Being Sid Miller: Emails Show Ag Commissioner Focused on Image

Emails and correspondence from Sid Miller's first six months as Texas agriculture commissioner show a leader involved in the daily dealings of his department, conscious of his portrayal in the press and eager to burnish his image.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller on Jan. 13, 2015.

Fourteen minutes before midnight on Dec. 31, 2014, the man who was one week away from becoming Texas' next agriculture commissioner sent an urgent email to his top lieutenants. 

"This must be the worst picture that has ever been taken of me," Sid Miller wrote to his longtime political consultant, Todd Smith, and his soon-to-be deputy, Walt Roberts. "Where ever [sic] it is I want it taken down immediately. I hate this picture." Copied on the message was Bryan Black, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture. 

Eighteen minutes after the New Year rang in, Black sent a frantic message to the department's communications staff. "We have a situation, Commissioner Miller can't stand his photo," he wrote. "We need to get something [different] ... IMMEDIATELY."

The New Year's scramble over a portrait of Miller meant to hang in agency offices is among correspondence obtained by The Texas Tribune under open records laws. Covering the first six months of Miller's tenure, it shows a commissioner willing to deal with everything from responding to individual consumer complaints to handling minute enforcement issues. But what sticks out are the many exchanges revealing how much the former state legislator cares about his public image, and how eager he is to elevate it. 

Miller or his senior staff complain about Facebook likes and negative comments. Photos are exchanged of the Republican from Stephenville decked in cowboy attire and performing at rodeo shows, after which the communications staff is directed to post some on social media. And the department jumps on opportunities to appear on cable news and radio shows. 

"This sounds like a great opportunity," Black wrote in response to a request from the New York-based show Fox & Friends for an interview with Miller about his department's nutrition policy. Earlier this month, Miller lifted a 10-year ban on soda machines and fryers in Texas public schools, to the dismay of many public health and education advocates. 

When he was bumped off the show, Miller wrote to Black, "Dang, oh well," also noting that someone should remove some negative posts from the department's Facebook page. 

The interview finally happened several days later. "This story gets less fresh every day it is delayed," Smith wrote to Miller shortly before his appearance on the show. "Let's get this done and then move on to the next one."

Smith, a political consultant to Miller for the past 16 years, has been an active outside adviser since Miller took office, the emails show. In June, he strongly encouraged Miller to roll out a wide-reaching media plan to explain his reasons for joining Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

"This is a great issue that appeals to both conservatives as well as Ag interests and makes you look like a leader," Smith, who is being paid by Miller's campaign, told the commissioner. "This is bigger than just a press release. Please, please milk this for all its worth." 

The goal, spelled out in other exchanges between the consultant and his boss, is clear: bolstering Miller's conservative credentials and name recognition among right-leaning Republicans. "People need to know that you're going to use your new position to fight back against the feds," Smith wrote in another message. 

In an interview Thursday night, Miller said he and his staff have worked hard to raise the agency's profile. "We've certainly done a better job communicating with the public," he said, highlighting a dramatic increase in the number of "likes" for the Department of Agriculture's Facebook page.

Miller added that he was proud of other accomplishments, including what he said was a near elimination of the agency's backlog in organic certifications for farmers. The department has also stepped up its enforcement actions, the emails show, and opened an Office on Water. 

The former 12-year state House member made a splash when he first entered office in January. He irked lawmakers with his aggressive lobbying for agency funding during the legislative session, faced questions about a proposal to renovate his office and came under fire for hiring a felon who, according to a newspaper report, continued to represent private clients while on the state payroll. 

Along with his heavy involvement in public relations at the department — even asking to personally review press releases before they were sent out — Miller has not been shy about delving into the agency's inner workings.

"Sorry that your pump was down," he wrote to a director at Kroger after hearing concerns that the agency's diesel fuel pump inspection process was taking too long. "Test passed, we will get you going first thing in the morning. If you have any further problems, don't hesitate to contact me." 

Miller also took the time to personally respond to criticism sent to him after the department reinstated the option for deep fat fryers and soda machines in public schools. "This is about giving our schools some local control, and freedom ... what we are doing is not working," he wrote to one complainer, adding, "Thank you for your concerns."

And when a university intern studying nutrition wrote to him with her concerns about the new policy, Miller responded, "Thanks I mostly agree, watch for my press release tomorrow. It may surprise you."

The records also show that Miller is planning an August trip to China with other department members to discuss trade and agriculture, and that staff members jumped on a possible trip to Israel. 

"This is our best bet in getting to Israel and maximizing our time/justification in going," a special assistant wrote to Miller upon hearing about a conference on water scheduled in that country in October. "[Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick would be very interested." 

Despite the interest in gaining more statewide attention, Miller said he has no interest in running for higher office. But grooming his political image is important just for re-election as agriculture commissioner in four years, he pointed out.

That's why, when Miller noticed that a portrait of him meant to hang in offices across the state "looked like I had a big scar face," he had to take action right away. (The department did not respond to a request Thursday evening for a copy of the picture.) 

"It was awful, awful," Miller recalled of seeing the portrait for the first time shortly before the New Year began. "So I made them recall it and get a new picture."

Jim Malewitz contributed reporting.