Joe Cascino works on the Kim Olson Campaign for Texas Commissioner of Agriculture.
Incumbent Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is running for re-election this November against Democratic challenger, retired Air Force Colonel Kim Olson. Miller, a rancher, has been involved in politics since his election to the Texas House of Representatives in 2000 and became notable for seeking to legalize the exportation of horse meat abroad. He was elected Commissioner of Agriculture in 2014 and has since gained national attention as a Trump surrogate.
Miller caused controversy with his Facebook activity last week when his account liked a user’s comment “get a rope” in response to a photo of Olson and African-American U.S. Senator Cory Booker. But this is not an isolated incident, as Miller is no stranger to social media controversy. He posts an often cringe-inducing “Joke of the Day,” some of which have featured racially insensitive and suicide jokes. During the 2016 presidential election, his Twitter account called Secretary Clinton the c-word and in 2015, his Facebook displayed a political cartoon advocating for using nuclear weapons on the “Muslim world.” As if his social media accounts weren’t already reminiscent of your racist uncle’s Facebook, Sid Miller never ceases to amaze.
He approved the use of warfarin in the ground to kill feral hogs, to much condemnation. Warfarin, often used to combat blood clots, thins the blood to the point that a scratch could cause the user to bleed out. While warfarin has seen use as rat poison, it was mixed into food and largely used inside controlled environments. If put into the ground, an uncontrolled environment, warfarin could find its way into human consumption through agriculture products or drinking water.
While feral hogs are an expensive problem, warfarin is a dangerous answer. In February 2015, Miller attempted to have the state reimburse him $1,500 for expenses incurred on a “meeting with the Oklahoma state legislature,” when in reality it was for a “Jesus Shot,” an injection administered by an Oklahoma City doctor that “takes away all pain — for life.™”
A whole lot of Texans are going to vote on party lines because they don’t know much about the candidates or the position, and that’s a huge problem. For anyone who eats, the agriculture commissioner plays an incredibly important role. He or she oversees the trade and market development of agricultural commodities, including, of course, all plants and meat raised in this state. They have domain over pesticide use and a wide range of other areas, from regulating the gas pump and ensuring our gas is safe to running the school lunch program. As a matter of fact, the Agriculture Commissioner has over 101 duties, giving him or her more explicit powers than the Governor.
Though powerful, it’s a largely non-partisan position. Key Republican or Democratic party platform issues don’t really apply in the job’s vast regulatory domain. But, as nonpartisan as the position may be, a significant number of voters will vote in this race on partisan lines, which in this state, doesn’t do Democrats any favors.
But don’t sleep on Miller’s opponent, Kim Olson, for one second.
Despite the natural setback of being a Democrat in ruby red Texas, Olson has bolted out of the gates in a grassroots movement with some pretty impressive results — she’s fundraised almost three times what Miller has. There’s a lot to like about Kim Olson. She’s a master gardener and casual beekeeper who happened to serve 25 years as one of the first female combat pilots in the Air Force, then as the head of Human Resources with Dallas ISD, and then as the founder and CEO of a non-profit for military families. In addition to this long list of accomplishments, she is also a member of the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame and wrote a book about her experiences in the Iraq War.
One of Olson’s key policy goals is bringing broadband to rural areas, as this issue is another that falls under the umbrella of the position. This would not only help rural Texas towns progress into the 21st century, but it would also benefit rural hospitals, which are being shut down at an alarming rate. With broadband, doctors at one hospital could contact a doctor in the next town who specializes in a certain field of medicine. This would save a lot of lives and be relatively inexpensive. Broadband began to be put in rural areas by Miller’s predecessor, Republican Todd Staples, but the work is far from complete and clearly has not been a priority for Miller, as many Texans are still without connectivity.
She also seeks to extend the school lunch program into the summer. One in-four children in this state go home hungry every night, and for them, having school lunch is a matter of survival. Many of those same children spend their summers in public school-run programs, but they can’t get the food they need because the school lunch program doesn’t operate in the summer. Churches and food banks might do what they can to provide help to these kids, but it’s not nearly enough. Regardless of party affiliation, most people want to help vulnerable children and Olson would effectively do so by implementing summertime school lunch.
Her sensible policy plans have gained her a strong following from people across the political spectrum. She uses the Beto O’Rourke model of going, as she puts it, “where no Democrat has gone before.” Following in Representative O’Rourke’s footsteps, she aims to visit every county in the state and listen to people at their farms, fields, and dinner tables.
Her events buzz with activity, even in the most traditionally conservative areas of the state. In Parker County, which went almost 82 percent for Trump in 2016, over 200 people showed up in a small backyard for a meet and greet after listening to her tough, definitively Texan speech reminiscent of Ann Richards, the last Democratic Governor of Texas and a much-revered figure in Democratic circles. At events, shunning tired political campaign giveaways, Olson hands out wildflower seed packets with her likeness on the front.
Olson has united people on both sides of the aisle. When questioned about Olson, Janice Anderson, a retired public-school teacher from Arlington and lifelong Republican who voted for Trump, beams. She drove 45 minutes to Dallas for an event that included speeches from Olson, gubernatorial nominee Lupe Valdez, Lieutenant Governor nominee Mike Collier, and Attorney General nominee Justin Nelson. But really, she only wanted to see Olson. She explained to me, “I don’t like the rest of them. They all just talk about Trump and that just divides people more. I like her positivity. It’s so refreshing right now, especially with all this negativity going around on both sides.”
Young Democrats, many of whom probably had never heard of the position before Olson’s candidacy, are all in for her campaign. When I spoke to Isaac Wolters, an 18-year-old college student, he said, “I love how she hands out those seed packs. I think it’s really neat…she is the kind of leader Texans deserve after so many years of bad leadership and broken promises.”
With her striking charisma and army of enthusiastic supporters behind her, Olson is in position to unseat Miller. But she and the other down-ballot candidates face a similar problem: lack of voter interest and coverage in comparison to the high-stakes Cruz-O’Rourke Senate battle. The Olson Campaign and the Texas Democratic Party are doing what they can to combat this.
They must. Voters could elect someone who believes in the science of the Jesus Shot, who is willing to possibly put human lives at risk to fight feral hogs, and who believes that topics such as lynching, suicide, and the casual destruction of an entire part of the world are acceptable to joke about. Someone like Miller should not hold public office in this state, or hell, in this country, but he might be re-elected solely due to voter apathy.
Every Texan wants competent and compassionate leaders. Sid Miller has proven to not fit either bill. In my time working with Kim Olson, I have understood that she truly is everything she’s built up to be. She has a track record of successful leadership, be it in the military, in public education, or in her nonprofit. She genuinely cares about the people in rural Texas and the children who go to bed hungry every night, whom she will do everything in her power to serve. Agricultural issues, as Olson commonly says, are not “red and blue issues. They are red, white, and blue issues.”
Regardless of our feelings towards people like Trump or Beto O’Rourke, at our core, all of us want the best for the state of Texas. Leaders like Olson are what our state needs now more than ever. It does not need a highly controversial and reckless official in charge of its agricultural operations any longer. Olson would give Texas agriculture the Jesus Shot it needs to help get the Lone Star State back on track.