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A member of a South Texas family that owns one of the largest ranches in the country is seeking the Democratic nomination for Texas land commissioner, the statewide office overseeing the Alamo’s operations and the state’s natural disaster recovery efforts.
The seat will be open during the 2022 election as Republican incumbent George P. Bush runs for attorney general.
Jay Kleberg, an Austin-based conservationist whose family owns the sprawling King Ranch in Kingsville, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune on Wednesday that his campaign will focus on fighting climate change, managing the state’s disaster recovery and improving benefits for veterans.
“It’s the responsibility of the land commissioner to combat climate change and it seems like a bold statement in Texas politics right now, but we’ve gotta follow the science,” Kleberg said.
The Texas General Land Office manages 13 million acres of public lands and mineral rights across the state. As a result, Kleberg said the office has the “ability to diversify its portfolio of renewables” and “lead the state toward a low-emission future.”
Kleberg formerly served as associate director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, the nonprofit partner of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
More recently, he has worked as a producer for the upcoming film “Deep in the Heart,” which the candidate characterized as “a ‘Planet Earth’ for Texas” that will feature Texan actor Matthew McConaughey as the narrator. Kleberg also serves as co-founder of Explore Ranches, a company that specializes in upscale ranch rentals across the state.
Kleberg told the Tribune that his experience of being raised on King Ranch — which now covers more than 800,000 acres of land — taught him the “value of hard work” and “respect for not just the land but for the people, and for people that live off that land.”
“That gave me a real sense of the fact that our individual freedoms don’t negate our responsibilities to each other,” he said.
The state’s land commissioner runs the General Land Office, the agency that also manages the state’s publicly owned land, oversees investments for public education and doles out benefits to Texas veterans.
Bush, who has overseen the state agency since 2015, announced earlier this year he would not seek reelection so he can challenge fellow Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in next year’s primary. During his tenure, Bush has fielded criticism over his office’s handling of the Alamo redevelopment project and disbursing federal relief funds for Hurricane Harvey recovery.
At least four Republicans, including state Sen. Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway — who has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump — and San Antonio activist Weston Martinez, have said they are running to replace Bush. And at least three Democrats have said they are also running for the job.
Lamenting how the General Land Office can be used as a “stepping stone,” Kleberg said Buckingham seems focused on issues that are not directly under the purview of the office, like border security.
If Kleberg is the Democratic nominee, he said, “I think the contrast is that we’re actually gonna be talking about this office and the impact it can have on Texans of all walks of life.”
But the eventual Democratic nominee may face uphill odds. Miguel Suazo, an Austin-based oil and gas attorney who was the Democratic nominee for land commissioner in 2018, lost to Bush by about 10 percentage points.
Kleberg said he is optimistic, pointing to his experience with the responsibilities of the office and saying conservation brings a “lot of people together.” And he suggested his bid would be well-funded, noting he has been able to raise over $100 million for conservation efforts.
This will not be Kleberg’s first bid for public office. In 2010, Kleberg ran as a Republican for the El Paso-area Texas House District 78, which is currently represented by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso. But Kleberg fell short in the three-way GOP primary that year to Dee Margo, who unseated Moody in the November general election.
Kleberg, asked Wednesday about his party switch, said that while he considers himself “a Texan first” he feels “strong about running as a Democrat” and is looking forward to the race.
“Texas deserves a representation that believes in combating climate change and bringing people together — not dividing them,” he said.
Disclosure: Texas General Land Office and Texas Parks And Wildlife Department 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 Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.