Four years ago, things were easy for George P. Bush, son of Jeb and next in line for the Bush political dynasty. Endorsed by retiring incumbent Jerry Patterson and backed Texas' Republican establishment, the then 38-year-old Bush cruised to his first elected office, becoming Texas land commissioner.
In 2018, as he seeks re-election, things are proving much more difficult for Bush, thanks to a series of controversies and a political climate that appears to be less friendly to Republicans. Dissatisfied with his successor, Patterson has come back to challenge Bush in the Republican primary, threatening him with a time-consuming and expensive runoff.
On the other side of the ballot, Democrats have gathered behind Miguel Suazo, an Austin attorney with experience in natural resource negotiation and a big lead in Democratic primary polls. Last week, the Observer sat down with Suazo to talk about what he'd bring to an office many Texans know little about, his incentives for running and what Texas can do to be better prepared for its next natural disaster.
"If you care about schools and teachers and how they're funded, you should care about the land office because the land office raises revenue for schools and teachers," Suazo says. "Second reason is the land office is charged with helping us recover from storms like Harvey and, in my mind, more importantly, prepare for the next storms that are coming our way."
The General Land Office oversees the use and sale of Texas' public lands. When state land is sold, proceeds go into the state's Permanent School Fund. The land office also oversees the Alamo historic site in San Antonio and is responsible for coordinating aid distribution after natural disasters. Suazo says his legal experience, in which he's frequently dealt with federal agencies, real estate and energy concerns, is proof that he's better equipped to run the land office than anyone else seeking election.
"If this was a job application, my resume would've dovetailed with the job requirements very nicely," Suazo says. "I got fed up with what I saw and decided I could weaponize my skill set and my experiences to run for this office."
Instead of reacting to natural disasters, Suazo says, he would lean on local jurisdictions to deal with flood problems and help them partner with the federal agencies.
"What the land commissioner can do is speak out using the reach of the office to call attention to those issues on a statewide level in a way that resonates with people that are in a position to do something about flood control, like the Corps of Engineers," Suazo says. "If I'm elected to this office ... I can create some political urgency among elected officials at all levels and educate the public about the need to address these issues beforehand."
When the state is forced to respond to natural disasters for which it and its cities aren't prepared, Texas residents are left waiting weeks and months for relief.
"The thing that I've learned [traveling around Texas during the primary] is how much need there is out there and how badly the land office has bungled the response to Harvey. People are emailing all the time or posting messages on Facebook. They're still waiting; they still haven't got the assistance that they need."
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In addressing criticism from Suazo, Patterson and others about his office's response to Harvey, Bush has blamed the sheer size of the storm for his office's lengthy response.
“We’ve delivered assets quicker, at least in Texas, faster than any other natural disaster,” Bush told Houston Public Media earlier this month. “But the magnitude of the storm will be the real challenge in the sense that some estimates put this at a $120 billion storm, affecting 1.2 million households. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve housed thousands of people through our direct repair program, through manufactured home travel trailers.”
Suazo is running for land commissioner, he says, because he believes he can do a better job running the office than Bush has over the last four years. It's a significant side benefit, however, that he can end any aspirations Bush might have to higher office.
"I've said on the trail: This is a chance to end a political dynasty," Suazo says. "We've got to stop it now. If we don't, the next phase of that dynasty could start unnecessary wars and cause unnecessary deficits. Yeah, it's a motivation."