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*Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a statement from Sid Miller.
Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is getting a primary challenge from Trey Blocker, the longtime lobbyist, ethics adviser and attorney from Austin.
"I'm running because we need to bring honesty, integrity and fiscal responsibility back to the Department of Agriculture," Blocker said in a video announcing his campaign Wednesday. "We need to restore TDA to its core mission of promoting, protecting and preserving Texas agriculture and rural Texas. And we need a commissioner who can be an articulate, intelligent defender of our core conservative values."
Blocker's long-rumored run against Miller sets up potentially the most serious primary challenge yet to a statewide official in 2018. Miller is seeking a second term after three years on the job marked by a number of high-profile controversies, ranging from a Texas Rangers investigation into out-of-state, taxpayer-funded trips he took — no charges were ever brought — to the time his Twitter account sent out a message using the c-word to refer to Hillary Clinton.
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Miller courted controversy early in his first term, when he pushed for dramatic fee hikes for a wide range of services the department offers — a move that irked farmers, ranchers and his former colleagues in the Texas House. A state audit later found that the higher fees generated millions more dollars than the programs cost to operate in 2016.
"Over the past four years, we've watched a career politician, embroiled in ethical controversies, raise taxes and grow government at a level that would make Bernie Sanders proud," Blocker says in the video. "Asking our elected officials to be ethical shouldn't be too much to ask for."
In a statement responding to Blocker's candidacy, Miller said he was "shocked" that Blocker is running as a Republican, alluding to his involvement in some Democratic politics as a lobbyist. The statement went on to call Blocker a "low-level lobbyist mired in the Capitol swamp" and an "Austin insider who doesn’t know the first thing about Texas agriculture."
"It’s hard to take him seriously when he claims his ag experience comes from cleaning out horse stalls as a kid," Miller said, referring to another video Blocker released Wednesday. "Trey Blocker doesn’t know jack-diddly about Texas ag."
While Blocker is critical of Miller's leadership of the Texas Department of Agriculture, the challenger also is looking to provide a contrast with the incumbent on one of the biggest issues in Republican primaries: immigration. "I don't think we're tough enough on the immigration issue," Blocker said in the video, calling for a "moratorium on current levels of immigration until we have true reform."
Blocker has long been talked about as a potential candidate for agriculture commissioner. In June, he set up a campaign account with the Texas Ethics Commission and loaned himself $750,000 — well above Miller's cash-on-hand total. At the time, Blocker said he would consider running for agriculture commissioner if Miller got an appointment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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Earlier this month, Blocker announced he was taking a leave of absence from his firm, Stalwart Strategies, to pursue "some personal projects." At the firm, formerly known as The Blocker Group, Blocker lobbied for a number of entities with major agricultural interests, including the chemical giant Monsanto.
Miller announced his re-election bid earlier this month, touting the "dramatic reform" that he has brought to the TDA. He released a "Big 100" list of endorsements from conservative activists, former elected officials and other prominent GOP supporters. He gave the title of campaign chairman to controversial rocker Ted Nugent, who was already serving as treasurer.
Blocker has been on Miller's radar. After Blocker called Miller an "embarrassment" to Texas on his podcast earlier this month, the incumbent unleashed a series of Facebook posts attacking Blocker over his lobbying history and a $2,500 donation he gave to the Texas Democratic Party in January. One of the posts appeared to compare Blocker to the comic fictional character Pee-wee Herman.
As Blocker has drawn Miller's attention, Blocker has not shied away from his long tenure around state government, saying he has been "in the belly of the beast" and seen the corruption he is now giving up his lobby practice to fight. He has also pointed out that Miller was in the same trade not too long ago — he worked as a lobbyist after leaving the state House in 2013.
Blocker is not Miller's only opponent for re-election. The agriculture commissioner also faces Democrat Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel.
Disclosure: Trey Blocker has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.
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