Texas Elections 2018

Texas campaign season opens with conflict-of-interest questions

Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller says Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak should resign over a conflict of interest, an accusation Mackowiak denies. Questions of conflicts are also being raised elsewhere as the 2018 election season gets underway.

Texas Elections 2018

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke in the race for U.S. Senate. View full 2018 Texas election results or subscribe to The Brief for the latest election news.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from Trey Blocker.

The 2018 election season is officially underway in Texas — and questions are already cropping up about potential conflicts of interest between campaigns and party officials.

One simmering issue blew into public view Wednesday, when Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller called for the resignation of Matthew Mackowiak as chairman of the Travis County Republican Party. Mackowiak, a GOP strategist who became the party chairman earlier this year, is working for Miller's primary challenger, Trey Blocker.

"How in the world can the Travis County Republican Party guarantee an impartial election process when the person in charge of the election is working for one of the candidates?" Miller said in a statement. "I have been a Republican all my life, and I have never seen such a blatant conflict of interest."

Mackowiak defended his dual roles, noting that he long ago appointed another person to administer the primary in Travis County as a full-time responsibility. The party, he promised, will continue to remain "neutral in all primaries, help all campaigns in whatever way they request, and make opportunities equally available to all candidates."

"There is no conflict of interest in my duties as chairman and with my profession, which is separate," Mackowiak said in a statement. "I will again promise to be completely impartial for all Republican campaigns through my duties as TCRP Chairman."

In his own statement, Blocker suggested Miller was making an issue out of his campaign staff to shift attention away from a recent data breach involving the Texas Department of Agriculture. Blocker also offered his own instruction for the incumbent.

"If Sid is going to give campaign staffing advice, I suggest he take some," Blocker said. "I call on Sid to remove self-confessed pedophile Ted Nugent as his campaign chairman. Failure to do so indicates approval of disgusting and illegal behavior that the American public and Texas conservatives have had enough of."

Nugent, the controversial rocker, has served as Miller's campaign treasurer since his 2014 run for agriculture commissioner, and he was given the additional title of campaign chairman for the re-election bid. In describing Nugent as a "self-confessed pedophile," Blocker's campaign cited a song by Nugent titled "Jailbait" in which he sings lustfully about a 13-year-old.

The race between Miller and Blocker was already contentious before Wednesday. Blocker has been hammering Miller as soft on immigration, while Miller has been deriding Blocker for his former line of work: lobbying. Miller has also ridiculed Blocker for a campaign photo in which he is greeting people at a restaurant in front of a sign that advertises Nutella banana crepes.

Still, the contest for agriculture commissioner is not the only one on the ballot next year where party officials' involvement has gotten attention. After Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez announced this month that she was running for governor as a Democrat, some noticed the source code for her website included multiple references to Tariq Thowfeek, the communications director of the Texas Democratic Party.

In a statement Wednesday, Thowfeek indicated that he worked on the website in his personal capacity.

"I freelance web and graphic design on weekends and whenever I have free time," he said. "Design is a personal hobby of mine for over 10 years. It is never on the Texas Democratic Party’s time nor is it a reflection of the organization in any way."

Valdez is one of 10 Democrats running to unseat Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, whose campaign and allies have already sought to portray the sheriff as the party favorite in the primary. Among the other Democratic contenders are Andrew White, the son of late Gov. Mark White, Dallas businessman Jeffrey Payne and Tom Wakely, a former congressional candidate. 

Questions about party officials' neutrality crop up every election cycle, but the spotlight this time could be particularly bright. In addition to the governor's race, competitive primaries are unfolding for seven open congressional seats and 13 open state House seats. The filing deadline was Monday.

A number of consultants working for the Texas GOP already have roles in primary campaigns. The party suggested Wednesday that's not unusual. 

"Now, and in the past, various consultants have helped the Republican Party of Texas achieve its goals," party spokesman Jamie Bennett said in a statement. "For many of these consultants, we are only one of their various clients."

Disclosure: Trey Blocker has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.