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Weems Discovers the Hazards of Experience

Jeff Weems, candidate for Railroad Commissioner, faces attacks for his connections to BP—from an opponents without connections to anyone
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Experience in politics is a lot like sex in college. You probably want to have some–no one wants to be a prude–but too much and you might start hearing whispers across the quad. Way too much and you’ll go from popular to, well, popular.

Such is the case for Jeff Weems, candidate for Railroad Commissioner and one the Democrats’ best chances for a statewide win. However non-intuitive, the Railroad Commission actually spends most of its time regulating oil and gas, and Weems has been in those industries most of his life—working on rigs, negotiating land deals, and most recently litigating for them in the courtroom. He walks a fine line between advocating tough regulation and working to keep the industries healthy. “We have to keep it strong—it’s our biggest employer. It’s one of our biggest sources of revenue,” he boomed at the Democratic Convention last month. “But you gotta watch what they’re doing!”

Unfortunately for Weems, someone else has been watching him—Republican opponent David Porter. (It’s called opposition research, buddy.) Porter’s campaign, in digging through Weems’ professional history, discovered the Democrat had represented BP at one point—an association about as toxic as an oil spill. Weems argues the entire thing is irrelevant to the current BP predicament; he represented BP in West Texas royalty disputes.

But Porter can relax without much fear that reporters will dig up the same things on him. After all, Porter’s a certified public accountant with little history in the oil and gas industries. The best his website can do to link him to the topic is to say he “has worked with oil and gas producers for nearly three decades providing accounting, financial and tax council.” The lack of experience, Porter says, means he’s immune to attacks as an “insider” —even as he offers little of substance about reforming the industries.

Weems incorporates the BP spill into his stump speech, often saying “That can never, ever happen in Texas!” to cheers. During the Democratic Convention, he even went so far as to pull up a photograph of the burning Deepwater Horizon rig. But his problem, like the folks who know the most about any issue area, is that he’s been around to long to have a perfect client roster. It’s hardly shocking that he worked for BP at one point—they are a major players in the oil industry—but it shows the political hazards of such experience.

David Porter hardly has to worry about that. You may remember Porter from the March GOP primaries, in which he bested incumbent commissioner Victor Carrillo despite little campaigning and little experience. Carrillo, who called Porter “an unknown, no-campaign, no-qualification CPA,” blamed the defeat on his Hispanic surname and sent out a letter saying pretty much just that. “Given the choice between ‘Porter’ and ‘Carrillo’ — unfortunately, the Hispanic-surname was a serious setback from which I could never recover although I did all in my power to overcome this built-in bias,” he wrote to supporters.

Carrillo’s loss, however, appears to be Weems’ gain. A proponent of increased regulation—”You will not find a more vociferous fan of good, smart, responsible regulation”—Weems believes his fundraising has been stronger (and his chances better) running against the Midland CPA.

He’s crossing his fingers that, despite the less savory connections, his experience with the industries will fall on the side of “informed” rather than “industry insider.” Like all Democrats running statewide, he still faces an uphill battle. In the May UT/Texas Tribune poll, Porter led Weems 39 percent to 27, albeit with 29 percent of voters undecided. He’s trying hard to close the gap. Weems says he’s been to 143 counties since he started running, and he told me he plans to unveil a “Republicans for Weems” site in the upcoming weeks. Even Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka thinks he has a chance.

It may well come down to a few votes since few people even know what the commission does, let alone who’s running for it. It’s “nowhere near as sexy as the governor’s race,” Weems says.

But from the way things are heating up, it’s shaping up to be just as contentious.