Austin attorney Trey Blocker is challenging Sid Miller for agriculture commissioner, and both candidates are pandering to ultraconservative GOP primary voters.
With the emergence of former agribusiness lobbyist Trey Blocker as the first Republican primary opponent of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, the election of the state’s farmer-and-rancher-in-chief is shaping up to be a race to the bottom.
Blocker, an Austin attorney who was formerly a lobbyist for seed and chemical giant Monsanto, is trying to position himself as an even more conservative alternative to Miller, who himself panders to an ultraconservative voter base through hateful Facebook memery. Miller, whom the Observer’s Christopher Hooks has described as “a French cartoonist’s idea of a Texan,” has suggested that the entire “Muslim world” should be nuked; brought back deep fryers and sugary drinks to school cafeterias; and was once accused of exercising a horse by tying it to his truck and driving around.
After officially filing as a candidate, Blocker posted two campaign videos that paint Miller as a fiscally irresponsible crony “embroiled in ethical controversies.” Miller fired back, tweeting that Blocker’s agricultural background consists only of “spending his weekends as a kid cleaning out horse stalls.”
In one of the videos, Blocker lays out his platform: He’s a fiscally conservative Christian who likes guns but not immigrants. He illustrates his support of Second Amendment rights by firing a shotgun at nothing in particular. He sits cross-legged in a rocking chair on a folksy front porch, saying, “I don’t think we’re tough enough on the immigration issue. We need to not only secure our border; we need to place a moratorium on current levels of immigration until we have true reform.”
In reality, the agriculture department’s work has very little to do with immigration, though the dearth of migrant labor is a sore spot for farmers whose crops rot for lack of workers to harvest them.
Despite that, Blocker says in one of the videos that he plans to revive the Civil Liberties Defense Foundation, which sues so-called sanctuary cities that don’t readily cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers. Less than a minute earlier in the video, Blocker proudly proclaims, “My forefathers came over here from Germany.”
In a response to Observer questions sent Wednesday, Blocker couched his remarks on immigration, saying, “There should be a streamlined mechanism” to provide temporary migrant workers to farms, but workers should “return home when they are done.” (He doesn’t appear to know that such a mechanism, the H-2A visa for temporary agricultural workers, already exists.)
Miller did separate himself earlier this year from the recent anti-immigrant rhetoric employed by Texas Republicans, saying that a hardline moratorium on immigrants “isn’t going to work for agriculture.”
Much of the ag department’s work involves ensuring scales at grocery stores are accurate and that gasoline pumped by motorists is unadulterated. The department also regulates the use of pesticides, which could present a conflict of interest for Blocker, whose lobbying firm has worked for Monsanto, the global agribusiness titan and pesticide producer.
Miller, who was elected to the statewide office in 2014 after losing his state House seat in a 2012 GOP primary, told the Texas Tribune this week that Blocker’s lobbying background and lack of agricultural experience made him unfit for office. Miller referred to Blocker as a “low-level lobbyist mired in the Capitol swamp” and an “Austin insider who doesn’t know the first thing about agriculture.” The incumbent on Thursday also taunted Blocker for stumping at “some Yuppie Austin Coffee Bar” that serves Nutella banana crepes.
After Blocker’s announcement, Miller said, “I am shocked he is running as a Republican,” likely a reference to Blocker’s $2,500 donation to the Texas Democratic Party earlier this year. Campaign finance data shows Blocker also gave $2,500 to the Republican Party of Texas around the same time — lobbyists often contribute to both parties — and has donated to the campaigns of Republican U.S. senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, as well as former state Senator Leticia Van de Putte and state Representative Senfronia Thompson, both Democrats.
Blocker told the Observer that he’s no longer a registered lobbyist, so his past affiliation with Monsanto won’t present a conflict of interest. “I’ve been in the belly of the beast and I’ve grown weary of the corruption and crony capitalism that I’ve witnessed,” he said. “Sid Miller is a poster child for such corruption.”
Blocker has also blasted the incumbent over Miller’s decision to hike fees charged by the department to agricultural producers under the guise of funding regulatory programs. An audit released in September found that the hike was unnecessary because the fees brought in millions more than were necessary to fund the programs. Blocker, in his video, pledges to keep “money in the pockets of the hardworking Texans who have earned it.” Miller also has been excoriated in the media for reportedly using taxpayer money to take personal, out-of-state trips, calling Hillary Clinton a “cunt” on Facebook and sharing a meme that suggested the “Muslim world” should be bombed.
Miller did not return a call for comment on Wednesday.
Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel and pilot, is the sole Democratic candidate in the commissioner race so far; the filing deadline is December 11. After leaving the military in 2005, Olson was the director of human resources at Dallas ISD, according to her website. She’s a master gardener, beekeeper and small-scale organic gardener.