For the first time in eight years, the election for land commissioner is wide open, with the outgoing Commissioner George P. Bush running for attorney general against incumbent Ken Paxton. Bush has come under fire for not taking his post seriously, and treating it merely as an audition for more prestigious elected offices. In 2015, he infamously minimized the importance of the General Land Office (GLO) by comparing running for land commissioner to running for state “dog catcher.”
But Bush isn’t the only one: “So many people use the GLO as a political stepping-stone,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and professor at Rice University.
Now, four candidates are headed into runoff elections in hopes of succeeding Bush. On the Republican side, state Senator Dawn Buckingham—the presumed frontrunner—is running against former congressional candidate Tim Westley. On the Democratic side, family counselor Sandragrace Martinez of San Antonio is running against Austin-based environmentalist Jay Kleberg of the famous King Ranch family.
The stakes are higher than Commissioner Bush might make them seem. Many Texans only know about the land office because of its role in a heated controversy over the future of the Alamo. But more important, the approximately 700-person agency is meant to manage Texas’ public lands, including its 367-mile coastline, and respond to oil spills and hurricanes. It also oversees leases for energy production, and uses the revenue to fund public schools and veterans’ facilities.
The GLO under Bush has faced significant criticism for botching the distribution of disaster recovery funds to Houstonians and others after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
“They haven’t really learned best practices,” said Julia Orduña, the southeast regional director for Texas Housers, a housing nonprofit that advocates for low-income Texans. “It’s very important for the GLO to understand not just who they’re serving, but who they’re leaving behind.”
In fact, last Tuesday, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development published the results of an investigation into the land office, finding that the state agency illegally discriminated against residents of Black and Latinx neighborhoods after Hurricane Harvey—giving them less financial help than homeowners in white neighborhoods.
The two Republican candidates who will face off in a May runoff have addressed coastal management and disaster recovery to some extent, but focused their campaigns on issues that appeal to their party’s right-wing base and have little to do with the main responsibilities of the GLO.
Dawn Buckingham, a Travis County physician who has served as a state senator since 2016, got a little over 40 percent of the Republican primary votes. She’s campaigning as a champion of strict border security, and has pledged to continue constructing a wall on state-owned land along the U.S.-Mexico border. Buckingham has racked up endorsements from prominent Republicans, including Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, as well as from advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association and the Texas Oil and Gas Association. She did not respond to an interview request.
Tim Westley, a former pastor and college professor who’s now the official historian for the Republican Party of Texas, got just under 15 percent of his party’s primary votes. Westley, who’s from Bexar County, opposes changes to the Alamo historical site proposed under Commissioner Bush. Many conservatives, including Buckingham as well, view the renovation project as a politically correct attempt to rewrite the traditional narrative of the 1836 battle that (wrongly) portrays Texan separatists, mostly Anglos, as immaculate freedom fighters and the Mexican army as oversimplified oppressors.
Westley’s Alamo activism, combined with his experience as an Army veteran and an educator, inspired him to run. He pointed out that veterans’ nursing homes run by the GLO have been hit especially hard by COVID-19, and said the agency isn’t taking good care of veterans’ cemeteries, either.
“We have 1.4 million veterans in the state of Texas,” he said. “We should be doing our best to make sure they’re getting better treatment.”
The two Democrats have taken starkly different approaches.
Sandragrace Martinez, a licensed mental health counselor from San Antonio, has emphasized her professional experience—as a staffer in the state legislature, a parole officer, and a Child Protective Services investigator—and her personal perspective as a bilingual Hispanic candidate. She received 32 percent of the Democratic primary votes, a surprising outcome based on her campaign’s relatively low profile.
Even though mental health is not explicitly in the GLO’s mandate, Martinez sees the issue as a common denominator connecting its roles supporting veterans, schoolchildren, and survivors of natural disasters.
“Knowing the human condition has, for me, been critical in understanding the needs of the people that I have crossed paths with in this election,” she said, adding that mental health is an underrepresented area of expertise among elected officials.
Jay Kleberg, a longtime conservationist who grew up as Anglo Texas royalty on his family’s 825,000-acre King Ranch, received just over 25 percent of the primary votes. He described the GLO as “the state’s top environmental post” and wants to use the office to strengthen Texas’ resilience to climate change. The GLO does have some coastal resilience work underway, including the Texas Coastal Spine Project, a $29 billion investment in seawalls and levees developed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect Galveston Bay from storm surges and flooding.
Kleberg has cited research by Rice University’s Blackburn suggesting that data the GLO uses is out of date, and said he feared this planned infrastructure would be “obsolete on arrival.” Kleberg wants to make sure the agency is using the latest climate science. He also plans to pursue a wider range of energy production on state land—including geothermal, solar, and wind—as a way to “future-proof” funding for Texas public schools against potential dips in oil and gas revenue.
The seriousness of climate change is such that without someone in office who’s “willing to face the future,” he said, “so much could be lost. And it’s not just the environment, it is our quality of life, it is 25 percent of the GDP, and our communities.”
One group of Texans is acutely aware of what’s at stake: the survivors of Hurricane Harvey.
James Burford, a 71-year-old military veteran and Houston resident, applied for assistance from the GLO after his house was damaged during Hurricane Harvey. Years later, and after submitting dozens of documents to the agency, his application is still being vetted to see if he’s eligible for assistance. “I have tried to respond to every request they’ve made to me. Now I’m at a loss,” Burford said. “The ball is in their court now.”
In the meantime, Burford and his teenage daughter can’t live in their house, which has pervasive water damage and mold that could exacerbate his emphysema. Burford and other Houstonians have taken some matters into their own hands, forming a group called the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus to give mutual aid during storms and lobby the government for better help.
Whoever becomes the next land commissioner, Burford would like to see him or her provide better training for GLO employees, or even get out of the disaster recovery business and have the state form a separate agency dedicated just to natural disasters. “It’s quite obvious they’re in over their heads,” he said.
The agency only started administering disaster recovery funds in 2011 under Commissioner Jerry Patterson, after Hurricanes Ike and Dolly hit the Texas coast. According to Patterson, the GLO hired plenty of people with specific disaster expertise at the time. He blames the agency’s current problems on Bush, or firing or otherwise letting go many of those experienced staffers. Patterson, a former state senator, served as land commissioner from 2003 to 2015 and then unsuccessfully challenged Bush for his old job in the 2018 primary.
“Bush has led a “wholesale slaughter of the disaster recovery division,” Patterson said in an interview with the Observer, “all because he was a formulaic Republican” acting supposedly on the party’s traditional fiscal conservatism.
Patterson thinks both Buckingham and Kleberg are running good campaigns and have the chops to be the next land commissioner. But he cautions that the candidates’ campaign promises on things like the border wall and environmentalism might have little to do with the office’s day-to-day responsibilities..
Other experts disagree, and consider environmental matters, at least on the coast, very much under the GLO’s purview. While hurricanes might be the coastal danger that most immediately worries people, Texas also needs to grapple with quieter but more insidious threats like sea level rise, land subsidence, and oil spills.
The GLO has already investigated 11 oil spills on the state’s coastline in 2022, and a total of 204 oil spills in 2021, according to data provided by the agency’s public information staff. And a recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the Gulf Coast, where land is actually sinking (due to the extraction of groundwater and oil) in addition to the ocean rising, could see more than a foot of sea level rise in the next thirty years—well within most Texans’ lifetimes.
Residents and state agencies need to have “an honest conversation about risk to the coast,” said Blackburn, whoever leads the agency next.