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 give you today”—you have a duty to do something with that. You don’t just go back home and say, “Okay, I’m going to farm my garden and milk my goats.”
So, we’ve done this nonprofit [We Texans, “a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that fights to protect liberty, integrity, and justice through legislation and education”], and I continued to look for [the answer to the question] “How do I continue to use those assets that I have, both the tangible and the intangible ones, to advance these ideas?” I was in the Capitol the day the redistricting maps came out of the Eighty-second Legislature, and there were people shouting across the extension, “Did you see that map?”—because I was sitting right in the middle of a new House seat—“That’s drawn for you!” And I’m thinking, “It may be an open seat, but is that really the best avenue? I mean, if I just want a crown and a title and an office, maybe that’s an easy win, right? 2012, an open seat, just came off of a seventeen-point statewide campaign, got some money left. You can go do that.” But it didn’t seem to me to be the place where I could best move these ideas.
Along that continuum, Susan [Combs] began to talk about looking at lieutenant governor, and I said, “Oh, my God. Is there anybody who loves fiscal policy and the appropriate use of the money that the government takes more than I do?” I began to have some conversations about it. I began to talk to members of the Legislature and activists around the state. Would it be helpful to have someone who thinks like I do sitting in that office?
Quite frankly, there are still a lot of people who say, “I still want you for my governor.” You can see that on my Facebook page; they’re still in that kind of mindset. I think [former Austin American-Statesman reporter] Jason Embry reported in March 2012 that I was looking at this office. It was green lights at every intersection along the way, and so, here I am.
EG: What are the key policy changes you would want to prioritize as comptroller?
DM: This is an important office, and yet we see in Texas that upward of 70 percent of people don’t know anything about the office or don’t care about the office. There’s the need for someone who is fair in the administration of tax policy. We don’t want someone who thinks that the job of the comptroller is to collect as much revenue as they can rather than just what’s owed to the state. So we’re going to be talking about that fairness; we’re going to be talking about accountability, and consistency in the administration of the law. We want to look at what the comptroller has been doing and ask why there’s been a refusal to set clear policy so that taxpayers understand what the rules are, how the rules will be applied, and to have them applied consistently.
I’ve talked a lot about the idea that the tax structure we have in Texas today is broken. We can argue about whether or not it’s worked well in 1860 Texas or in 1960 Texas; it might have. But it is not working well today, and there’s a lot of objective data to support that premise. So I believe that the agency has a strong role to play in having an opinion about tax policy and articulating that to the public, but also in articulating that to the Legislature. When the members ask, “What’s the effect of this policy?” we have to do more as an agency than say, “Well, it brings in this much revenue, or it costs us this much.” We’ve got to talk about the broader context: What results does that change have? Does it give us greater free-market economies? Or does it further move us to being a government that is picking winners and losers? Of all the offices of state government, I think voters need to understand that the comptroller is the one you need to make sure isn’t playing favorites. The comptroller must take the law that’s on the books and make sure that it’s fairly and consistently applied.
EG: The thing that’s really struck me about the comptroller’s office in the past few cycles is how wildly the projections about state revenue have varied. It’s partly a structural issue; given the biennial Legislature, the comptroller has to give projections about what revenues will look like over the next two-year cycle. How would you deal with that?
DM: You know the comptroller, I think rightfully, is given credit for some of the transparency efforts that have been initiated under her reign. But there’s got to be a clearer explanation of what’s really happening with the fiscal condition of the state. It’s there—a lot of the information’s there if you know where to dig and find it. On the website now [the comptroller’s website, that is; see here] you can see how the revenue is coming in quarter over quarter, and what it looks like this month compared with this time last year. But if you’re John Q. Public, what does that mean? The fact that we got $2 billion in November 2014 and we have $1.7 billion in November 2013—is that on target? Finding the information to put that in perspective is often what’s missing.
[Medina picks up her water bottle.] This is a 23.7-ounce bottle of water. Well, that’s great, but how much water do I need each day to stay alive? And if we don’t understand how much we need, how can we compare that to what is budgeted? That’s not all there; it’s not simple. You know, I’ve been in corporate health care. I don’t go into a committee or a board with all of the weeds. I go in and say, “We treated this number of patients; we had this number of catastrophes; we had this number of really good outcomes; and here’s what we’re doing to make it better,” in a nice summary format. I think the agency, while it makes a lot of data available, doesn’t make it available in a very usable way.
EG: Transparency isn’t quite the same thing as information or knowledge.
DM: Right! How do I do anything about it for legislators, who—bless their heart, for as much as they want to serve their constituencies—come from all different areas of life. So you’ve got the farmer and the accountant and the oil-and-gas person and the pest control agent; who has ever done multibillion-dollar budgets before? If the comptroller’s office isn’t bringing that kind of teaching, mentoring, and advocating perspective to that discourse, it’s no wonder we get the kind of convoluted policy that we do. We all think that this is where we’re going in Texas: we’re red, we’re conservative, we’re for limited government, we’re for fiscal responsibility.
But no one ever put tax policy in terms of this continuum: does it move us toward that thing that we say we’re headed toward, or does it take us in the opposite direction? I think so often it’s more of those corporate, slushy, incentive, government-picking-winners-and-losers kind of policies, and the Legislature goes ahead and votes on it and finds out after the fact. So I think the agency’s got a real opportunity—and not just an opportunity, a duty—to deliver that sort of dialogue to the process.
EG: What was your impression of the debate this year over the budget—the idea that some people on the right believed that Texas was going on a “spending spree”?
DM: It was, on the one hand, comparing spending biennium over biennium, versus comparing spending session to session, and what are we actually appropriating or spending? I don’t think we could ever have had that discussion had the comptroller done what she should have done in the 2011 session, which is not certify the budget. [Editor’s Note: Per the Texas Constitution, the comptroller is charged with certifying that the budget passed by the legislature fits within the revenue projections for the forthcoming biennium; if not, the legislature is supposed to make more cuts. For more explanation, see the Texas Politics Project.] You can’t have a requirement to have a balanced budget and certify one that’s not balanced, knowing full well that what’s going to happen in 2013 is that these guys are going to come in and backfill it.
EG: I covered it at the time. Everyone knew they were going to backfill it.
DM: “We’re going to backfill this, and if we don’t, we’ve got a Rainy Day Fund.” There was no question we were going to backfill it, and so it’s misleading to look at it from a session-to-session perspective. The issue really is that the comptroller has a job to certify the budget. We need to make sure that you can trust the person in that office to do that. When they say it is balanced, it is indeed balanced.
And then you’ve got the accountability of that office to make sure that those things that are constitutionally prescribed are in that budget, and we didn’t see that out of the Eighty-second Legislature. So I really have faulted the comptroller in that regard. I think there are a lot of issues with trust. Can we trust the biennial revenue estimate? Can we believe what you tell us the revenue is going to be? Can we believe it when you say the budget is balanced? Because it wasn’t balanced, but you certified it anyway in the Eighty-second.
So you’ve got to have someone in there that you know you can trust, whether it’s good news or bad news. You can’t expect the comptroller to have a crystal ball and nail the revenue every time, but you can certainly expect more information coming out of that office so the public has something to validate their own observations of what they think the economy is doing. Is it slowing down? Is it speeding up? Do I go ahead and start that major capital improvement project that we had on the books for next quarter? Or are things slowing down and I’m not feeling it yet, but this other industry is feeling it and maybe I need to wake up?
If you had more of that dynamic information and perspective coming out of the agency, I think it makes it easier for government to do the job that it’s going to do, but it also makes it easier to provide that business-friendly environment for companies to invest the resources that they would like to in Texas.
EG: I think that’s well said and diplomatic too. I’ve been much less diplomatic about the comptroller than you have. Her revenue projections have been pretty off the mark, and if you look at this year’s Biennial Revenue Estimate, it seems like she’s downplaying her role in that. She notes the $8.8 billion surplus, for example, but the reason we have that surplus is partly because the Lege cut the budget so drastically in 2011, in response to the grim projection.
DM: But again, why is that a surprise? Why do we find out about an $8 billion surplus [at the beginning of the 2013 session]? I mean, maybe there were people who were watching the books, and they knew that that was there, right? But the public didn’t know. Why wasn’t it acknowledged?
EG: Right. I don’t understand what the harm would have been politically, or psychologically, to the state, if the comptroller had said halfway through the biennium, “Look, we’re going to have more than we thought.”
DM: A special session, maybe? To go in and fix the problem? God knows we’ve called ’em for less!
EG: In 1961 about half the states had biennial legislatures. Now Texas is one of only four that don’t.
DM: [Nodding.] Just because you have a dynamic process, and you have an agency that’s providing trustworthy data, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have to have a special session to deal with that [i.e., to true up the budget midway through the biennium], but certainly it’s a better process for government and for business to be dealing with the reality of what is. “Not what we predicted it was going to be two years ago, or two and a half years ago, but that was what we thought then, this is how we budgeted, and here’s the reality, month to month to month, quarter to quarter, of how well we’re hitting those targets. And we’ll figure out whether that means Legislative Budget Board [LBB] needs to make some adjustments, and can.” Or whether it means, “Governor, we need a special session to deal with this.” Or whether the leaders of the state decide that it’s something that can wait until the Legislature reconvenes, two-thirds of the way or three-quarters of the way through the next biennium.
EG: Have you had a chance to ask General Abbott or Senator Davis about whether they would be willing to call a special session for the budget, in such cases, where the revenue streams look a lot different than initially projected?
DM: I have not.
EG: I’ve heard legislators in both parties say that it wouldn’t be unreasonable.
DM: And surely that is really dependent on how much of a variance we see. There’s certainly some opportunity for agencies to be flexible with what’s been appropriated to them, and also for the LBB to have some authority in that regard.
EG: These fluctuations have also created a sort of trust problem between the parties; even this session Democrats were suspicious of Republicans, because they felt like the cuts in the Eighty-second Legislature had been politically convenient.
DM: I think there’s a public perception that accounting gimmicks are being used when presenting the fiscal condition of the state, whether it’s going to New York and getting the tax anticipation notes that we need to get us through the initial cash flow crunch that we have at the beginning of every biennium, or whether it’s the session-over-session spending. People perceive that the process is complex—and crooked.
EG: It sounds like clearing some of that up would be a key priority for your campaign?
DM: Simple. Accurate. Consistent. [Laughs.] And then you’ve got to have that comptroller advocating for fair policy.