Dawn Buckingham and Jay Kleberg vie for open land commissioner seat overseeing the Alamo and disaster relief funds

Republican Dawn Buckingham and Democrat Jay Kleberg are running for the open Texas land commissioner seat. (The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune)

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As the Nov. 8 midterm election nears, most eyes across Texas are on high-profile races such as those for governor, attorney general and the Legislature. But Texas voters will also choose a new land commissioner in the race between state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, and Democratic conservationist Jay Kleberg.

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The land commissioner heads the Texas General Land Office, the oldest public agency in the state. It manages public land across the state and plays a role in preserving some of its wildlife. The GLO also helps fund public schools in Texas by contributing to and handling the Texas Permanent School Fund, a statewide education endowment worth more than $48 billion, making it the largest in the country.

The office is responsible for managing and distributing natural disaster relief funding, including billions of dollars Congress appropriated after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and has managed the Alamo since 2011. The land commissioner also chairs the Veterans Land Board, which oversees nine veterans’ homes and four veterans’ cemeteries.

While no Texas Democrat has won statewide office since 1994, Kleberg had nearly 1.5 times as much campaign cash on hand than Buckingham at the end of September, according to the latest campaign finance reports filed Tuesday. He had more than $860,000 in his campaign coffers, compared to her $600,000.

But Kleberg admits he’s facing an uphill battle in a state where Republicans control all statewide offices and both legislative chambers. In the primary runoff election in May, around 115,000 more people voted for Buckingham than voted in the Democratic runoff altogether. Kleberg has spent much of his campaign in deep red parts of the state, trying to sway traditional GOP voters to support him based on a litany of issues.

“I think that what we’re trying to do is get back to a place where Texans elect people based on their experience and their qualifications and their being fit for service,” he said Thursday.

Buckingham’s campaign did not respond to several requests for comment for this story. The Lakeway Republican has been in the Texas Senate since 2017. She has worked as an eye surgeon specializing in oculoplastics and was endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

Kleberg is the former associate director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the stewardship and conservation of Texas’ environment and wildlife. His family owns the 825,000-acre King Ranch in Kingsville and other parts of Kleberg County.

Incumbent land commissioner George P. Bush did not seek reelection. Instead, he ran for the Republican nomination for attorney general, losing to embattled incumbent Ken Paxton.

After winning the Democratic nomination in May, Kleberg and his team planned a dance hall campaign tour so he could talk with everyday people to hear their concerns for the General Land Office. In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Kleberg said he planned the 10-stop tour as “something that’s very Texan” and as “apolitical” as possible to reach Texans all across the state and on both sides of the aisle.

“The idea is to get into some communities and get into some areas and talk to people,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “In Amarillo, 99% of that crowd was Republican.”

Kleberg criticized Buckingham for refusing to publicly debate him. While Buckingham and her campaign could not be reached for comment, her social media indicates that she’s currently traveling across the state on her “Guns to Gowns” campaign tour.

Despite their differences, Kleberg and Buckingham have campaign plans that overlap on some issues. Both candidates say they want to protect and expand the Permanent School Fund and make sure Texas children receive the best possible public education they can get. Both candidates publicly champion supporting and uplifting Texas’ large population of veterans on their websites, although Buckingham was criticized in 2016 for her ties to National American University, a for-profit institution that a veterans’ group criticized as predatory.

Kleberg’s campaign has focused on protecting Texas wildlife and land, especially places most susceptible to natural disasters or the effects of climate change, like the coast.

“You’ve got 25% of the population in Texas — you’ve got 25% of the economy — along the Texas coast, and you’ve got an $800 billion economic engine in the port of Houston,” he said Thursday. “It’s our fiduciary responsibility as a land commissioner to invest in coastal protection and conservation along the Texas coast.”

Under Bush, the land office last year awarded $1 billion of federal aid appropriated after Hurricane Harvey but gave none of it to the city of Houston, which experienced devastating flooding after the 2017 storm. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development accused Bush’s office of discriminating against Black and Latino Texans.

A Tribune analysis of the spending plan for the next $1.2 billion in allocations found that the land office is on track to once again send a disproportionately high share of money to inland counties with lower risk of natural disasters.

“I would have made sure that 50% of the disaster recovery and 50% at least, floor, of the mitigation funding went to the Harris County region,” Kleberg said.

While Buckingham could not be reached for questions, the first campaign plan listed on her website is to “fight Biden’s inflation and lower costs for Texas families.”

“As a physician and business owner, I understand how the failed Biden economy is hurting Texans,” Buckingham’s website reads. “As your next Land Commissioner, I’ll continue fighting for you.”

She does not include details on her plans to reduce inflation across Texas, which does not generally fall under the GLO’s purview.

The management of the Alamo has been the responsibility of the GLO since 2011 when it started shifting the duty away from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, an organization that took care of the historical site for 120 years since 1891.

Bush faced criticism for his involvement in the GLO’s Alamo renovation and redevelopment project, especially his defense of moving the Cenotaph, a 1930s monument that commemorates those who died in the 1836 battle for which the Alamo is known.

Conservative groups argued that moving the monument, also known as The Spirit of Sacrifice, would dilute its significance, although the planners behind the idea said it would help the site more closely resemble how it originally looked.

Bush also experienced scrutiny for insisting that the site of the Alamo focus on representing the battle of 1836. Some have suggested the Alamo should be updated to represent its wider historical importance, including the role of slavery in the Texas Revolution and the Alamo’s previous role as a Native American burial ground.

Currently, the project aims to preserve the Alamo Mission itself along with the Long Barrack, the Alamo’s oldest structure that once housed Spanish missionaries, and to expand the site by constructing a museum and visitor center for tourists who wish to learn about the history of the Alamo.

Kleberg supports the renovations for the Alamo Mission that the San Antonio community has envisioned.

“They have a plan that includes an archives, that includes an area for schoolchildren to actually sit in the shade,” he said. “They’ve got a new museum. They have a new archives. I think there are a number of stories to be told, and I think that the community has really rallied around that.”

He also voiced support for updates to the scope of the history that the site of the Alamo represents, which have been the source of controversy in recent years.

“I think that there’s a tremendous amount of history there that goes back thousands of years, and then there’s modern history there as well that should be told, and the plan is to tell it,” he said. “My position is that I’m in line with what the community is putting together, and I think that should be the role of the land commissioner, to be a partner. Period.”

Buckingham does not mention the Alamo or her plans for its management on her website.

Disclosure: Texas General Land Office has been a financial supporter 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.