In 2010 Debra Medina, a nurse and the chair of the Wharton County Republican Party, startled the Texas Republican establishment by winning almost nineteen percent of the vote in that year’s gubernatorial primary. It wasn’t enough to win, obviously, but it served notice, especially given that Medina was running against incumbent governor Rick Perry, already the longest-serving governor in Texas history at that point, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. And it was, perhaps, a harbinger of things to come. By 2014, a number of Republican statewide candidates would be trying to position themselves as outsiders.
But Medina, who announced a bid for comptroller earlier this year to replace Susan Combs, is the only Republican running statewide who ran against the establishment before Ted Cruz scored a historic upset against Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in 2012. In March she’ll face state senator Glenn Hegar, state representative Harvey Hilderbran, and former state representative Raul Torres in the primary. One poll found her leading the field, although it also found that a large majority of Texans aren’t paying attention to the race. When I sat down with her in Austin on December 7, she told me that she would spend the next few months crisscrossing Texas, mostly by car. “I drive as much as I can drive,” she said. “I don’t like the rigidity of airports.” None of her supporters would be surprised by that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Erica Grieder: Let’s start with your first campaign for statewide office. Why did you decide to run for governor in 2010 in the first place?
Debra Medina: That campaign came completely from a phone call out of the blue. I’d never thought about running for that office. I had thought one day I might run for Congress, but that was kind of a “maybe some day I’ll do that!” I got a phone call one day from a woman I’d known for about fifteen years who was concerned about Kay and Rick as the options, and she said she’d been talking to a number of groups. I said, “Well, I share your concern. Why are you calling me?” [ Laughs.]
And she said, “Well, we’ve been talking to these groups, and nobody can really agree on any one person we’d like to see running against those two—unless we put your name in the mix. There’s a lot of agreement that, yeah, people could be supportive of a Debra Medina candidacy.”
EG: That’s a nice vote of confidence. Were these libertarian groups?
DM: [ Laughs.] You know, in politics, there are people that call and say, “We’ve been talking to people.” You learn to say, “Well, who were those people?” But at that point, I didn’t ask for names. You know, I’m a rural county chairman from Wharton, and while I have some name ID across the state, it is in a very limited segment of the Republican party. Initially that very first phone call was such an out-of-left field thing for me that I said no. But she continued to press, and I guess that circulated around the group. That was November to February, I guess. It was about three months before I said, “Okay, I’ll do this race.”
EG: What were the qualms about Senator Hutchison and Governor Perry?
DM: For me personally, I had gone from being a grassroots activist to vice-chair of my local party to chair of my local party to someone who was actively engaging in my entire Senate district, while being told by the party, “We need to grow the party; we need a majority in the Texas House so we can get the reforms that we need, so that we can get the fiscal accountability that we need.” We got those things, and we continued to see government growing and growing and growing. At the time I came into the Republican party, as a young adult, it was, “the Republicans need to address public education funding.” Well, here we are twenty years later, and we’re still really not any further along on that issue. There were a lot of undelivered promises and broken promises. And you saw the race: I got in and began to talk about the things that needed to be changed. It resonated with a lot of people in Texas.
EG: It certainly did. You pulled almost nineteen percent of the vote in the primary against two statewide elected officials. Were you surprised by that?
DM: I’m always surprised by good things. [ Laughs.] I know the right thing to do, and I see my job as to do that right thing, and if people come along beside me and say, “We’re so grateful that you did that right thing,” that’s icing on the cake, but it’s never been the thing that caused me to do what I thought was right. I have kind of an inner sense of what right and wrong is, and that’s what I have to answer to. And so it was very rewarding to see that the things you care so passionately about are shared by other people.
EG: So, fast-forward to 2014. Tell me about this race and why you decided to look at the comptroller’s office.
DM: This campaign’s really different, because the last campaign was me not thinking about it and people asking me to run. To me public policy has always been about what can I do with what I have, with the assets that I have—and in politics a lot of those assets are intangible, right? What are they? They’re 275,000 people in Texas who said, “We agree with what she’s saying and we’d like to see her ideas implemented.” So you get through a governor’s race, you work your butt off for that, you take money from a lot of people who are walking up to you with tears rolling down their faces, saying, “I wish I could help you more, but two dollars is all I can