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Both have deep Texas roots, but Sid Miller and Susan Hays offer stark contrast in fight for ag commissioner

The state’s agriculture commissioner oversees a vast portfolio including farming and ranching, rural health care and the scales you use at grocery store checkout.

By Jayme Lozano, Texas Tribune

LUBBOCK — A mere 44 miles, a flyspeck on the map, separates the Central Texas towns where  Sid Miller and Susan Hays grew up.

For Miller, it was De Leon, a town with less than 3,000 people. For Hays, it was Brownwood, a one-high-school town. The two towns have rich histories in farming and ranching.

Both their families have been in the state for generations, Hays’ since just after the Civil War and Miller’s since the 1700s. Both grew up managing cattle at their families’ ranches. Both found success, Hays as a lawyer fighting for human rights and Miller as a national award-winning rodeo cowboy.

Miller and Hays can both legitimately claim deep Texas roots, but from those roots grew two diametrically opposed politicians now running against each other for Texas agriculture commissioner. Their visions of government, and its responsibilities, are worlds apart. They want better for Texas, but paint different pictures of what that is.

With his signature cowboy hat and pressed blue jeans, Miller, 67, is the old-school image of a Texas cowboy. He was drawn to the Republican Party because he saw it as the party of freedom.

Hays, 53, is a headstrong Democrat and an equal rights lawyer who has fought for women, pregnant minors and Texas voters. Her political ideologies are driven by her lessons in vacation Bible school and growing up around politicians whom she considered good examples for public service.

The contest to serve as rural Texas’ ambassador to the state has become animated.

Hays has questioned Miller’s ethics and pointed to his controversies. This includes Miller’s reputation for making  offensive remarks about immigrants,  spreading falsehoods on social media, and the  indictment of his longtime political consultant on charges of theft and bribery in exchange for state hemp licenses.

“He’s just not suited for public office and not suited for this management role and outreach role that this office demands,” Hays said. “He’s proven himself to not be trustworthy.”

Miller, who faced similar attacks during a three-way primary earlier this year  that he won handily, said controversies about him are a Democratic strategy and a “low way” to campaign.

“That’s the Democrat campaign strategy, just to throw something out there, get people like you to report on it, whether it’s true or not, and get the headlines,” Miller said. “Any and every one of those controversies that have been falsely charged against me or some of my people have all been disproven. None of them are credible.”

Hays faces an uphill battle to get elected statewide as a Democrat. For more than two decades, Republicans have held  every statewide office. In 2018, Miller beat retired Air Force Col. Kim Olson by 5 percentage points.

Both candidates have high-profile endorsements — three former Texas Supreme Court justices, all Republican, have endorsed Hays, while Miller has former president Donald Trump’s endorsement.

Hays appears to have a fundraising edge. During the most recent campaign fundraising period, July 1 through Sept. 30, Hays raised $115,505. Miller banked $48,000 during the same period. However, the Republican incumbent has a cash-on-hand advantage, with $168,777 in the bank. Hays has about half that with $85,157.

The winner of this election will lead the state agriculture department that juggles several tasks. It provides financial assistance to farmers and ranchers, offers infrastructure grants in rural communities to attract development, markets Texas products and oversees measuring devices in grocery stores. It also oversees the state’s department of rural health, which helps rural hospitals with financial aid and technical assistance.

Whether it’s Miller or Hays in office next year, the agriculture commissioner has several issues coming to a head. Texas farmers and ranchers are facing tough financial hardships from the effects of the drought and extreme heat.

Kody Bessent, CEO of Plains Cotton Growers, said producers need a staunch advocate who will promote Texas-grown products on a global scale.

“We can produce a crop of very, very high quality, but we have to continue to use all the platforms we have to promote that,” Bessent explained.

And the rural lifestyle is increasingly endangered. Take, for example, rural health care. Texas leads the country in  rural hospital closures. Meanwhile, another 4 million Texans struggle with hunger and food scarcity because of inflation.

Adrian Billings is a family medicine physician with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, where he focuses on reviving rural health care. Billings said it would be greatly beneficial if the agriculture department would help with that mission.

“Rural health should be more of a priority,” Billings said. “I would love to see more of an investment financially, as well as with time and resources. I’d like to see more of that happening and to try and bridge this gap of urban and rural health care disparities.”

Susan Hays is called back to rural life

This is the first time Hays is running for elected office, but she’s no stranger to Texas politics. Throughout her legal career, Hays worked at the Texas Legislature and the Texas Supreme Court, and co-founded Jane’s Due Process, a legal services nonprofit for pregnant minors.

Most recently, Hays has found herself practicing law in the cannabis industry — she helped write and pass the Texas hemp legalization bill in 2019 and was named Texas’ first cannabis super lawyer by Thomson Reuters. Part of her campaign message is to continue that work by fully legalizing cannabis in the state.

But she wants to legalize the crop for more than the popularity points. Hays believes it could be a cash crop opportunity for farmers and a boost to the Texas economy. However, hemp in Texas  hasn’t lived up to expectations.

“People aren’t afraid of it anymore. They or someone they know has tried it and found it to be very helpful,” Hays said. “The other piece of it is once we have stable cannabis markets, which we’re a long way from right now, it’s one of the few crops somebody can make a living off of on an acre or less.”

And she believes she would be the right agriculture commissioner to see the task through.

“I’m a policy wonk and smart enough to figure out how to get things done the right way,” Hays said. “And I also enjoy getting my boots dirty and getting out there.”

Hays loves being in a rural community now, but growing up, she was pulling off cow ticks and helping her brothers castrate calves and looking for a way out. She became the trope of a rural kid moving away in search of a better living.

A few years ago, rural life was calling her home. Hays and her husband bought land in Alpine, a small town framed by mile-high mountains and an hour’s car ride north of Big Bend National Park.

“I’ve always been deeply attached to the land, and enjoy being out in it and getting dirt under my fingernails,” Hays said.

Hays promotes practices that could help farmers boost their crop growth even with Texas’ changing climate. And she wants to pay farmers for putting carbon back into the soil to combat climate change, which can be done through methods like cover crops or conservation tilling.

And then there is rural health care, a topic Hays evoked at a recent rally with gubernatorial candidate  Beto O’Rourke at Texas Tech University. The gap in access is only getting wider, she said.

“If you look at survival rates from traumatic accidents or heart attacks, you know it’s the first hour that matters,” Hays said. “If you’re an hour away from getting emergency care, you’re more likely to die or be permanently disabled.”

She also wants Texas to expand Medicaid, saying it’s “asinine” that the state leaves federal tax dollars on the floor by not. Texas is one of 12 Republican-controlled states that haven’t expanded coverage under the Affordable Care Act. It’s estimated that Texas would  receive $6.3 billion annually, and coverage would be expanded to include 1 million enrollees.

Sid Miller stands by his record

Miller touts a list of accomplishments over his two terms in office, such as the Farm Fresh program, a farm-to-school initiative that saw schools purchase $65 million worth of fresh food, and Operation Maverick, which investigated more than 7,000 businesses operating with illegal scales.

And he touts the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission’s  review of the agency from 2021 in which the department was called “well-managed.”

“The Sunset Commission said we’re the best state agency they’ve ever reviewed, so I think that says a lot about what we’ve done and what type of people we have with the TDA,” Miller said.

The commission, which reviews state agencies and programs for efficiency, did note that “the department's day-to-day responsibilities are largely removed from the politics and public attention focused on the commissioner.”

But some of Miller’s political actions have caught the public’s attention, and not in a good way. When asked about spreading fabricated photos or supporting stories on social media, Miller  said he doesn’t personally post everything to his accounts and that his team takes posts down “most of the time” when they find out they’re false.

More recently, Miller was the special guest speaker at a screening of the  debunked film “2000 Mules,” which falsely claims there was significant voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election.

Miller’s family has been ranching since the 1700s, and Miller continued that tradition himself. He later turned it into 20 world rodeo championships. Miller said agriculture has always been the glue that holds Texas together.

“We don’t own the land, the land owns us,” Miller said. “Agriculture is the heartbeat of America.”

When it comes to keeping agriculture stable, though, Miller’s conservative views are vastly different from Hays’. At the top of Miller’s list is stopping China from buying farmland in the U.S. And Miller does want to expand and fully implement medical cannabis use. His support for cannabis legalization ends with “compassionate use.”

When asked about full legalization, Miller adamantly said, “I’m not for that.”

In the face of historic crop losses from the drought, Miller,  who has acknowledged humans have contributed to climate change, said producers will be turning to crop insurance. However, crop insurance does not make up for the millions of dollars in lost products, whether that be cotton or vegetable crops. When pressed on how to get to the root of the problem, Miller said there wasn’t much to do.

“Well the root of the problem is it doesn’t rain,” Miller said. “Not much I can do about that, other than pray.”

Miller also sees the rural health care landscape differently. He points to the work the department did with distilleries during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide sanitizer and other resources. He said rural hospitals are in “good shape” since federal and state funds were distributed to facilities around Texas during the pandemic.

“So financially, they’re pretty sound,” Miller said. “They’re back to doing elective surgeries” — which were at times put on hold during the pandemic — “and it’s business as usual now.”