Voting for Texas Railroad Commissioner
Though the Texas Railroad Commission was established in 1891 to regulate railroads, the last remnants of the Commission’s responsibilities over railroads were transferred to the Texas Department of Transportation in 2005. In spite of its misleading name, the Commission’s actual authority and jurisdiction is over the oil and natural gas industry, pipeline transporters, the natural gas and hazardous liquid pipeline industry, natural gas utilities, the LP-gas industry, and coal and uranium surface mining operations.
The Railroad Commission is part of Texas’ plural executive. Commissioners are elected by voters, not appointed. Because there are three Commissioners serving rotating six-year terms, it is the only statewide executive position that is on Texas’ general election ballot every two years.
Today the Commission remains an openly and enthusiastically avowed champion of the oil and gas industry, even as it also regulates the industry it champions. From the 1930s through 60s, the Commission even played the role OPEC came to play in supporting worldwide oil prices by restricting production from Texas oilfields.
Yet in spite of both its importance to Texas and its prominence on the ballot, fewer than 5% of Texas voters are aware of its regulatory duties. Over the last couple of decades, the Railroad Commission was reviewed three times by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission before finally being reauthorized by the Texas Legislature in 2017. In spite of three Sunset Commission staff recommendations to change the Railroad Commission’s dishonest name, the Texas Legislature has thus far failed correct the deceit.
In 2016, there are two Republicans and four Democrats running for Railroad Commissioner in the major party primaries. The Libertarian and Green Parties will be selecting their nominees at their state conventions. Both convention parties have a none-of-the-above option in their nominating procedures. Since 1994, all Railroad Commissioners have been Republicans. Prior to 1993 all Commissioners were Democrats.
Republican Party Candidates
Ryan Sitton – engineer, entrepreneur, incumbent
James “Jim” Wright – rancher and energy services businessman
Democratic Party Candidates
Roberto R. “Beto” Alonzo – criminal law attorney and former State Representative
Chrysta Castañeda – engineer, oil & gas attorney
Kelly Stone – educator, comedian, and environmental activist
Mark Watson – civil and criminal law attorney
Libertarian Party Candidates
Green Party Candidate
Katija Gruene – political activist
Those who wish to support candidates for either the Libertarian or Green Party nomination can do so by participating in their convention nominating process, starting with Precinct Conventions on Mar 10, County Conventions on Mar 14, and then the State Convention Apr 18-19. Additional information can be found for the Libertarian Party at lptexas.org and for the Green Party at txgreens.org.
The two major parties will, of course, select their nominees with the Mar 3 primary elections (early voting starts Feb 18). If a runoff election is necessary, it will be held May 26 (early voting starts May 18).
For those voters who choose to participate in the Republican primary, the choice is between re-electing a sitting Commissioner (Sitton) or replacing him with another Republican (Wright). Given the likelihood that Sitton will win the primary election, a vote for Wright would be a way for Republican voters to register their lack of confidence in Sitton’s performance.
Voters who choose to participate in the Democratic primary have a different sort of choice. Though Democrats hope to soon begin making inroads at the statewide level in Texas, the chances of replacing Sitton with a Democrat still appears to be slim.
That being said, however, it would be wise for Democrats to consider the strategic importance of their vote. The 2018 midterm elections and the rapid growth of Texas’s urban counties suggest that the state may vote increasingly Democratic in the future. In addition, one-punch straight-party voting has been eliminated starting with the 2020 general election. What effect this will have on down-ballot races is yet to be seen.
Democrats would be well-advised to select a nominee who shows a thorough understanding of the issues facing the Railroad Commission as it regulates an oil and gas industry so important to the Texas economy. Should there be an opportunity for debates prior to the 2020 general election, a solid showing by the Democratic candidate could increase Texas voters’ confidence in awarding statewide positions to Democrats in the future.
Should a Democrat actually get elected to the Commission, voters can expect increasing disagreements and two-to-one Commission votes. If Democratic voices are to become a lasting feature of Commission deliberations, it will be important that a Democratic Commissioner be seen as providing serious well-considered positions as the state debates its energy future.
San Antonio Express-News: Sitton (R) and Castañeda (D)
Dallas Morning News: Sitton (R) and Castañeda (D)
Texas AFL-CIO: Alonzo (D)
Empower Texans: Sitton (R)
Austin Chronical: Castaneda (D)
Houston Chronicle: Sitton (R)