With his sunburnt complexion and signature white cowboy hat that’s seemingly glued to his head, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller looks less like a government bureaucrat than he does a rootin’ tootin’ rodeo champion.
Turns out, he’s both. Thanks in large part to his savvy marketing of himself as a cowboy conservative freedom fighter and Donald Trump cheerleader, the calf-roper and Republican state representative from Stephenville has become the most visible agriculture commissioner in decades.
Miller’s communications director Mark Loeffler told the Houston Press his boss wouldn’t be available for an interview for this story, citing a packed schedule that had the commissioner travelling across the state as well as some less than laudatory coverage of Miller from the Press a few years back.
Since first getting elected to the top spot in the state Department of Agriculture back in 2014, Miller has taken every opportunity to insert himself into the limelight. He’s used the department’s consumer protection mandate as an excuse to plaster his name all over Texan gas pumps with stickers to remind folks that his office regulated them. Miller’s also picked fights with barbecue joints over where they should place the scales used to determine how much to charge customers for food sold by pound, even though past commissioners never took that on.
Those crusades frustrated the Republican-led state Legislature, which eventually passed legislation stripping gas pump regulation away from Miller’s office and exempting barbecue restaurants from the agriculture department’s retail scale inspection mandate.
Miller also made headlines in 2016 for using state money to pay for trips to Mississippi (Miller said he was taking official meetings but also managed to squeeze in a rodeo competition) and to Oklahoma to get a wacko treatment called the “Jesus Shot” popular within the cowboy set for allegedly curing chronic pain for the rest of your life. He eventually paid the state back, but it was still a bad look.
Miller loves playing the part of the fearless consumer rights advocate and cowboy hero, but he clearly gets the most kicks out of the role he’s carved out as a vocal conservative firebrand.
A few weeks before the November election, Miller co-headlined a right-wing protest in Austin along with Republican Party of Texas chair and fellow far-right rabble rouser Allen West. The location? Outside of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Austin mansion. The goal? To lambast the top incumbent Republican elected official in the state for his allegedly freedom-depriving coronavirus restrictions.
If you think it’s odd that the official serving in a relatively meat and potatoes (pun intended) position of dry regulatory oversight is also a bombastic right-wing agitator always looking to get himself in front of a camera, you’re not alone.
“Miller is basically a regulatory administrator in the body of a bomb-throwing Republican,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus, noting that a big part of Miller’s high-profile was his choice to hitch his wagon to Trump before many Texan politicians did.
Ol’ Sid bought his ticket for the Trump Train early and quickly became one of then-candidate Trump’s most visible campaign surrogates during the 2016 race, back before most political observers took the former reality show host seriously. Four years later, even though Trump lost his reelection bid to President-elect Biden by a pretty significant margin last month, you wouldn’t know if from Miller’s campaign email list.
“I just spoke with the President,” Miller wrote in the subject line of a post-election email blast on November 7. Miller told his fans “I just got off a conference call with the President’s team,” and breathlessly recounted how “They made clear the size and scale of the fraud taking place.”
A week later, Miller was still loudly and proudly questioning the integrity of the election that sent his buddy packing from the White House. With the oh-so subtle subject line “Vote Fraud is REAL and WIDESPREAD!” Miller launched another broadside against the November election. “Every day new evidence comes to light that the fix was in!” Miller wrote, right after begging his supporters to throw some cash toward Trump’s “Election Defense Fund” through which the president has bankrolled his laughable fraud lawsuits, none of which have uncovered any sort of fraud.
Miller has built up a sizable social media following (he prompts subscribers to his email list to make sure and follow him on Facebook). He has over 864,000 followers on Facebook, where he routinely gets hundreds of likes and reactions on posts about red-meat Conservative policy issues like stopping abortion, and provides a constant stream of memes about fighting off Democrats, who he contends are all socialists trying to destroy the Texan way of life.
“It’s interesting to see how Miller has transitioned from the office being more strictly about administering the agriculture policy to being one where it’s a launching pad for partisan politics. It traditionally hasn’t been,” Rottinghaus said.
The last agriculture commissioner who drew anything close to the level of attention Miller has was Jim Hightower back in the 80s — the last Democrat to hold the office — who used the job as a springboard into becoming a national spokesperson for the Democratic Party. Since Hightower was unseated by Republican-convert and future governor Rick Perry in 1990, the state agriculture department was predictably boring until Miller showed up.
Other than those few public dustups over gas pumps, barbecue scales and the state-funded trips, Miller’s done a pretty good job of getting the boring parts of his job right, Rottinghaus said, who referenced his success in promoting the Texan agriculture industry and serving as a hype man for Texan-made products.
That’s likely been enough to convince the less rabidly conservative but still Republican Texans that Miller is a fine choice to continue in his role even if they might chafe at his overly bombastic public persona and unforced errors like the out-of-state trips controversies. And for the right-wing diehards, Miller’s role as a happy culture warrior signals to voters that he’s one of them and worth supporting, even though his office doesn’t have anything to do with most of the issues he spouts off about on Facebook.
Miller’s success is a symptom of the nationalization of local and state politics, Rottinghaus said — if politicians like Miller can successfully excite their bases by proving in the public arena that they’re valiant partisan warriors for their parties’ overall national policy platforms, that often carries more weight with a lot of voters these days than the nitty gritty details of how they perform their actual jobs.
“In a world where partisanship sells, Miller is the chief architect and salesman of that,” Rottinghaus said.
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