Meet the two Democrats running for Texas land commissioner
Texas Democrats decide next week who will be their party's nominee for state land commissioner.
The position oversees the Texas General Land Office, which manages thousands of acres in state land and is in charge of distributing aid for communities recovering from natural disasters. It also provides benefits for Texas veterans and their families through the Texas Veterans Land Board.
After a crowded March primary, Jay Kleberg and Sandragrace Martinez were the Democrat’s top two vote-getters for land commissioner. Their platforms are polar opposites — one focuses on climate change mitigation. The other hopes to use the platform to address mental health challenges in the state.
Whoever gets the most votes will move forward to the general election in November. They’ll face off against one of two Republicans also in a 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, who is running for Texas attorney general.
Candidates running for the Texas General Land Office tend to choose how to redirect the agency’s focus.
Kleberg said that, if elected, he’d like to address climate change.
“Everything that we love about Texas — our quality of life, environment — is truly at risk because of climate change,” Kleberg told The Texas Newsroom. “What we are doing as a state, especially those in top positions at a statewide level, really aren’t addressing some of those challenges.”
Kleberg used to be associate director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. He said his background qualifies him for the position.
“[I’ve spent] 20 years in land management, natural resource conservation work. I’ve dealt with natural disaster funds that came out of Deepwater Horizon in criminal and civil settlement dollars that came into the state,” Kleberg said. “I’ve actually managed tens of thousands of acres of land.”
The main job of the General Land Office is to manage about 13 million acres of state lands, most of them offshore.
The agency leases Texas' mineral holdings for oil and gas development, and those revenues go to the Permanent School Fund.
The General Land Office is also in charge of disaster recovery. This has caused friction between them and the public.
Last year, the agency announced Houston and Harris County weren’t going to receive any dollars in the first round of federal relief funding related to recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey. The agency ended up walking back the decision.
Kleberg said that, if elected, he thinks the first priority should be to improve how the state plans and distributes these resources.
Kleberg got 26 percent of the votes in the March primaries. That landed him in second place.
But his biggest hurdle might be his own heritage.
Kleberg is the scion of King Ranch — one of the country’s largest ranches, established in the mid 1800s in Kingsville, Texas.
Rebecca Flores, a Hispanic Democrat from San Antonio, told The Texas Newsroom that makes it 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 took thousands and thousands of acres from Mexicans and South Texas,” Flores said.
“I wonder how you deal with that question?” Flores asked Kleberg at a Cinco de Mayo event put on by the Bexar County Democratic Party. “When people come up to you and say, how can you be running for office, how can we trust you in this position and whatever you do because of the history of your family taking all of these acres from the hands of Mexicans who live down there?”
Kleberg told Flores he hopes people can look at his background and experience and move on.
“I say you have to look at what I have done as an individual and that I have been true to my responsibilities that I feel are benefitting all Texans in the work that I’ve done,” Kleberg said. “If people look at the history of South Texas and decide they have a problem with that, 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 land and benefiting all public school children.”
After their interaction, Flores said she was not fully convinced.
“I think he’s just trying to ignore it by falling back on all this stuff that he’s done, he wants to ignore the elephant in the room,” Flores said. “On the other hand, let me just say this, his opponent doesn’t know about this position.”
Kleberg’s opponent is Sandragrace Martinez. She got 32 percent of the votes in the Democratic primary — more than Kleberg.
Martinez has made her life story the center of her campaign.
“My parents came into the states at a very young age, my dad was 17, my mom 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 ideal platform to address mental health issues in Texas. Like using public land to address homelessness among veterans.
“Mental health is the common denominator in both parties — I have not yet heard a Republican say this is a horrible bill, it addresses mental health,” Martinez said. “So, I have to build on that and that is my strong suit at the end of the day.”
Veterans issues have been an area of focus of the General Land Office since 1946, after World War II, with the creation of the Veterans Land Board.
The Board provides multiple services, including home improvement loans, and long-term care homes.
Martinez may face an uphill battle: All the big endorsements 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 helm the agency.
“It’s about throwing a wrench in the system,” Martinez said, something she sees as sort of a life philosophy.