At a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference last week in St. Louis, Charlie Kirk, executive director of the free-market group Turning Point USA, introduced state Rep. Stefani Carter as a leader who will one day prompt folks to muse, “Ah, I remember when I saw her.”
For most public office-seekers, being known as a rising star would boost their chances. But the seat Carter seeks is different. She’s campaigning — against a wide field of candidates — to replace attorney general candidate Barry Smitherman on the Texas Railroad Commission, the powerful oil and gas regulatory agency that’s widely known — and sometimes derided — as a launching pad for higher office. Leaders in the oil and gas industry, who are largely responsible for bankrolling the candidates’ campaigns, say they are frustrated by the seemingly constant turnover at the agency, and they are looking for candidates who plan to serve their full terms.
“The industry and the state deserves someone who's going to stay a full six years,” said Bill Stevens, a consultant with the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.
For ambitious young candidates like the 35-year-old Carter and two of her opponents — Malachi Boyuls, 34, and Ryan Sitton, 38 — six years might seem like an eternity, and assuring voters they plan to stick around could prove challenging. In interviews with The Texas Tribune, those candidates and their four other opponents in the Republican primary each promised to serve at least one full term. (No Democrat has entered the race.)
Carter, who said she entered the race “to spread the conservative message,” said, “I don’t see the commission as a stepping stone whatsoever.”
But it’s not unusual for commissioners to campaign for higher office while still at the agency. It's a statewide office that gives its holders a chance to meet deep-pocketed leaders of an industry that makes up some 25 percent of the state economy. In recent decades, the Railroad Commission has churned out comptrollers, university chancellors, a U.S. ambassador to Mexico, an education commissioner and failed candidates for Congress and the Texas Legislature.
None of the three current commissioners has yet served three years. Smitherman, whom Gov. Rick Perry appointed in July 2011 to succeed Texas Education Commissioner Michael L. Williams, is already set to leave.
That speedy turnover rate has rankled industry members and some lawmakers. Last year, it was a subject of discussion for the Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically evaluates the operations of state agencies. The group recommended legislation that would require commissioners to resign before campaigning for another office, while restricting how they could collect campaign donations. The proposals ulitimately failed, drawing criticism that they unfairly singled out commissioners with stricter ethics rules than any other officeholders must meet.
Stevens said stability at the Railroad Commission is important, because the agency deals with such technical issues — inspecting well and pipeline integrity, for instance — that have a steep learning curve.
Observers also say the long-underfunded agency has finally turned the corner in securing resources to help it upgrade antiquated technology that has hampered its ability to keep up with a booming industry. Continued turnover, they worry, could slow progress.
“You can’t blame [candidates] for having ambition,” said David Blackmon, managing director at FTI Consulting, but “you want to be able to keep that momentum.”
All of the candidates said they understand the concerns and plan to stay for the long haul if elected. “[Voters] don’t want someone who is immediately going to leave,” said Boyuls, a Dallas businessman and former regulatory attorney.
Becky Berger, a cowboy hat-wearing oil and gas geologist who is making her second attempt for a seat, said she is “seriously upset” by the revolving door. “We need someone who is willing to stay and mind the store,” she said, promising she would do so “until they vote me out of office or drag me out dead.”
Joe Pool Jr., who lost a Texas Supreme Court bid in 2012, said he “hates” the recent trends. “If you want a snappy quote, here’s one,” he said. “I will affirm a six-year term.”
Sitton, an oil and gas engineer who lost a Texas House bid in 2012, said he would stay at least six years because dealing with the industry is something he “loves doing.” Should those plans change, he promised to return his salary.
Meanwhile, Ray Keller and Wayne Christian, former legislators who are both in their 60s, said service on the commission would cap their careers. “My life plan doesn’t include moving up,” Christian said.