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Texas land commissioner candidates compete to oversee Alamo and disaster relief funds

Texas land commissioner candidates compete to oversee Alamo and disaster relief funds” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A dozen people are vying to become the next Texas land commissioner, overseeing an agency that manages 13 million acres of state land, administers disaster recovery funds, contributes to public school funding and has administrative control of the Alamo.

Republican George P. Bush’s decision not to seek reelection and run for attorney general created an open race that features eight Republicans and four Democrats seeking their parties’ nominations in the March 1 primary. The eventual nominees will face off in November.

The elected victor will head the General Land Office as the Alamo undergoes a nearly $400 million redevelopment plan that calls for a new visitor center and museum, restoration of the site’s battlefield and preservation of the remaining Alamo church. The General Land Office will lease the historic Woolworth and Crockett buildings in downtown San Antonio to the city to house the Alamo visitor center and museum.

Most Republicans seeking the GOP nomination list the Alamo project as a top priority, though one also wants to use the office to decrease immigration at the Texas-Mexico border. The top focuses of Democrats running include prioritizing public school funding, limiting how the agency contributes to climate change and improving natural disaster responses.

Wide open Republican race

The race for the Republican nomination appears to be wide open as no candidate has garnered substantial support from registered voters, according to a January poll from the University of Houston. State Sen. Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway is among the most high-profile GOP candidates and has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. But only 4% of primary voters said they planned to vote for her, according to the poll from UH’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. Because 80% of primary voters said they had yet to make up their minds about the crowded race, it is likely headed to a runoff between the top two Republican vote-getters.

Buckingham declined to be interviewed but has said the Alamo is a part of Texas heritage that needs protecting.

Redevelopment plans for the Alamo have prompted pushback from across the political spectrum in recent years. A 2017 renovation plan for the Alamo called for moving the Cenotaph, a 56-foot-tall marble monument built to commemorate those who fought for Texas. The Cenotaph was proposed to be relocated to the front of the Menger Hotel, less than 400 feet from the Alamo. However, the Texas Historical Commission, a state board dedicated to the preservation of Texas history, voted against that idea.

The Alamo Plaza Advisory Committee has also debated whether there should be acknowledgment at the site of the role slavery played in both the Alamo’s history and the Texas war for independence from Mexico. The committee has not reached a decision.

Mission San Antonio de Valero, a missionary group that converted Spaniards, Mexicans and American Indians to Christianity in the 1700s, resided in the Alamo before the building was abandoned. In 2019, the Alamo was accused of being a possible unmarked Native American cemetery after human remains were found at the historical monument.

American Indians in Texas at the Spanish colonial missions have asked to have a say in how remains are preserved and respectfully relocated. They also want to have the history of the missionary group remembered at the Alamo. However, in previous statements to The Texas Tribune, the campaign of outgoing commissioner Bush said a new museum would focus only on the battle of 1836.

Republican candidate Jon Spiers, a heart surgeon from Houston, views the Alamo as a crucial part of Texas pride and history.

“What I want to do is to honor the memory of the men and women who sacrificed their lives at the Alamo and fought for our independence, but I’m not going to ignore everyone else,” Spiers said. “So, I think there’s much work to be done at the Alamo. It became very politicized, I don’t want it to be political. I want it to be a united point in Texas, but I want it to be clear that we’re honoring Texas history. And we are honoring all of Texas history, but we’re particularly honoring the Battle of the Alamo.”

Former firefighter Ben Armenta from Katy never plans to reimagine the Alamo as anything other than the site where Texas fought for independence. If elected, Armenta will enact an eight-point agenda dedicated to preserving the Alamo.

Some of the points include increasing transparency on Alamo renovation efforts by conducting public forums, making guided tours for Texans free and terminating the General Land Office’s 2018 lease with the city of San Antonio, returning all authority over the Alamo to the office.

“The current commissioner signed a 50-year lease with the city of San Antonio for the city to manage the Alamo Plaza,” Armenta said. “ We’re going to get out of that lease because the Alamo belongs to all Texans. It should be managed by the land office.”

Candidate Weston Martinez, a former Texas real estate commissioner from San Antonio, wants to expand the land commissioner role by taking up border protection along the Rio Grande. Martinez wants Mexico to put more water into the Rio Grande River to aid American farmers — and make the water more challenging to cross.

“By filling the Rio Grande River up, we would stop human trafficking, we would stop the invasion on our southern border exponentially and we would create an amount of commerce that has not been created in generations in Texas,” Martinez said.

In fall of 2021, Bush announced a lease agreement between the General Land Office and United States Customs and Border Protection permitting border control access to “state-owned land for communications and patrolling operations.” It is unclear if the office has jurisdiction to utilize the Rio Grande in an attempt to increase border protection.

Former state District Court Judge Don W. Minton of Galveston would like to focus on disaster recovery if elected. His own family was affected by hurricanes.

“I grew up in Orange County on the Gulf Coast, and my parents lost their home not once, but twice, to hurricanes — once in Hurricane Rita back in 2005 and again with Hurricane Harvey,” Minton said.

Minton disapproves of how the General Land Office handled the delivery of disaster recovery funds to Texans strained by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Stating the office “did a really bad job of getting those funds out to people in Houston, people in Beaumont, people in Orange County,” Minton said he will enact faster relief efforts if elected.

Tim Westley of Selma is a veteran and the historian for the Republican Party of Texas. Westley said the General Land Office shouldn’t be just reacting to natural disasters but preparing people to help impacted Texans better access disaster relief and recovery funds.

“I like to see liaisons set up strategically throughout the great state of Texas,” Westley said. “So whether it’s a hurricane, a fire, a tornado or anything of that nature, we’re going to have liaisons that’s already knowing what the standards are because FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], for example, they’re going to provide standards of what is needed in order to access [relief money], and they’re going to have standards of what’s needed when it comes down to distribution.”

Westley said having liaisons already positioned throughout the state and working to prepare cities can assure funds and assistance are distributed and accessed quicker.

Victor Avila, a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent, and Rufus Lopez are also running for the Republican nomination, but they either did not respond to requests for interviews or could not be reached.

Democrats focus on climate change, school funding

The Democratic nominating contest is also wide open. Sandragrace Martinez, a licensed professional mental health counselor from San Antonio, led her opponents in the Hobby School of Public Affairs poll, with 17% of primary voters saying they would support her.

She did not respond to a request for comment.

Other Democrats in the race are focusing on public education funding and how the agency can mitigate climate change.

The land commissioner also heads the School Land Board, which manages a portfolio that financially supports public schools. In 2018, the School Land Board declined to pass money to the State Board of Education and instead opted to give $600 million directly to schools.

Democratic candidate Jay Kleberg of Austin, director of the nonpartisan civic engagement group Texas Lyceum, disagrees with the School Land Board’s decision. And he wants to remove a cap on how much money the School Land Board can give the SBOE.

The General Land Office is authorized to undertake land leases to develop solar, wind or other renewable energy. Kleberg, the former associate director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, also wants to capture and store carbon emissions beneath acres of state lands. He said doing this will reduce the state’s carbon footprint.

“We can start to reverse again that No.1 ranking as a [carbon dioxide] emitter in the nation by burying that in the ground, by operating more responsibly on General Land Office lands and by diversifying our portfolio into lower emission, cleaner energy production,” Kleberg said.

Candidate Jinny Suh of Austin, founder of Immunize Texas, a statewide pro-vaccine advocacy group, similarly wants to adopt renewable energy sources and maximize protocols for oil and gas companies the General Land Office leases with.

“Things like capping their methane emissions, things like making sure that they take care of cleaning up whatever water that they use in their processes, so that they don’t damage the environment. These are all things that will help reduce our carbon footprint and also help prepare us for the future,” Suh said.

Michael Lange, an investment and operational risk director from Houston, said his background in corporate America will allow him to support students and teachers who need more assistance. Lange acknowledges climate change as a factor for natural disasters happening in Texas. The General Land Office has the authority to administer funds in the event of natural disasters like hurricanes. Lange said the office should also help with relief long after an event, since disasters can displace people for months.

“If you had after the event disaster plan that didn’t last just for six weeks, but it lasted until it was done and included things like working in partnerships along the coast, like to use an area women’s center and say, ‘Look, we have to have these facilities available to help people,’ so the planning is not just the preparatory for the hurricane, but after it finishes, that’s the responsibility of the Texas land commissioner,” Lange said.

Disclosure: The Texas Historical Commission, Texas Lyceum and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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