Jay Kleberg grew up on a ranch. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Here’s a hint: It’s larger than Rhode Island, maintains its own school district, and markets a signature cattle breed, the dark-red Santa Gertrudis. Stretching across six South Texas counties, the 825,000-acre King Ranch is the stuff of legend. It inspired Edna Ferber’s classic 1952 novel Giant (and its famous film adaptation starring James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor) and is the subject of half a dozen history books. Thanks to one of many lucrative licensing deals, for around $60,000 you can buy a Ford F-150 King Ranch edition pickup truck emblazoned with the ranch’s brand, the Running W.
The ranch was founded in 1852 by steamboat captain Richard King, but its success is widely credited to the family of King’s attorney Robert Justus Kleberg, who married one of King’s daughters, Alice Gertrudis. Their descendants have managed the ranch ever since. Jay is Robert Kleberg’s great-great-great-grandson, and he’s currently running for Texas land commissioner, a position that entails managing the state’s 13 million acres of public land, administering emergency relief funds, and overseeing the Alamo. In addition to his experience on the ranch, where he started working cattle at the age of five, Kleberg is a conservationist, businessman, and documentary filmmaker. Few land commissioner candidates in recent memory can boast a more impressive résumé.
Yet in the March 1 Democratic primary, Kleberg came in second behind a San Antonio clinical therapist named Sandragrace Martinez, who spent less than $2,000 on her campaign and currently has $42 on hand. (Kleberg has raised $860,000—including $100,000 of his own money—with $120,000 on hand.) Because neither won more than 50 percent of the vote, Kleberg and Martinez will square off again in the May 24 runoff election.
One of Kleberg’s campaign aides, Anthony Rojas, recently told me he believes that Martinez won the primary because she was the only one of the four candidates with a “Hispanic last name.” Whether that will be enough for Martinez to defeat Kleberg in a head-to-head contest remains to be seen. But the fact that a political unknown with no relevant experience could win more votes than a well-funded, highly qualified scion of the King Ranch reveals much about the state of Democratic party politics in Texas.
“There were times when people with my last name wouldn’t run because they were not allowed,” Martinez said during a recent phone interview with Texas Monthly. “I’m allowed, I’m here, and I’m going nowhere. If my name resonates, then people need to think deeply about why.”
Being a Kleberg still means something in Texas. But in today’s Democratic Party, it might be even better to be a Martinez.
Kleberg hasn’t spent more than six months living on the King Ranch since he left for boarding school in Virginia when he was fifteen, and he has no role in ranch operations. Like other family members, he’s simply a shareholder in what has become one of the largest privately held corporations in the country—a diversified, multinational conglomerate led by a professional CEO. But the 44-year-old, who now lives in Austin, traces his lifelong interest in conservation to his childhood on the ranch. Over lunch last month at Himalaya Restaurant in Houston, Kleberg told me, “I got to roam around that atmosphere, where you had cowboys and farmers and wildlife biologists all working at the same time.”
He had started the morning at a League of United Latin American Citizens political breakfast, followed by a meeting of a neighborhood Democratic club, where he delivered a three-minute pitch for his campaign. Wearing the standard Texas politician wardrobe of boots, jeans, and blazer, Kleberg picked at his lamb biryani as he discussed growing up on the world’s most famous ranch. “I learned about sustainable ranching, responsible land management,” he told me. “Being around all that open space, you realize that it doesn’t just happen. There has to be a real intention to keep it that way.”
After attending local schools from kindergarten through middle school, Kleberg enrolled in the all-male Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, followed by Williams College in Massachusetts, where he played football and majored in English literature. He thought of becoming a journalist, applying for jobs at Texas Monthly and Wired, but he didn’t have enough experience. The father of one of his friends, a college professor, suggested that if Kleberg really wanted to be a writer he should first do some living. So Kleberg moved to Brazil to work with John and Kika Carter, Texas conservationists who were fighting deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. It was meant to be a six-month trip, but Kleberg ended up staying for three and a half years. (He’s now fluent in both Portuguese and Spanish.)
Kleberg tried to launch a landowner-driven rainforest conservation initiative. He hoped that if he and his colleagues could persuade wealthy Brazilians and foreigners to buy plots of rainforest, they could save the land from timber companies’ clear-cutting. In a sense, Kleberg was trying to replicate the King Ranch’s ecotourism and land management strategies in the middle of the Amazon. It didn’t translate, though. “In Texas, you have a lot of landowners that support conservation-related organizations, research, that kind of stuff,” he said. “But in Brazil there really wasn’t that kind of ethic. On top of that, you have a government that wasn’t enforcing environmental laws.”
Discouraged by his experience in Brazil, Kleberg briefly returned to the King Ranch before moving to El Paso to take a job at a real estate investment trust that had purchased 20,000 acres of land in southern New Mexico. The trust was selling the land to folks who agreed to build low-impact homes on part of the land while keeping the rest undeveloped—another, more successful attempt to enlist private capital in land conservation.
In El Paso, Kleberg met his now wife, a wildlife biologist, and got involved in downtown revitalization, helping found the Chalk the Block arts festival. He also met a certain Beto O’Rourke, who was then running an IT services start-up. As it turned out, O’Rourke had attended the Woodberry Forest School a few years before Kleberg. “We had a lot of similar interests, centered on the outdoors,” said O’Rourke, who is currently running for Texas governor. “We did backpacking trips, fishing trips, hunting trips. We’re both runners, so we would go running together.”
O’Rourke told me that his family has only one political yard sign outside their home in El Paso: Kleberg for Land Commissioner. “Jay has a profoundly deep understanding of the land and water of Texas,” he said. “I’ve seen that firsthand.”
In 2010, Kleberg ran for state representative, as a Republican. At the time, District 78, which encompasses El Paso and the surrounding area, had been represented by Republicans for decades, and Kleberg figured running in the Republican primary was his best shot at getting elected. Although most of his relatives embraced conservative politics, Kleberg considered himself a moderate. He had voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, and says he’s voted in Republican primaries only three times (the last, in 2016, “to vote against Trump and Cruz”). But at the height of the tea party movement, moderation was not a virtue in high demand among GOP primary voters. “One of the first things I told people is that I had voted for Obama,” he recalled. “That did not go over very well.” He lost the primary to Dee Margo, who went on to win the general election. (Two years later, Margo was defeated by Democrat Joe Moody, who has held the seat ever since.)
His political career having failed to get off the ground, Kleberg decided to go back to school, enrolling in the MBA program at UT-Austin’s McCombs School of Business. “I needed a way to build up my expertise on the financial side,” he told me. “There’s a lack of that expertise in the conservation sector, and a lack of the ability to communicate the good work that’s being done.”
Kleberg spent the summer after his first year of business school working at Grand Canyon National Park, where he helped develop a new business plan. At the time, the national park system was increasingly turning to philanthropy and private donations to make up for declining public funding. “After the failures that I saw in Brazil, I realized that the national park system is an example of how to create these public spaces and have them funded,” Kleberg said. “In the United States, there’s the ability to have these kinds of public-private partnerships.”
Upon earning his MBA, Kleberg became associate director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises private money to purchase and preserve public land across the state. During his eight-year tenure, he helped raise more than $100 million for the foundation’s conservation efforts, which included the acquisition of the 17,000-acre Powderhorn Ranch, on Matagorda Bay near Port Lavaca. A portion of the property is now a wildlife management area, while the remainder is being developed into a state park. Kleberg stepped down from the foundation last fall to run for land commissioner. Andrew Sansom, a professor of geography at Texas State University and the former executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, observed that “there are almost no conservation land transactions anymore that do not involve both public dollars and philanthropy.” He added that “Powderhorn is probably the poster child for that.” Sansom first met Kleberg in Brazil, and has followed his career closely. “I don’t want to throw stones at previous land commissioners, but I think what’s exciting about Jay’s candidacy is that we finally have someone who’s really got the background for the job.”
As the Republican party made a sharp right turn under President Donald Trump, Kleberg found himself increasingly aligned with Democrats—especially on climate change and the border wall. In 2018, he helped finance the documentary The River and the Wall, which examines the potential impact of Trump’s border wall on the ecology and people of South Texas. The film follows five friends, including Kleberg, over a two-and-half-month journey—by bicycle, horse, and canoe—along all 1,200 miles of the Texas-Mexico border, from El Paso to Brownsville.
Kleberg took time off from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation to shoot the film, on which he also served as assistant producer. O’Rourke makes a cameo appearance, as does former Republican representative and potential 2024 presidential candidate Will Hurd. In one scene, the group spots a group of migrants crossing the Rio Grande in the middle of the night. After debating what to do, they report the border-crossers—whom Kleberg and the group suspect to be drug smugglers—to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It’s an unsettling scene in a film dedicated to opposing the border wall, and otherwise sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants.
The River and the Wall had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, where it won the award for best Texas film. “I needed somebody to go float the river, hike through the mountains, and ride horses to thoroughly document the border,” said the film’s director, Ben Masters, who first met Kleberg at an event for young land conservation professionals. “He just stopped everything he was doing to participate.” Kleberg also produced a forthcoming Texas nature documentary titled Deep in the Heart, narrated by Matthew McConaughey, which will be released in Texas theaters in June and available on streaming platforms in July.
In 2018, Kleberg cofounded Explore Ranches, a kind of Airbnb for such spreads. The idea is to give vacationers an authentic ranch experience, while providing property owners an extra income stream, incentivizing them to preserve the land. The company embodies Kleberg’s belief that conservation is both good policy and good business. “One of the big challenges in conservation is that there are a lot of dreamers but there aren’t a lot of people with high-level business experience,” Masters told me. “Jay brings the kind of business professionalism to the conservation world that is often lacking.”
For much of Kleberg’s adult life, the position of Texas land commissioner has been held by politicians who use it as a platform to reach for higher office. Current land commissioner George P. Bush is now running for attorney general. His predecessor, Jerry Patterson, served from 2003 to 2015 before stepping down to run (unsuccessfully) for lieutenant governor. Before Patterson, the office was held by David Dewhurst, who actually did become lieutenant governor before launching an ill-fated bid for the U.S. Senate in 2012 against a fellow named Ted Cruz. “Those who have held this office for the last twenty years have seen it as a stepping stone rather than a job,” Kleberg told me. “This is the only job I’m interested in.”
Although Bush compared running for land commissioner to “running for dogcatcher,” it’s an important job. Only around five percent of Texas land is publicly owned, but a portion of that land supports the state’s major public universities through the Permanent University Fund. In 1876, the state set aside land in West Texas to support the University of Texas and Texas A&M. Thanks largely to oil and gas drilling on that property, the PUF has grown to around $32 billion. Kleberg told me that the PUF, which relies almost entirely on revenue from oil and gas leases, should diversify into wind and solar energy in preparation for a low-carbon future.
As chairman of the School Land Board, the commissioner also oversees the $44 billion Permanent School Fund. Like the PUF, the fund is based on state land grants and helps finance K–12 public education. A 2019 Houston Chronicle investigation revealed that the fund has failed to match the growth of peer endowments, missing out on an estimated $12 billion in growth over the past two decades, while paying fund managers more than $1 billion in fees.
In recent years, land commissioner Bush has been in the news for botching the distribution of federal Hurricane Harvey aid. Following the devastating 2017 hurricane, which caused an estimated $125 billion in damage to the Texas Gulf Coast, Congress appropriated $4.3 billion for disaster relief. Governor Abbott put the General Land Office in charge of dispersing the funds, but it took Bush more than three years to begin distributing that money. When the GLO finally announced the first round of recipients last year, Harris County and Houston, which suffered the most economic damage from the storm, received nothing, thanks to a funding formula that favored rural areas and communities with high property values.
Following bipartisan outrage, the GLO backtracked and awarded the county $750 million—still far less than local officials say they need. Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the GLO discriminated against communities of color in originally denying money to Harris County, one of the most diverse (and Democratic-voting) parts of the state. “More than fifty percent of the damage from that storm was in the Houston area, but they set up a formula that negatively impacted higher density areas and minority communities,” Kleberg told me. “No other agency in Texas has done more damage to a community than the General Land Office.”
Kleberg believes the land commissioner should play a more active role in preparing Texas for climate change, and in combatting it. He wants to place more windmills and solar panels on Texas land, and champions the construction of a coastal spine—a.k.a. the Ike Dike—to protect the Houston Ship Channel, the country’s largest concentration of petrochemical complexes. Researchers have projected that a direct hurricane hit could spill more than 37 million gallons of crude oil and other hazardous chemicals into the ship channel. “If you look at the science the state is using [to prepare for natural disasters], it’s based on the weather patterns of the last one hundred years,” Kleberg said. “It’s not reflective of the kind of storms we’re going to see in the future.”
Former land commissioner Jerry Patterson questioned Kleberg’s emphasis on conservation. “He’s credible and likable, and seems to be a pretty good candidate, but he has described the office as the state’s premier environmental agency,” Patterson said. “It’s not. That’s not to say it can’t do environmental things—when I was there, I signed the first offshore wind lease in the country. But the constitutional duty of the office is to make money for the permanent school fund.”
The land commissioner’s highest-profile job is managing the Alamo, a duty that Bush wrested away from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in 2015 after a string of high-profile missteps by that group. Since then, Bush has managed to displease just about everyone with his management of the nearly $400 million Alamo Plaza revitalization effort. Kleberg was vague about his plans for the historical site other than to say that he would work more collaboratively with the community, and that he would seek to commemorate the 1960 civil rights sit-in at the former Woolworth Building in Alamo Plaza. “We should,” he said, “tell a history reflective of the diversity of the state we have today, and those who contributed to that history.”
With Bush running for attorney general, the competition for land commissioner is wide open. The Republican primary has gone to a runoff between state senator Dawn Buckingham—who represents a district that runs from Abilene to Austin and is endorsed by Patterson—and Baptist pastor Tim Westley of San Antonio. Democrats will choose between Kleberg and Martinez, who led the four-candidate primary on March 1 with 32 percent to Kleberg’s 26 percent.
When I asked about his aide’s claim that Martinez won the primary because of her last name, Kleberg disagreed, arguing that her victory came down to lack of voter familiarity with the candidates—something he’s trying to remedy by stumping around the state, campaigning in every major city and a number of midsize ones. “We’re looking for people who believe that we should have qualified people, particularly in this position,” he said. It was the closest Kleberg came to criticizing Martinez. “He’s a terrible politician,” joked Ben Masters, director of The River and the Wall. “He’s horrible about speaking badly about anyone.”
Martinez was less reluctant to impugn her opponent. “Do you want someone who is really utilizing this to launch into other political aspirations,” she asked, “or do you want someone sitting there who has had the same experience as you, someone that may have had a distress or two in life?” When I asked how her career as a clinical therapist had prepared her to be land commissioner, Martinez cited the importance of mental health in disaster relief efforts. “In the case of Harvey, there was a lot of distress,” she said. “That hasn’t been addressed.”
Curiously for a Democratic candidate, Martinez also lavished praise on the Republican incumbent. “George P. Bush actually broke the barriers of what the GLO can do,” she told me. “He took it up a whole ’nother level. He interacted with children. He participated in lesson plans. He did a lot more that not many people know a commissioner can do.” She also credited Bush with “promoting the GLO on YouTube.” (When I asked about Bush’s role in distributing Harvey relief funds, Martinez conceded that Bush “mishandled that.”)
Kleberg knows that history is against him, even if he prevails in the runoff. No Democrat has been elected to a statewide position in Texas since 1994. To regain power, he said the party must win back trust among voters across the political spectrum and in every part of the state, rather than just in the cities. “I think people are looking for a different vision of Texas, one in which we have leaders who are qualified and dedicated to the jobs that they’ve been elected to. People are looking for alternatives.” On May 24, Democratic voters will decide whether the alternative should be Kleberg.