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Then There's This: Combs Takes the Cake

When it comes to trolling for votes, anything goes

By Amy Smith, Fri., March 16, 2012

Susan Combs
Susan Combs

It's amazing what politicians will do or say to avoid accountability on the one hand while pandering to right-wing voters on the other. Let's take Comptroller Susan Combs as an example of someone who's taking the pimp playbook to a new level in her quest for higher office. Combs is a likely candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014 – assuming incumbent David Dewhurst wins his bid to replace outgoing U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

A long, long time ago, I admired and respected Combs almost as much as I disagreed with her. That was during her early-to-mid-Nineties stint as a state representative – the lone Republican in the Austin delegation. She was also one of a few moderate, pro-choice Republicans in a Legislature that was on a right-leaning trajectory.

At the time, the city of Austin was trying hard to protect its environmental resources with greater regulatory control of development over the Barton Springs region of the Edwards Aquifer. Combs and her cohorts in the Lege, meanwhile, were working to undo the city's Save Our Springs Ordinance, which voters had overwhelmingly passed in August 1992.

She Started Out OK

My memory is hazy on the precise details, but not long after the SOS referendum – circa 1993 or so – I attended a luncheon at Green Pastures Restaurant in South Austin, where Combs was a guest speaker. The audience included a mix of environmental activists, developer lobbyists, and chamber leaders. Business and real estate interests had mounted an aggressive campaign against the SOS initiative, so seeing this mix of people together in the same room was a bit of a novelty at the time. The luncheon was my first introduction to Combs, a West Texas rancher and former prosecutor who stands 6 feet 2 inches tall. I found her friendly and forthright as she laid out her property-rights argument on behalf of landowners.

Then came her 1995 attack on Austin, including her successful legislation requiring governmental entities to compensate landowners when regulations such as the SOS Ordinance inhibit their ability to maximize the financial value of their property. It's one thing to support property rights laws – but it's wrong to screw with the ability of others to drink and swim in clean and safe water. That same year, the Statesman published a profile of Combs, who was at the time drawing a lot of scorn from city officials and environmentalists alike. Looking back on that story now, Combs' words carry a strong whiff of irony, given recent events. "I don't give my Social Security number to anybody," she told writer Ralph Haurwitz, explaining that the number could be used to obtain other personal information. She went on to say, "We are so casual about government intrusion in our lives. I'm pro-choice for the same reason."

... Then She Veered Right

Combs recently reminded us of her successful Austin-bashing legislation in an op-ed she wrote after a Texas Supreme Court ruling last month granted Texans the right to suck as much groundwater as they want from their land, catastrophic droughts and water conservation districts be damned.

Combs has been on a tear lately. Since winning the comptroller's race in 2006, her record in that office has not exactly been stellar. A major data breach occurred on her watch last spring, in which Social Security numbers and other personal data for 3.5 million people were inadvertently left on a publicly accessible state computer server for a year. Combs – the person who boasted that she never gives out her own Social Security number – adroitly dodged reponsibility for the breach by firing a few underlings. She later blamed the security blunder on one person who failed to do "the right thing."

Plus, for the past two years, she's been in increasingly hot water over her role in committing Texas to pay $25 million a year for 10 years to Formula One, which is scheduled to hold its first race in Austin in November. Most recently, a fellow Republican and possible 2014 political rival, Land Com­mis­sion­er Jerry Patterson, has been rattling the comptroller's cage over her handling of the F1 deal. He has asked the Attorney General's Office for an opinion on whether Combs skirted state law by arbitrarily committing the funding, which she had initially promised to pay in advance of the race. She reversed her position on advance payment, but the funding in general remains in question. Patterson is also questioning whether F1 is even eligible to receive money from the Major Events Trust Fund because of Combs' failure to follow proper procedure.

It's fair to say that Republican candidates have had to abandon their independent principles to remain politically viable in an increasingly conservative frontier. Combs is no exception, but her political gaffes and late-in-life conversions poke holes in her character. Though she says she changed her pro-choice views several years ago, her anti-abortion stance only became conveniently public last year, as she began exploring a run for lieutenant governor. And her latest 180? Endorsing the other Rick – Rick Santorum – for president.

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