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The making of a Texas railroad commissioner JOHN P-O-E-R-N-E-R By Christy Hoppe Austin Gas production quotas, utility rates, transportation routes, freight hauling charges, lignite leases, and such are the province of the Texas Railroad Commission, a pioneer regulatory agency that has grown a far distance from its populist sprouting in 1891. As the chief overseer of Texas’ massive energy and transportation industries, the three-member commission deals in billion-dollar decisions and probably has a greater impact on the average Texans’s cost of living than any other state agency. But far from serving as the stout champion of the public interest that was envisioned by its creators, the agency has long since become the willing helpmate of the firms it regulates. This cooperative philosophy reached its apotheosis last year when RRC chairman Mack Wallace scolded Texas oil and gas firms for not using the commission’s regular sessions as a public forum to promote their views on energy policy. The benefits of the partnership flow both ways. With so much money riding on the decisions of three people, the regulatees are anxious to have regulators they can trust, so they do not hesitate to play a heavy hand in the election of commissioners. It is not a matter of buy 10 JUNE 9, 1978 ing votes, mind you, but of spending money to make sure that people of like persuasion sit in judgment. Even one maverick, malcontent orGod forbid consumerist could cause much embarrassment and disrupt the harmonious way business is done, so it is common for industry executives to back their favorites with unstinting campaign contributions when called on. This spring, the call came urgently. Jerry Sadler, the contentious, unpredictable vote-getter from another time, almost snuck onto their private preserve, garnering 46 percent of the vote in the May Democratic primary and finishing first out of four candidates. Plainly put, the 70-year-old Piney Woods snuff dipper scares the bejeezus out of the regulated industrieshe served four stormy years on the commission as their antagonist in 1939-43 before quitting to join the army, and he subsequently harried the special interests for the better part of four decades as a perennial candidate for one office or another, including state legislator, land commissioner and governor. He’s had more than his share of controversy and his record has been blemished by charges of racism and corruption in office. But Sadler has won more elections than he has lost, and 40 years of statewide campaigning have given him such enviable name recognition that he piles up votes with a minimum of effort and expenditure. He did it in 1976, forcing the industry-backed candidate, Jon Newton, into a costly run-off, which Newton won. He needed only $3,600 in campaign expenditures to win 656,000 primary votes to the 408,000 cast for the industry’s choice, John Poerner, a 45-year-old conservative former legislator from Hondo who had been appointed to the commission early this year by Governor Briscoe. His short tenure confirmed him as a philosophical ally of his colleagues, and he went into the election with the blessings of the firms he is charged with regulating. But even though he was running with the advantages of incumbency, Poerner seemed to have a tougher go of it against Sadler than Newton did two years ago: not only was his name still generally unknown to the electorate, but it was difficult to spell and pronounce. The only way to fix the problem was to throw money at it, which is what was done. Poerner collected a massive war chest and directed a media blitz that knocked the wind, tobacco juice, and political hope right out of Sadler. Poerner’s latest campaign finance report, filed a week before the June 3 vote, reveals that he had raised $488,377, at least 60 percent of which came from executives of oil, gas, chemical, mining, utility, truck, bus, and train companies that have a direct financial stake in RRC