When Kim Olson, a third-generation farmer and retired U.S. Air Force colonel, announced her candidacy against current Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, she took the Texas roads with the goal — much like fellow Democrat Beto O’Rourke — of visiting every county in Texas.
She also knew it would be an uphill climb — her party hasn’t won a statewide race since 1994. It has been hinted that some have Miller’s social media antics and what they feel are ethics violations, and point to the paucity of endorsements for Miller as evidence of that.
The state agriculture commissioner oversees school lunch programs, trade and market development for commodities like cattle, and regulates fuel pumps, among other things. We had a quick chat with Olson a few weeks ago about what she has learned while campaigning. Answers have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
CandysDirt: You’ve committed to making an effort to visit every county in the state. What have you learned?
Olson: “Oh mercy. The big takeaway — people want reasonable people in office. We’re more alike than we are different. I’ve gone to places where no Democrat has gone before because I feel that part of representing people is listening, and representing them in Austin.
What they need in East Texas is different than what they need in the panhandle. People will talk to you and listen to you no matter, if you are listening.
And I’m doing a job interview, versus political ideology. People appreciate that. They appreciate when you come to them.
Position papers were written based on what we heard in the field, that anyone can look at on our website. People are worrying about resources, about broadband internet access. Agriculture is the biggest user of water, too.
And part of my job is also educating the urban family about how agriculture touches their daily lives. And that’s been incredible — helping people see how powerful they are as consumers. If you don’t want certain things in your food, you demand it, or you don’t spend your money with those companies. You shouldn’t subsidize your own illnesses.
But the greatest equalizer is your vote.”
CD: You touched on this, but how does the agriculture commissioner impact an urban location like Dallas-Fort Worth?
Olson: “In a lot of ways — a lot having to do with consumer protection, too. And we check the balls used in the lottery — who knew? And of course, we oversee the gas pumps.
We also help feed three million students free and reduced lunch, including urban districts.
And there are things we can help address in cities, too. We need to address the food deserts. How do you get food into existing systems? Children today also have an incredible risk of developing Type 2 diabetes — and we can do more about helping to combat that by making sure all kids have access to healthy food.
And many people who live in urban settings have family that live in rural settings. One of the things I hear a lot about is access to broadband Internet in rural areas.
But really, we’re all connected. People move out of cities because they can’t afford to live there, for instance. And one of the categories the ag commission oversees is hospitals with 45 beds or less — which is an important thing to many rural communities, and to retirees who may leave cities for rural settings. Nineteen rural hospitals have shut down. We could be bringing telemedicine and other solutions to those areas.”
CD: Polling throughout election season has sometimes indicated that enthusiasm for the Democratic candidates nationally — that Big Blue Wave — was waning. How do you see candidates such as yourself keeping everyone energized clear up to Election Day? What do you think accounts for it?
Olson: “I don’t see our support waning — it’s more a slow upward trajectory. We’ve been at it longer. My opponent isn’t even really campaigning. I’m not too concerned about it. Mike Collier and I have been at this for more than 20 months. Beto has been at it for more than 20 months.
We’re running for something, not against something.”
CD: You were human resources chief at Dallas ISD and a school board member in Weatherford. While school finance doesn’t fall under the ag commissioner’s duties, I am interested in hearing what you think about the job the state has done in funding public education. Thoughts?
Olson: “I think the answer to that is in, how are the homeowners feeling about that? The state has shifted the burden to local people, and it’s a burden all on property owners. The state has abrogated its responsibility to educate our children. We need to update the school funding formulas.
And I think most Texans feel that need. Feeding kids isn’t a red or blue issue, its a red, white, and blue issue. Same thing with school finance. Pay the teachers. Help Texas be successful in that regard. We should educate everyone.”
CD: The other day, I had someone say that they felt the state ran the best when one party had the majority in the state legislature, and the other party had control of the executive branch. Would you agree with that assessment?
Olson: “I think we always do better when people feel like they’re being represented. And we do need to work together — we do better with different voices around the table.”