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Texans Susan Combs, Sid Miller at center of Trump ag secretary speculation

The race to be President-elect Donald Trump's agriculture secretary is heating up, and two Texans appear to be at the center of it.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, left, and former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

The race to be President-elect Donald Trump's agriculture secretary is heating up, and two Texans appear to be at the center of it.

Signs are emerging that Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and former Comptroller Susan Combs are in play for the job, one of the few Cabinet posts Trump has yet to fill. Combs, who was the state's agriculture commissioner from 1998 to 2007, met with Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Tuesday in Washington, and Miller is preparing for a trip to Trump Tower in the coming days.

“Commissioner Miller has had multiple conversations, telephone conversations, with Chairman Priebus and is planning a trip to the Trump Tower to visit with Chairman Priebus and members of the transition team between Christmas and New Year’s," Miller spokesman Todd Smith said Wednesday, referring to Reince Priebus, the outgoing chairman of the Republican National Committee whom Trump has appointed as his chief of staff. 

Word of Miller's trip came hours after Combs earned a valuable endorsement for the job — that of U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, the Midland Republican who chairs the House Agriculture Committee. 

"She’s certainly capable and well-qualified for the job," Conaway told the Texas Tribune Wednesday. The position is one "that we on the Ag committee work the closest with, and she’s someone I’m comfortable I could work with her in her role as secretary and in my role as chairman."

Trump's transition team indicated Wednesday he has not yet made a decision on agriculture secretary or another Cabinet post, Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

"I don't know how imminent any announcement will be," Trump aide Jason Miller told reporters, adding that he has not received any indication Trump has officially made up his mind on those positions.

Conaway said he has not spoken with Trump or Pence about Combs, emphasizing that decision is ultimately up to the president-elect.

"All these Cabinet folks will be direct reports to the president, for the most part, and it’s important that it’s people he’s comfortable with," Conaway said. "It doesn’t matter if I’m comfortable or Mike Pence is comfortable — it’s got to be the president."

Asked about Miller, Conaway said the current agriculture commissioner is “well-versed” on the issues. “It’s up to Mr. Trump to decide who he believes would do the job that he wants done,” Conaway said.

In Combs and Miller, Trump would have two candidates who differed in the extent of their support during the campaign. Combs, who backed two of Trump's primary rivals, was not an enthusiastic supporter during the general election, though she said she would vote for him and participated in at least one of his Texas fundraisers. Miller, meanwhile, served on Trump's agriculture advisory committee — Combs did not — and emerged as one of his most loyal Texas surrogates in the closing days of the race.

In weighing the two Texans, Trump’s camp will see stark contrasts in style and substance.  

Combs, a budget wonk, recently served as a visiting fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and plans to launch a nonprofit platform aiming to foster career ambitions in women. 

Miller is a rodeo cowboy who relishes being seen as an enemy or political correctness. He would no doubt be a more controversial pick for Trump. He became engulfed in controversy days before the election, when a tweet appeared on his Twitter account calling Trump's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, an obscene term. Miller apologized and blamed the tweet on a staffer.

In 2015, Miller irked Combs when he lifted a decade-old ban on deep fryers and soda machines in Texas public schools that she had introduced while she was agriculture commissioner. He said the move was geared at granting schools more freedom. 

Combs called it “unimaginable” that Miller would repeal her effort. 

“I don't think there is any way he could have studied the issue or he never would have done this,” she said in 2015. “I am actually baffled and sorry that Commissioner Miller did what was not good for kids. If you give children bad choices, they will make them.”

(During her tenure, Combs also implemented a more comprehensive school nutrition policy that Miller’s processor, Todd Staples, repealed.)  

And then there was Miller's first official act as agriculture commissioner: a press conference to grant "amnesty" to a cupcake. Miller said he wanted Texans to know the state had just lifted a ban on the treats in classrooms that had been put in place by Combs.

But Combs swiftly noted that cupcakes had been allowed in schools for a decade, and raised questions about Miller’s priorities.

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Abby Livingston and Jim Malewitz contributed to this report. 

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

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