Lone Stars Rising

The Lady Rancher: From Hogs to Boll Weevils

Of the two candidates, Combs is a lot more appealing than Rylander. Barring some major misstep in her campaign against Democrat Pete Patterson (see story), Combs, 52, will be the next agriculture commissioner. And that's not all bad. Combs is personable. She's straightforward and appears honest. She's about four times smarter than current Ag Commish Rick Perry, who's trying to move up to lieutenant governor. And she has a long history in agriculture. Her family has had a ranch in Brewster County for four generations. She currently runs 1,100 head of cattle on 50,000 acres. She's a Vassar- and UT-educated lawyer who passed several important bills while in the Texas House.

Susan Combs stops to speak to Maragret Rodgers at the Future of Property Rights conference in 1995.

photograph by Alan Pogue

But there are several ag issues on which she doesn't appear to be helping small farmers. Her property rights bill of 1995 hasn't helped small landowners fight regulations created by the state or federal government. Nor has it helped them fight large landowners and corporations over land use issues. For instance, small farmers in the Panhandle were denied the opportunity to oppose permits the state gave to Nippon Meat Packers. Through its subsidiary, Texas Farm, Nippon has built a factory farm capable of producing 500,000 fully grown hogs per year. The farmers whose land lies downwind of the pig farms have sued in state court because they were not given an opportunity to appeal the licensing of the facilities at the TNRCC. Corporate hog farms have caused a populist uprising in other states. At least 20 counties in Kansas have held referenda on the big hog farms, and 18 of them have prohibited the big corporate operators from locating in their counties.

So where does Combs stand on the corporate hog farm issue? If her association with Ed Small is any example, then look for Big Pork to stay at the trough. The former UT football player is Combs' campaign treasurer, and his firm, Small Craig and Werkinthin, represents Texas Farm, the aforementioned hog producer, which has invested over $200 million in hog production facilities in the Texas Panhandle. Combs has also indicated her support for a new hog meat packing plant in the state. Fortuitously, Texas Farm is among several companies rumored to be considering building a slaughterhouse in the Panhandle.

On the cotton front, Combs will have to deal with one of the biggest messes in Texas agriculture history: the boll weevil eradication program. Texas produces more cotton than any other state. The objective of the eradication program was to rid Texas of every single boll weevil. It was a lofty goal; the weevil has been in Texas for more than 100 years. The argument for the eradication program was: Given enough pesticide applications, we can eliminate the weevil, thereby cutting pesticide use over the long term. Weevil eradication has worked in other states. But it's unlikely ever to work in Texas, primarily because farmers in various parts of the state have refused to join the eradication program. Farmers in the Rio Grande Valley voted to opt out of the eradication program after a horrendous year in which pest infestations wreaked havoc on the crop. Subsequent analyses by two USDA scientists blamed overuse of pesticides for the ruined crop.

And that brings us back to Small, whose firm has a lucrative contract with the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation, a quasi-public legislative bastard that took on millions of dollars of debt to fund the eradication program. Since 1994, Small's firm has billed the eradication foundation more than $425,000. Small's firm not only represents the foundation in lawsuits that farmers have brought against the foundation, it also did lobbying for the foundation during the last legislative session. Where does Combs stand on the boll weevil? Well, of course she won't tell us that, but if her association with Small is any indication, her position will likely be the same as his.

As mentioned above, Combs refused to talk to the Chronicle. But Small, her campaign treasurer, was happy to extol his candidate's virtues. He contends that Combs will be good for the state's agribusinesses. "Susan's energy level and dedication to improving the economic aspects of agriculture, her ability to work with a broad range of groups both in agriculture and outside mainstream agriculture, being a Republican in Texas at this point, assuming George Bush is elected governor, will be a big advantage for her and for agriculture. Her opponent is dedicated to agriculture. I just think Susan's energy level and sophistication is just better."

Rylander: Unfinished Business

Rylander wasn't on the road to Damascus when she was blinded by the light. Instead, her lightning-quick conversion from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican was propelled by pure ambition. After her term as mayor, the only step up was running for Congress. And the fast-talking Rylander didn't want to wait until longtime U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle felt like quitting. So in 1985, just one year after working on the steering committee for Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, Rylander joined the GOP. It was a bold political move that left many of her longtime Democratic backers in Austin seething. "Her supporters felt betrayed, attacked. Their rhetoric against her became very extreme," says Travis County Attorney Ken Oden, himself a veteran of many partisan fights. After the switch, Rylander, says Oden, "got a new set of friends." And while that may have been personally painful, the political payoff was substantial. "The race against Jake vaulted her career over those who had been active in GOP circles for decades," says Oden.

Ambition has marked her from the beginning. Daryl Janes of the Austin Business Journal once wrote of her, "In 1957, just out of high school, Carole Keeton was ranked No. 2 in the state in women's tennis doubles. That was the last time she was second in anything." Rylander does have an impressive résumé. She was the first:

  • female president of the AISD Board of Trustees
  • woman elected mayor of Austin
  • woman elected (not appointed) to the Texas Railroad Commission

But before voters hire Rylander again, it should be noted that Rylander has quit jobs as:

  • president of the AISD Board of Trustees
  • mayor of Austin*state insurance board member
  • Texas Railroad Commissioner (Oops. She hasn't quit yet. She wants to, though.)

Obviously, Rylander has never let her responsibilities get in the way of her ambitions. She's a serial government employee. She rails against government but can't quit her own habit of public office. As Steve Ray, former Austin bureau chief for Scripps Howard, detailed in a recent column, Rylander had one year left on her term at the AISD when she quit to run for Austin mayor. She had four months left in her third two-year term as mayor when she quit to take a job at the State Board of Insurance. She quit the insurance board with more than three years left on her term to run against Jake Pickle. Six months into her first full term on the Railroad Commission, she announced her candidacy for comptroller.

Eastside residents ask Rylander, the former mayor, what will be done about police brutality in the wake of Gril Couch's strangling on East 11th by two Austin Police Department officers in 1979.

photograph by Alan Pogue

Yet Rylander won't quit her job as chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission. Why? It's too good to quit. She can run for another office while raising lots of cash from the oil and railroad companies she regulates. The Dallas Morning News reported on this phenomenon in July, noting that in 1995 she accepted $5,000 from an Enron lobbyist the day after she voted to exempt Enron from a state rule governing spacing on oil wells. In 1997, she got a $1,000 contribution from a Texaco executive 12 days before a hearing on Texaco's request for an exception to the same rule. And Molly Ivins reported in August that Rylander has accepted $6,000 worth of contributions from Houston oil man George Mitchell over the past three years. In 1996, a jury awarded eight families from Wise County a $204 million verdict against Mitchell Energy for polluting the families' groundwater. The Railroad Commission promised to investigate the matter. After reviewing the case, the agency's staff recommended that Mitchell Energy be fined $2.24 million. The commission voted to cut the fine in half, however, and Mitchell Energy was not required to admit any wrongdoing in the pollution case.

Why is this important? Well, in 1994, Rylander pledged that she would not accept donations from entities that have contested cases before the commission. In the Dallas Morning News story, Rylander called the allegations of impropriety "absolute hogwash." Her campaign chairman Scott McClellan also told the News that Rylander had returned $75,000 worth of contributions since 1994.

The Biggest Boondoggle

Rylander, 59, was born into politics. Her father, Page Keeton, was the longtime dean of the UT Law School. (A section of 26th Street is named after him.) Political and legal discussions were an integral part of Rylander's upbringing. And she has definitely made her mark in the world. But what are her qualifications for becoming the state's chief accountant? Can we trust her to manage over one million separate accounts for things like sales taxes, fuel taxes, and franchise taxes? Can she be trusted to handle over $11 billion a year in sales tax collections?

If you look at her involvement in the South Texas (Nuclear) Project (STP), the answer is not just no. It's hell no. By any measure, the Nuke has been a bad investment for Austin. The city tried -- in vain -- to sell its investment in the plant a few years ago. And today, more than a third of every dollar spent on electric bills in the city goes to pay for the Nuke. To be fair, STP has generated billions of hours of electricity for the city. It's energy we need and will continue to need. But it has been far more costly than originally anticipated and it was Rylander, more than any other single person, who nailed us to the Nuke.

Carole Keeton Rylander as Railroad Commissioner
photograph by Alan Pogue

In 1979, just a few days after the incident at Three Mile Island, Austin voters had two propositions on the ballot. One called for selling the city's interest in the Nuke. Another called for issuing $215.8 million in new debt to continue participating in the Nuke. On the eve of the election, Rylander took out an ad in the Austin American-Statesman that said, "The only way -- the only way -- to insure that your utility bills will be as low as possible is to vote to stay in the South Texas Nuclear Project." The turnout for the election was huge, particularly by today's standards: 34% of the city's voters went to the polls, and the Nuke bonds won by 3,400 votes, with 53% of the vote. On April 8, 1979, the American-Statesman quoted Bill Youngblood, a supporter of the Nuke bonds, as saying, "I think unmistakenly it's the popularity and credibility of Mayor McClellan [Rylander] that led citizens to vote for the project."

How much has Rylander's boondoggle cost taxpayers in her hometown? In 1973, the city's 16% stake in the plant was estimated to cost $161 million. To date, the city has invested more than $1 billion.

It's easy to take swipes at Rylander's history, particularly when compared to that of her opponent, Paul Hobby (see story, p.28). Hobby's record of public service isn't as encyclopedic as Rylander's. But he's an heir to the Hobby fortune and son of former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, and he may outspend Rylander on TV. If he does, he could prevent Rylander from switching offices yet again. If not, attorney general candidate Jim Mattox could be the only Democrat elected to statewide office next month. (By the way, Hobby was recently endorsed by four former Austin mayors: Bruce Todd, Roy Butler, Frank Cooksey, and Jeff Friedman, as well as current Mayor Kirk Watson and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk.)

The major newspapers will issue their endorsements over the next few weeks. Combs will likely win a lot of recommendations. Rylander will also get her share. But Texans can only hope Hobby keeps her from becoming comptroller, where she would be able to lambast every other branch of government while angling for a shot at the governor's mansion. But even if she loses, Rylander won't go away. She gets to keep her job at the Railroad Commission, where she can keep raising cash and plotting her next move up the political food chain.

Like Rylander, Combs will also be looking to move up just as soon as she wins a spot at the Agriculture Department. And that takes us back to an earlier point regarding similarities: Win, lose, or draw, both Combs and Rylander will be around for a long time to come.

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