AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Border security never mattered much to the Texas Department of Agriculture, even when Gov. Rick Perry was commissioner. Then Todd Staples took over.
Now after years of hitching drug cartel threats to a job better known for keeping grocery scales honest, Staples is running for lieutenant governor. But to hear the Republican talk about the ease of illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a path to victory for Staples may be harder by comparison.
No statewide contest heading into the March primaries is more competitive — and crowded with big names — than the lieutenant governor's race. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wants a fourth term while Staples, state Sen. Dan Patrick and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson want to move up after years of pent-up ambition.
They're four ideologically indistinguishable conservatives, none of whom want to be left behind when Perry's departure in 2015 sets off the biggest reshuffling of Texas' power structure in more than a decade.
Border security is one of Staples' ways of sticking out, in hopes that he'll stick around. He says the issue hasn't gone away.
"Hasn't died down to landowners who are getting chased off their property," Staples said in an interview with The Associated Press.
If Staples can win the No. 2 job in the post-Perry era, he'll continue mimicking Perry's footsteps.
Both Perry and Staples grew up in rural towns and joined Future Farmers of America as teenagers. Both attended Texas A&M University. When they arrived in Austin they both spent six years as lawmakers — Perry in the House, Staples in the Senate — before winning the job of agriculture commissioner and serving two terms.
Perry's next stop was lieutenant governor in 1998 — but times and politics have changed. Perry ran unopposed in the primary that year before clinching a narrow victory over his Democratic opponent.
Staples would likely face an easier path in the general election given that Texas is more fiercely Republican today, but he must survive a bruising primary first.
Staples, 50, said as lieutenant governor he would pursue efficiency audits at state agencies and eliminate the state's margins tax for businesses. He's also for eliminating lucrative taxpayer-funded grants to private companies that Perry has made part of his legacy.
"Politicians are like socks. They need to be changed fairly regularly," said Staples, who was first elected agriculture commissioner in 2006. "It offers new energy, new ideas. It forces people to stand for office without the benefit of incumbency."
The Texas Department of Agriculture regulates fuel pumps, protects crops from disease and oversees the National School Lunch program in schools. But Staples has added sizzle to the agency by delving into border security, saying his office has a duty to look after farmers and ranchers along the Rio Grande, thereby protecting the state's food supply.
His office in 2010 launched the website ProtectYourTexasBorder.com, which features first-hand accounts of confrontations with violent drug traffickers in videotaped interviews. When a message board on the state-run website quickly filled with postings calling for vigilante justice and killing immigrants entering the country illegally, Staples removed the posts and condemned the remarks, but that episode remains one of the biggest embarrassments of his tenure.
But Staples persisted. He published the book "Broken Borders, Broken Promises" in 2012 and continues to reject federal crime data that show decreasing levels of violent crime and Democrats who accuse Republicans of wildly exaggerating the danger for the sake of politics.
Staples said his office hasn't put a financial number on the losses that encroaching violence has cost Texas crop owners.
"I haven't tried to quantify the cash losses," Staples said. "What we have done though is shown that the violence is real, that we have a failed immigration system that is aiding the drug cartels and giving them cover to come into our nation."
It's not an issue Staples monopolizes. Just last month, Dewhurst said he would help find $60 million in the state budget and reallocate those funds for a border security surge.
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