Todd Staples, the state’s agriculture commissioner, is cashing his chips in. He’s leaving office now, instead of in January, so he can become president of that great advocate for our state’s agriculture industry, the Texas Oil and Gas Association. It’s hard to blame Staples: He’s gone as far as he can go up the political ladder—he placed third in the GOP lt. governor primary earlier this year—and this is a guarantee of a very comfortable life post-politics. (Though in a statement, Staples couched his decision in terms of his desire to “continue to fight for Texas to be the leader in our national and world economy.”)
But it’s worth reflecting on Staples’ legacy. He’s held the ag commish post for eight years, but his pursuit of promotion has been all-consuming. Now that he missed his chance, what does it all add up to?
For years, Staples’ overriding public concern has been border security, a non-traditional focus for agriculture commissioners. That was his springboard to higher office, he reckoned, and he went in big. Here’s the Observer’s Melissa del Bosque, from 2011:
Not long ago, Staples commissioned an $80,000 “strategic military assessment” of the Texas border. The Ag Commissioner released the 182-page tome, written by two retired generals, yesterday in a press conference at the Texas Capitol.
If you hadn’t heard, Staples is running for Lieutenant Governor in 2014. For the past year, the Ag Commissioner has been beating the war drums and burnishing his border security credentials. Last March, he unveiled a fancy, new taxpayer-funded Web site called “Protect Your Texas Border” which offers such highlights as night-vision surveillance chases of drug traffickers along the Rio Grande and a video interview with a Texas Ranger who proclaims: “We are in a war and I am not going to sugarcoat it by any means. We are in a war, and it is what it is.”
The website quickly became a PR embarrassment for Staples when its message board was flooded by people with helpful tips for fighting border violence:
User jcarrott suggests: “The most well known fighters of our Revolutionary war were not trained, they used hide and shot tactics that would work great today… If we — Americans — start shooting the bad guys, they will get the message!”
2$Bill offers methods like “watch groups, community patrols, land mines, tiger traps and roving packs of rabid [weasels].”
BTKKilla is more succinct, advising: “Killem all!!!! They are destroying or great country.”
Later, Staples used agriculture department money to purchase video cameras for the border, to the tune of $345,000. When Ted Cruz helped shut down the government last year, Texas farmers suffered. So Staples used his bully pulpit:
The government shutdown in October postponed the release of that month’s USDA crop report, which traders, distributors and farmers use to make important business decisions. Cotton prices fell 4.4 percent in the first week of the shutdown—a dramatic change that some pegged to the missing crop report. That price drop hurt already-struggling Texas cotton farmers.
Todd Staples was worried about the shutdown, too. The day before it ended, his office released a statement and two letters he had sent to U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, urging them to restore funding—for the U.S. Border Patrol. “I commend Congress for the current stand against Obamacare,” he wrote to Sen. Cruz, on Department of Agriculture stationary. “In the fray regarding the current shutdown, there are many questions about what are the essential functions of the government. Border security is absolutely at the top of the list.” Then he plugged his website.
Staples wanted to take the second-highest post in the state on the back of this kind of thing. But Dan Patrick skillfully outflanked him on the border, and it all came to naught. Old politicians don’t die—they just flail away.
Staples’ border activism has consumed almost the entirety of his tenure as commissioner—well, there’s also his long-lived anti-gay marriage activism. So where does that leave us as a state? What can we say Staples accomplished?