Texas Railroad Commission Chair Mulls Political Future

Chairman Barry Smitherman of the Railroad Commission of Texas in his office, May 31, 2013.
Chairman Barry Smitherman of the Railroad Commission of Texas in his office, May 31, 2013.

Amid great fanfare two years ago, Barry Smitherman, then the Public Utility Commission chairman, bought a plug-in Chevrolet Volt. Now the chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas, Smitherman drives a Chevy Suburban.

“I became very disappointed with the technology,” Smitherman said of the Volt, which he traded in after several months. The mileage was not what he had hoped, he said.

The switch from a hybrid-electric car to a gas guzzler mirrors Smitherman’s change of jobs, from a regulator of electricity to a regulator of the oil and gas industry. It could also have a beneficial political side effect; Republican primary voters in Texas do not seem fond of green initiatives these days.

First appointed to the Railroad Commission in 2011 and elected to a full term in 2012, Smitherman could soon return to the ballot. Widely described as ambitious, he has been linked to a 2014 run for attorney general or another statewide office. And recent moves suggest Smitherman, 55, is positioning himself to appeal to voters farther to the right.

Smitherman, who calls himself an “accidental politician,” said he planned to make an announcement as early as this week about his political future but offered no details. He said his interests lay in “taking on assignments where I can continue to improve the process and make the agency or the state more efficient, use less taxpayer dollars.”

He and his two fellow railroad commissioners have won praise from both green groups and oil companies for efforts to modernize the agency.  Smitherman is “one of the smartest regulators I’ve run into in the 30 years I have been doing this business,” said Tom "Smitty" Smith, the Texas director of Public Citizen, an environmental and consumer advocacy group.

But some moves by Smitherman have been seen by some political observers as efforts to appeal to the far right voters who are often crucial in Republican primaries.

Arriving at the Railroad Commission, Smitherman worked to allow agency employees to carry concealed handguns on commission premises. Last year, he worked on an effort to provide training for employees who want concealed handgun licenses.

His enthusiasm has occasionally tripped him up. This spring he retweeted an image of a noose, along with the names of Republican U.S. senators whose votes had helped break a filibuster during a gun-control debate. He soon apologized, saying he had hit “retweet” too hastily.

However, “I won’t apologize for my support of the Second Amendment,” he said recently at his office.

A former high school football quarterback who grew up east of Houston, Smitherman spent 16 years as an investment banker, and is the author of If Jesus Were an Investment Banker. He was dismissed from that job in 2002, shortly after he co-wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle urging changes in the way the city of Houston managed its finances. His firm, BancOne Capital Markets (now part of JP MorganChase), said he should have sought approval for the op-ed, though Smitherman argues that he was senior enough that he didn’t need permission.

"We felt strongly at the time that the city was headed in the wrong direction," Smitherman said.

He was briefly a prosecutor in the Harris County district attorney’s office. In 2004, Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to the utility commission, which oversees the electric and telephone industries.

“He did have a bit of a prosecutor’s background and could tease out material” from people testifying before the commission, said Paul Hudson, who overlapped with Smitherman on the PUC and now is an energy consultant in Austin.

Smitherman says his most significant PUC work involved electricity deregulation. But potential Republican primary rivals could use a couple of commission initiatives against him.

One project he worked on, which has since lost political allure, was the effort to lay giant transmission lines to aid wind power. The project’s estimated costs ballooned from $4.9 billion to $6.8 billion. Smitherman says that the lines will bring needed power to West Texas drilling regions.

The PUC rollout of smart electric meters also has opponents citing health and safety concerns. Smitherman said the Legislature had wanted both the power lines and the smart meters, leaving the commission to “implement that in the most cost-effective way.”

One potential speed bump for Smitherman was eliminated Friday. Perry vetoed a measure that would have required railroad commissioners to resign before running for another office. That frustrated environmentalists like Smith, who issued a statement decrying the use of the commission as a "springboard to run for another office."

Smitherman is not the only one thought to be looking at succeeding Attorney General Greg Abbott, who appears to be setting up a run for the governor’s office. Other rumored Republican candidates include state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney; state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas; and Harriet O’Neill, the former Texas Supreme Court justice.

Asked what he thought of Abbott’s work, Smitherman responded: “I love the fact that he’s sued Obama 25 times, or whatever the number is.” 

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