Meet the two Democrats running for Texas Lands Commissioner
Texas Democrats decide next week who will be their party’s nominee for state lands commissioner.
The position oversees the Texas General Land Office, which manages thousands of acres of state land and is responsible for distributing aid to communities recovering from natural disasters. It also provides benefits to Texas veterans and their families through the Texas Veterans Land Council.
After a march crowded primary, Jay Kleberg and Sandragrace Martinez were the Democrat’s top two voters for Lands Commissioner. Their platforms are poles apart – one focuses on climate change mitigation. The other hopes to use the platform to tackling mental health challenges in the state.
Whoever gets the most votes will qualify for the November general election. They will also face one of two Republicans in the May 24 runoff: either Texas GOP historian Tim Westley or Dawn Buckingham, a state senator endorsed by former President Trump.
The winner in November will replace Republican George P. Bush, candidate for Texas attorney general.
Applicants presenting to the Texas General Land Office tend to choose how to redirect the agency’s attention.
Kleberg said if elected, he would like to tackle climate change.
“Everything we love about Texas — our quality of life, our environment — is really at risk because of climate change,” Kleberg told The Texas Newsroom. “What we’re doing as a state, especially those in high-level statewide positions, really doesn’t address some of those challenges.”
Kleberg was associate director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. He said his background qualifies him for the job.
“[I’ve spent] 20 years in land management, natural resource conservation work. I have dealt with natural disaster funds that have come out of Deepwater Horizon in criminal and civil settlement dollars that have come into the state,” Kleberg said. “I’ve actually managed tens of thousands of acres of land.”
The main work of General Lands Office is to manage approximately 13 million acres of state land, most of it offshore.
The agency leases Texas mineral assets for oil and gas development, and those revenues go to the Continuing Schools Fund.
The General Land Office is also in charge of disaster recovery. This caused friction between them and the public.
Last year, the agency announced Houston and Harris County were not going to receive dollars in the first round of federal relief funding related to Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts. The agency eventually reversed its decision.
Kleberg said that if elected, he thinks the first priority should be to improve how the state plans and distributes those resources.
Kleberg won 26% of the vote in the March primaries. This earned him second place.
But his biggest obstacle might be his own legacy.
Kleberg is the offspring of King’s Ranch — one of the nation’s largest ranches, established in the mid-1800s in Kingsville, Texas.
Rebecca Flores, a Hispanic Democrat from San Antonio, told The Texas Newsroom that it was harder for her to support Kleberg.
“How does he deal with that – the fact that he’s a Kleberg, running for land commissioner and that family has taken thousands and thousands of acres from Mexicans and South Texas,” said Flores.
“I wonder how you deal with this matter?” Flores asked Kleberg during a Cinco de Mayo event hosted by the Bexar County Democratic Party. “When people come up to you and say, how can you run for office, how can we trust you in this position and whatever you do because of your family history that took all those acres from the hands of the Mexicans who live down there?”
Kleberg told Flores that he hopes people can look at his journey and his experience and move on.
“I’m saying you have to look at what I’ve done as an individual and have been true to my responsibilities which I believe benefit all Texans in the work that I’ve done,” said Kleberg. “If people look at the history of South Texas and decide they have a problem with it, then there’s nothing I can do about it except honor what I think is the job of taking responsibility for 13 million acres of public lands and to benefit all public children.”
After their interaction, Flores said she wasn’t entirely convinced.
“I think he’s just trying to ignore it by falling back on everything he’s done, he wants to ignore the elephant in the room,” Flores said. “On the other hand, let me say this, his opponent doesn’t know that position.”
Kleberg’s opponent is Sandgrace Martinez. She got 32% of the vote in the Democratic primary – more than Kleberg.
Martinez has made his life story the focus of his campaign.
“My parents came to the United States at a very young age, my father was 17, my mother was 14,” Martinez said. “I can’t imagine being 14 and crossing the bridge.”
Martinez has worked as a parole officer and as a licensed professional counselor.
She said she sees the General Land Office as the perfect platform to address mental health issues in Texas. Like using public land to address veteran homelessness.
“Mental health is the common denominator of both parties — I have yet to hear a Republican say this is a horrible bill, it deals with mental health,” Martinez said. “So I have to lean on that and that’s my forte at the end of the day.”
Veterans’ issues have been a central concern of the General Land Office since 1946, after World War II, with the creation of the Veterans Land Commission.
The Commission offers multiple services, including loans for home improvement and long-term care homes.
Martinez may face an uphill battle: all the big mentions have gone to Kleberg. That includes gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke and Progress Texas.
But she says she’s not worried and is confident voters will support her and make her the first woman to lead the agency.
“It’s about throwing a wrench in the system,” Martinez said, something she considers a kind of life philosophy.