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Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, a two-term Republican, is facing his toughest reelection cycle yet as he stares down challengers from the left and right who are calling his ethics into question while linking him to the recent arrest of his close political aide.
In January, Miller’s longtime political consultant, Todd Smith, was indicted on charges of theft and bribery related to taking money in exchange for state hemp licenses that are administered by Miller’s office. A day later, Miller cut ties with Smith, though he said he did not believe Smith had done anything wrong. Smith has denied wrongdoing through his attorneys.
The scandal, which was investigated by the Texas Rangers and the Travis County district attorney’s office, is one of the main knocks his challengers are using against Miller’s reelection bid. But it is not the only one. Opponents also accuse him of raising taxes and fees on struggling farmers and ranchers, increasing the department’s bureaucracy to reward political favors, and neglecting the job’s essential duties.
The Texas Department of Agriculture provides financial assistance to farmers and ranchers, facilitates agricultural trade, administers the federal free and reduced-price lunch programs for schoolchildren, and regulates hemp production.
On the right, Miller’s top challenger is state Rep. James White, a Hillister rancher, who is running a hard-charging campaign calling out the incumbent for creating a scandal-prone culture at the commission. White is running on his conservative credentials and his desire to provide farmers and ranchers with economic security. On the left, the leading challenger is Susan Hays, who has already set her sights on Miller even though she has to first win her Democratic primary before getting a shot at the general election in November. Hays, an attorney who worked on the bill to legalize hemp in Texas, is also running on cleaning up the agency’s reputation and on providing rural health care and economic development to areas of the state that badly need it.
Miller has former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, which carries considerable sway among Texas Republicans. But he has alienated some within the state’s GOP. Last year, Miller publicly contemplated a run against Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican whose response to the COVID-19 pandemic he had widely criticized.
In a clear sign that Miller’s support is shaky among the GOP’s establishment, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a major political action committee that rarely goes against the incumbent in statewide races, has backed White and contributed heavily to his campaign.
Miller is well known in Texas politics for his plain-spoken manner and penchant for making inflammatory remarks. At public events, he’s almost always seen wearing his signature white cowboy hat. He is a businessman who breeds and trains American quarter horses and is also a champion rodeo cowboy who has won 20 world championship titles.
Prior to his election as agriculture commissioner in 2014, Miller served 12 years as a Republican state representative from his hometown of Stephenville. In 2013, he was ousted from office by physician J.D. Sheffield.
Since his election as commissioner, Miller has made headlines for routinely making offensive statements about people of color and women. He compared Syrian refugees to rattlesnakes, he suggested in a Facebook post that the U.S. should bomb “the Muslim world” and he used an obscenity directed at women to refer to Hillary Clinton. In 2016, he attracted scrutiny for his use of state funds for a trip to Oklahoma to receive what he referred to as a “Jesus shot” — an injection administered by a single doctor in Oklahoma City who claimed it could take away all pain for life.
Miller later reimbursed the state for the trip, and Travis County prosecutors who investigated the incident did not pursue charges.
Most recently, Miller has been dragged into a scandal plaguing his longtime political consultant, Smith, who was charged in January for soliciting up to $150,000 for hemp licenses from the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Smith no longer works for Miller, but in an interview with The Texas Tribune, the incumbent said he does not believe his former consultant did anything wrong and that the investigation is politically motivated.
Miller also said his office made the cost of a hemp license clear and told stakeholders the department would not limit the number of licenses it would provide. He pushed that information in videos, on his website and on tours across the state, he said.
“Only an idiot would pay somebody for a hemp license,” he said. “The bill says a hemp license costs $100.”
Miller said Smith’s legal troubles do not reflect on him. He said he underwent a background investigation by the FBI in September 2020 because Trump was considering him for agriculture secretary.
“I went through eight weeks of background. Six different agents interviewed me. They interviewed dozens of people that knew me all the way back to the widow of a farmer I worked for when I was 14,” he said. “I passed. If there had been anything unethical in my background, I wouldn’t have gotten very far.”
Miller said voters should reelect him because he has a track record of successfully running the agency. He pointed to the 2021 Texas Sunset Advisory Commission’s review of the agency, which noted the department is “well-managed, and found the department’s day-to-day responsibilities are largely removed from the politics and public attention focused on the commissioner.” The Sunset Commission, which periodically reviews state agencies for efficiency, also noted the department could improve its regulatory inspections and better engage industry stakeholders about the effectiveness of the department’s rules and procedures.
Miller said he knows that Democrats and “establishment Republicans” are targeting him this election.
“I’m a political maverick,” he said. “I’m the only statewide [official] that actually holds liberals accountable and the establishment Republicans accountable. That makes some of the establishment Republicans mad at me.”
He said he has pushed sitting Republicans, including Abbott, further on issues like banning the transitioning of transgender children and outlawing vaccine requirements.
“Nobody holds people accountable like I do,” he said. “No one else has political courage to do that.”
White, a six-term state representative, is one of the most conservative members of the House. Last session, he chaired the committee that pushed forward a bill that allows most Texans to legally carry a handgun without a license or training. As leader of that committee, he also oversaw the state’s dispatching of state troopers to the border, and White supported the allocation of $3 billion to border security for the next two-year cycle.
Security, he said, is one of the main themes of his campaign.
“Border security, food security, economic security,” he said. “Security comes with trust, and when I look at this race I say, ‘Who can you trust as a proven conservative?’ Across the board, you cannot trust the incumbent.”
White has slammed Miller for sticking by Smith after his arrest last year, and defending him after his indictment in January. White has also criticized Miller for hiring Smith’s wife to his transition team after his election in 2014 and then putting her on the agency’s payroll under a newly created position earning $180,000 a year.
Kellie Housewright-Smith left the agency in March 2015 after news outlets started asking questions about her job. She told news outlets she left her job to attend to family medical concerns.
Miller said there was “absolutely nothing wrong” with her hiring. He said she had run the human resources department at a large medical company and left to take care of her son who had developed epilepsy. Housewright-Smith told the Austin American-Statesman at the time that she had worked as a provider relations specialist for Cigna HealthCare in Fort Worth.
White said he would work from his first day in office to train the agency’s employees in ethics to avoid future clouds over the department.
White has also been critical of Miller’s decision to increase agency fees for ranchers during his first term, some of which doubled the fees previously paid. The state auditor’s office found the agency’s fee hikes raised millions of dollars more than needed, and Miller eventually reversed some of them.
White said he would work to roll back fees further and get input from industry stakeholders to make sure the state is not overregulating farmers, ranchers and entrepreneurs.
Miller said he had raised fees to offset cuts made by the Legislature in previous sessions. He said the decision to increase fees was a “hard political decision” that needed to be done but admitted the agency had “overshot” on some of the fee increases.
White’s biggest criticisms are reserved for Miller’s handling of the theft and bribery charges against Smith. White said stakeholders raised concerns about the sale of hemp licenses for years, but those complaints were not addressed.
“For two years farmers and ranchers cried out to Sid Miller, and he dismissed them, telling them this was just politics,” White said. “They had to go to the Texas Rangers because they couldn’t go to Sid Miller.”
“He denied, he deflected, he dismissed, he diverted,” White said.
Recently, the two have gone after each other for issues unrelated to the agriculture commission in an attempt to be seen as the better Republican.
Miller has attacked White for a bill he supported in the House last year that made changes to the election code, decreasing penalties for voter fraud. White said the bill had several felony enhancements, especially for election officials who participate in fraud.
White then attacked Miller’s record in the House, saying Miller bottled up gun rights legislation like campus carry and open carry bills when he led the chamber’s Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. He said he looked forward to comparing conservative records on the campaign trail.
“I have a record of proven conservative leadership over six terms,” White said. “He had 12 years and I had 12 years. I didn’t raise taxes on farmers or ranchers or anybody.”
White has raised a considerable amount of cash for his election campaign. At the end of January, his campaign reported nearly $300,000 on hand for the last month of the campaign before the primary. That amount exceeded Miller’s reserves of $228,199 heading into the final month.
Carey Counsil, an economics professor at Blinn College, is also running against Miller in the Republican primary.
Hays is an attorney who has worked at the Legislature, the Texas Supreme Court and a corporate job, and has run her own law firm.
Her latest venture began in the middle of the last decade, when she became involved in cannabis law as states across the country moved to legalize marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes. In Texas, she worked on the bill that legalized hemp in 2019.
Through that work, she became concerned about the way Miller was running the department. She said she heard rumblings at meetings that lobbyists were charging $25,000 for a hemp license.
“That’s what got me to be really angry at the commissioner because it was open and notorious what [Smith] was doing,” Hays said. “Everybody who was working on the hemp rollout was talking about it. They knew about it. There’s no way in hell Miller didn’t know about it.”
Last November, when she was approached to run against him, Hays decided to go for it. She’d grown up in the small city of Brownwood and knew what it was like to grow up in a rural area where opportunities were fleeting.
Her first priority, she said, would be to make sure the department adhered to strict ethics standards. A second priority would be to work on access to rural health care and economic development through department programs.
“Rural Texas is dying on the vine,” she said. “The long-term goal is promoting economically and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices, which Texas has always done a really bad job at.”
She said she also wanted to use her expertise to bring the state up to speed in how it regulates cannabis. Other states, she said, are way ahead of Texas.
But Hays is clear-eyed about her difficult path to victory in a state where Democrats have not won statewide office since 1994. In 2018, the nearest Democrats have come to unseating statewide Republicans, the Democrats who performed the best were those running against Republicans who were controversial, like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a conservative firebrand, and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was under securities fraud indictment during that race.
In her race against Miller, she’s running against a candidate who is disliked by some in his party and has a legal scandal tied to him. Now it’s up to her to show that she’s qualified for the job and work to win over voters, she said.
She plans to do that by visiting rural voters about their issues and meeting them where they are. She has done interviews with conservative radio show hosts like Chad Hasty in Lubbock and Mark Davis in Dallas because she knows many voters with rural issues listen to their shows.
“Most of the people I grew up with are Trump supporters,” she said. “I engage them. What are their issues? Why are they voting that way? What they’re concerned about, the Republicans aren’t helping with, but they’re not getting the messaging.”
Hays is also the co-founder of Jane’s Due Process, an organization that helps young people in Texas navigate parental consent laws and confidentially access abortion and birth control. Hays said she does not think her advocacy on that issue will harm her with voters.
“While abortion has nothing to do with the price of cotton, having grown up in rural Texas I know women stand up for each other and help each other out,” she said. “Everyone knows someone who had or needed an abortion. Women I grew up with are excited I’m running precisely because I’m a fierce advocate for their rights and any issue I get behind.”
With just more than $50,000 in her campaign fund at the end of January, Hays knows she’s at a severe fundraising disadvantage against her Republican opponents. She plans to run a “guerrilla campaign” based on earned media and soft introductions by prominent people in rural communities.
“How do you scale that up?” she asked. “Being different than what people expect.”
Ed Ireson, a cattle rancher from Brazos County, is also running in the Democratic primary.
Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.