors or the press, this one has become a minor spectacle.

"I have an opponent who is a pathological political liar," Staples says, citing a list of transgressions committed by Glbert that includes a criminal conviction for theft by check, a court judgment on behalf of a former campaign worker, allegations of not paying federal taxes (Gilbert blames a switch in accountants for that fumble) and of taking what Staples characterizes as a "bribe" in exchange for switching over from the governor's race to this one. "This guy is likely the most unfit person to run for office in recent Texas history."

Gilbert says it's going just the way he'd hoped. "I like where we are," he says. "I like that we've got under his skin a little bit."

Learning from losing

This ought to be Staples' race to lose. Texas Republicans have been sweeping statewide elections for more than a decade. And this appears, so far, to be an election cycle that Republican consultants dreamed up, with voters blaming a Democratic federal government for a poor economy, for illegal immigration, for health care reform and for a ballooning national debt they attribute to financial bailouts.

Gilbert says he learned from his loss last time around. He got more votes in '06 than all but one other Democrat on the statewide ballot that year but still won only 42 percent to Staples' 55 percent (a Libertarian collected the balance). In a year when a relatively unknown Democrat is likely to lose to a relatively unknown Republican, the goal is to become known in a way that gives your side an advantage. "You just have to have a boatload of money," Gilbert says. "And you've got to make it interesting so that people will pay attention to it."

He entered noisily, declaring himself a candidate for governor, then pulling out of that race to run for this one after former Houston Mayor Bill White jumped into the top contest. Kinky Friedman did the same thing, ducking a battle with White and entering the race for ag commissioner. That's where the bribery allegation arose: Farouk Shami, who remained in the Democratic primary for governor against White, contributed $150,000 to Gilbert's campaign starting on the first business day after Gilbert left the governor's race for the ag race. Friedman, who had run with Shami's financial backing in the 2006 race for governor, labeled the Gilbert-Shami transaction a "bribe." Gilbert and Shami contend it was a straight political contribution.

After that, the agriculture commissioner primary downshifted into a relatively low-key affair, with the two Democrats vying for the limelight and Staples' confederates quietly trying to undermine Friedman (by raising questions about whether he had the agricultural resume the job legally requires) to try to ensure their guy would get a run against Gilbert — a relative unknown — instead of the musician/comedian/author from the Texas Hill Country. Friedman's charisma was a dangerous quality for a challenger in a contest like this one, where the incumbent isn't well known outside of political circles. Luckily for the Staples camp, Gilbert prevailed.

But in the general election against Staples and Donaldson, it's Gilbert who's trying to make noise. If you're not well known and can't raise the kind of money it takes to become a statewide television presence and to flood mailboxes with paid media — political flyers — you have to win free media: coverage from news organizations. That's never been easy, but it's more difficult in an age of media cutbacks. On the plus side, candidates can make free media of their own with internet tools like Facebook and Twitter, websites and e-mail. Both major-party candidates race are doing that in this race.

Gilbert has come up with a series of what he calls "hits" — stories of interest to people who aren't necessarily in agriculture but who vote in elections for agriculture commissioner. Like going to a gas station in Tyler, TV cameras in tow, to show reporters some gas pumps that hadn't been inspected since Rick Perry was the commissioner of agriculture. Perry left that job in 1999. Susan Combs, now the comptroller, held it for eight years after that, and Staples has been there for more than three years. Gilbert posted his own version of the "hit" on YouTube. That didn't get much notice (fewer than 400 people had watched it as this was written), but in Tyler, it got on the regular TV news and into area papers. An earlier "hit" raised questions about the state's regulation of a peanut operation in Plainview. The research from Gilbert's campaign was a little dodgy, but the story — along with the fuzziness of Gilbert's claims — made the news anyway. Score one for the challenger.

"If push came to shove, I think we could make a heckuva race out of this with the strategy we've employed," Gilbert says. He remains hopeful that the attention gained this way will translate into financial support that will, in turn, translate into paid media. In the meantime, he's trying to get attention from the news media and using social media and other internet strategies to make his message known. "The more positive hits we made ... it's increasing our money when we roll that stuff out," he says.

Guilty versus sleazy

The candidates have bolstered their attacks with websites: GuiltyGuiltyGilbert.com and SleazySleazyStaples.com.

The former, posted by Staples' campaign, is a catalog of alleged legal and ethical blemishes it dug up on Gilbert. The latter is a detailed listing of Staples' failings as the state's agriculture commissioner.

"He came out with the Guilty, Guilty Gilbert website first," Gilbert says. "The stuff there is all personal. Everything on our website has to do with his job performance."

That is, if you don't consider being called "sleazy" a personal insult. You get the tone right from the top: "Todd Staples, Texas’ incumbent Agriculture Commissioner, has a long history of sleazy votes and sleazy dealings during the time he has served in statewide office and in the Texas Legislature."

On Staples' site, a picture of Gilbert appears at the top of the page — behind bars.

It's unusual for a candidate to take on negative attacks himself; that's often left to staffers and surrogates. But Staples is urging anyone who will listen to dismiss his challenger as unsuitable for office. "There's not a more clear race in terms of records and accomplishments for taxpayers or someone who hasn't paid his taxes," he says.

He, too, hopes the noise will attract money that could fuel a statewide media campaign. "I have a great campaign commercial being edited right now — I hope you get to see it on TV," he jokes. 

The candidates agree that interest in the race is up compared with their 2006 contest. Gilbert attributes that to his concentration on "dinner-table issues" like food safety and the gas pump inspections. Staples is talking about those things, too. He says his office has done 379,000 inspections since he took office in 2007; the state has about 260,000 registered pumps, meaning many of them have been inspected more than once. [Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect pump count.] But he says the attention is Gilbert's fault.

"I guess he's just been more bold in his deception this time," Staples says. "He's getting some coverage he didn't get four years ago."

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