The Texas Railroad Commission has nothing to do with railroads, but it does have plenty of responsibilities. It regulates the oil and gas industry, intrastate pipelines, natural gas utilities, and surface coal and uranium miners. An issue not on that list? Abortion.
But that hasn’t stopped one Republican vying for an open seat on the three-member commission from speaking at length about his anti-abortion stance. In the lone video posted on his campaign website, former State Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, touts a recent endorsement from the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life before ticking off a list of legislative efforts on the issue, including working to defund Planned Parenthood and limit revenue streams for other abortion providers.
“I have consistently voted to protect unborn children and limit abortions,” he says in the abortion ad. (Shortly after this story was published, Christian's campaign circulated a new ad posted to his Youtube account. That ad did not mention abortion.)
Christian is not the only candidate for the Railroad Commission to bring up abortion, though the self-described “conservative champion” has been loudest on the issue at this early stage of the race. Some observers see such declarations as harmless — and even informative — for voters weighing their options in a crowded Republican primary featuring candidates who generally see eye to eye on efforts to limit regulations for oil and gas producers and push back against the federal Environmental Protection Agency. (On the Democratic side, only one candidate has entered the race.) But others, including one of Christian’s opponents, say that campaigning on an issue that has nothing to do with the commission’s duties could obscure more pressing questions in a state that is gripped by an oil and gas boom unseen in 30 years.
Ryan Sitton, a Republican oil and gas engineer who is also running for the seat, said he understands why some voters may want to know where candidates stand on such an “integrity issue,” but added that “it does distract from the critical issues.”
The candidates are looking to replace Chairman Barry Smitherman, a Republican who is running for attorney general. Smitherman, also endorsed by Texas Right to Life, has left no confusion about his stance on abortion in his campaign for an office that could oversee litigation on the procedure.
During a keynote speech to an anti-abortion group last August, Smitherman said that many unborn babies "would have voted Republican" and that low fertility rates can harm economies, suggesting that access to abortion in the U.S. amounts to "our own one-child policy," like China's.
In a column published shortly after Christian released his video, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times editorial board said it worried that Smitherman's potential successors might focus too much on social issues.
“We shudder at the thought of abortion being a litmus test for the elected overseers of Texas' oil and gas industry,” the newspaper wrote. “We would hope that the overriding criteria for assessing the candidates would be their knowledge of those industries, a keen business sense, a deep respect for the environment and the wisdom to find a balance where energy industry growth and environmental regulation intersect.”
Luke Macias, a spokesman for Christian’s campaign, acknowledged that abortion has nothing to do with the job Christian is vying for, and said the candidate will mostly be speaking about energy over the course of the campaign. But Macias said a candidate’s anti-abortion stance is “a moral issue” that can give voters insight into his or her broader decision-making.
“Wayne Christian has a very long history of protecting human life, and that’s why Right to Life endorsed him,” he said, adding that it’s not rare for other moral issues outside of abortion to crop up in races for offices that have no say over women's health policy.
Carol Everett, an abortion opponent and founder of the Heidi Group, which helps girls and women with unplanned pregnancies, largely echoed that notion.
“That tells me a lot about who that person is,” she said of Christian’s choice to reference his abortion crusade. “They’re going to be more aligned with my values, so I can trust them more.”
Texas Right to Life also endorsed Malachi Boyuls, an oil and gas investor and former regulatory attorney, who publicized the endorsement through a statement on his campaign website.
“I am proud to fulfill their requirements and humbled to receive [Texas Right to Life’s] support," Boyuls wrote. "I know that every decision made by elected officials profoundly affects the lives of Texans – a responsibility I don’t take lightly."
Boyuls told the Tribune that a Railroad Commission candidate’s abortion stance matters because Texas voters care.
“I don’t think it should be the only piece of information that the candidates get out,” he said. “But a lot of these things are proxies for values issues.”
Sitton — who said he wholeheartedly opposes abortion but was not interviewed by Texas Right to Life — said “it would be very disappointing” if such an endorsement helped elect a candidate who was otherwise unqualified for a job that requires deep technical knowledge of the industry he works in.
That’s not to say that Sitton doesn't occasionally attempt to bolster his conservative credentials by opining on other issues outside of the Railroad Commission’s scope. “The president is in Texas today attempting to promote Obamacare,” he wrote in a Nov. 6 post on his Facebook page. “LIKE if you agree that he should keep his failed policies in D.C. and out of Texas!”
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