The race to fill an obscure but powerful statewide office in Texas has been overshadowed by national politics this year. That’s a shame not only because the office is important, but because the race for that office has been packed with strange twists and turns.
A lot of those twists and turns come down to perceptions (and misperceptions) about the names involved in the race for Texas Railroad Commissioner.
The Railroad Commission
When most voters hear that title, Railroad Commissioner, they may think about trains, and tune out. But the three-member Railroad Commission actually regulates the Texas oil and gas industry.
The industry is vital to the state's economy. Texas is the largest producer of oil and gas in the country, so the commission is arguably one of the most important regulatory agencies in the country, as well. Simply put, it's worth paying attention to.
The open seat on the commission is the only non-judicial statewide office Texans are voting on this year.
Grady Yarbrough is the Democratic nominee for Railroad Commissioner. He is a retired schoolteacher who has run unsuccessfully for a handful of other statewide offices.
It is safe to say he was not the first choice of the party establishment. Yarbrough is viewed by many as a political hobbyist, even a spoiler. He has refused to raise any money for his campaign, and sometimes shows a tenuous understanding the issues related to the office.
His critics say he won the crowded primary because his name sounds similar to that of former Sen. Ralph Yarborough. Yarbrough, who is black, credits his victory to support among African-American primary voters, who he says he worked hard to win over.
“The primary run off was really difficult but we made it through, and it seems to be much easier now than it was then," he said.
Yarbrough is running to protect people from the unintended consequences of oil and gas drilling, including manmade earthquakes. You can hear an extended interview with him below.
Wayne Christian is the Republican nominee. Unlike Yarbrough, Christian relies very publicly on his last name to sway voters. He's fond of telling people to vote for "the only Christian on the ballot."
It's a religious insinuation that has earned him criticism, especially in an earlier campaign in 2014, when one of his opponents happened to be Jewish.
Another controversy that's followed Christian dates back to his time as a state lawmaker, when he exempted his own beachfront property from state open beach laws. It’s one of the things that’s made him – like Yarbrough- a candidate with baggage.
Christian has shunned many interview requests, including multiple requests from KUT. If you'd like to learn more about him, head over to his campaign website.
There is one candidate who has benefited from the baggage of the two major party opponents, it's the Libertarian candidate Mark Miller.
Miller has been endorsed by almost every major newspaper in the state. Likely a first for a Libertarian in Texas. He acknowledges that he may have been politically "lucky" this year, but thinks some of the support he's found also has to do with his background, not just his opponents.
Miller describes himself as a Libertarian who believes there is a regulatory role for government. He's a former petroleum engineer and professor who says if elected he would work to stop manmade earthquakes, protect property rights, plug orhpaned oil and gas wells and change the name of the Railroad Commission to something that makes sense.
“How can you have a working democracy, people voting on an office every two years and they don’t know what it does? That’s atrocious," he said. "We should be ashamed."
You can find an extended interview with Miller below.
Martina Salinas, the Green Party candidate, is a construction inspector in North Texas. She proposes government plans to put unemployed oilfield workers to work expanding Texas' renewable energy infrastructure.
She is running to refashion to Commission into a consumer advocacy agency. She says she decided to enter the race after becoming upset with the Commission's reaction to the oil-and-gas related earthquakes in the Dallas Fort Worth area.
Beyond addressing the earthquake issue, Salinas says she would change the name of the Railroad Commission to something that makes sense, and make it more difficult for private pipeline companies to take land using the power of eminent domain.
"We're using government privilege for private profit," she said, "most of [the pipelines] are not providing a service to the communities they're going through."
You can find out more about her positions on her campaign's Facebook page.