Railroaded, Still Standing

Editor's Note: Gary Dugger is a real estate broker from Austin who had no experience in politics before he filed to run for the Democratic nomination for Texas Railroad Commission, a state agency that has little to do with railroads nowadays but is responsible for regulating oil and gas production. His father, Ronnie Dugger, was the founding editor of the Texas Observer, a muckraking magazine that has been the voice of Texas liberals since 1954. The elder Dugger sparked a new populist movement in 1995 with an call for action published in The Nation in August 1995. It was this movement, organized as the Alliance for Democracy, that captured Gary Dugger's imagination. The younger Dugger faced Joe Henderson, a lawyer from Huntsville with a mainstream message and regular Democratic Party credentials, in the primary and Henderson won the March 10 primary handily. We asked Dugger for his reflections on the campaign and what lessons he learned.

I decided to run for the Texas Railroad Commission in November 1996 at the founding convention of the Alliance for Democracy. My inspiration came from my father Ronnie, from corporate anthropologist Jane Ann Morris and from David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World.

Ms. Morris shared some anecdotes with the convention, one of which was, "a mom and pop filling station will be forced out of business because they can't afford to replace leaking gas tanks but the Railroad Commission will issue a permit to a strip mining operation to waste three counties."

Mr. Korten said "at some point, ordinary men and women will begin to run for positions of power."

Victor Morales had done just this in his U.S. Senate race against Phil Gramm and almost pulled it off. There are many in the "liberal democratic establishment" who pooh-poohed Mr. Morales as a candidate. These people should ask themselves if their self-righteous assessment of Mr. Morales' qualifications helped re-elect Phil Gramm.

I read an anonymous quote July 1, 1997, which follows: "Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans. The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred: a whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings which no one could have dreamed would have come her way. Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now."

I began. I deposited two $100 checks into my new campaign account from my wife Lisa and myself on July 3, 1997.

My friend Chris King donated $100 to me by helping me build a 4-feet by six-feet sign for the back of my pickup truck, held by cables and ingenuity. It said "Take Hold of Your Natural Resources and your Environment. Elect Gary Dugger Texas Railroad Commissioner. To pledge $100 or less call 512-288-3170."

I said from the beginning I would take no contributions over $100, no PAC money, no money from industries that are regulated by the Railroad Commission and no soft money.

In November 1997 I received $100 from Jim Hightower's Populist PAC. I re-evaluated my position on PAC money at this point and determined I would take money from people PACs. It was the last PAC money I got.

Ronnie Dugger's call for a new populist movement in The Nation began, "We are ruled by big business with big government as its paid hireling and we know it."

When I lost the AFL-CIO's endorsement, I endeavored to find out why. It was explained to me how it worked. It seems Joe Gunn, president of the state labor federation, said Henderson will take big money and Dugger won't. Therefore Henderson has a better chance of beating the Republican nominee than Dugger does.

This led me to conclude that the top gun at the AFL-CIO played by the same rules as big business and big government when it came to electoral politics.

The loss of labor's endorsement probably hurt me more than any other blow.

Environmental groups weren't a lot of help either. Lots of people said how much the Sierra Club's endorsement would help me. The Sierra Club didn't endorse in the primary. Clean Water Action endorsed Jim Mattox for state Attorney General but chose not to endorse in the Railroad Commission race. A candidate running as a citizens' advocate and environmental ranger deserves support from these and other groups such as Greenpeace.

When I interviewed before the Tejano Democrats convention I was characteristically forthright in my presentation. I mentioned I was for a "guaranteed annual income," among other things. Morris Overstreet, a Court of Criminal Appeals Judge running for Attorney General, overheard some of my comments and said, "Why even bother trying to get this endorsement if you are going to say things people aren't likely to agree with?" Point well taken. (I had assumed wrongly perhaps that I was speaking to a group of people who believed no one should go hungry.)

I lost the Tejano endorsement.

I had never spoken publicly until my race for the Railroad Commission. I learned by doing it and got pretty darned good at it towards the end.

One woman in Bastrop said she had never heard anyone as radical as me, that I would either get shot or get elected. Well, I got neither but I had a good time trying.

The highest I felt in the whole campaign was when the Austin American Statesmen endorsed "populist Gary Dugger," saying, "Sometimes it takes a maverick to share the cobwebs out of a musty hidebound agency, and we think Gary Dugger can do just that."

I am very grateful for the reception I got all across Texas and the many people who enthusiastically contributed to my campaign. Gary Etie put up a fantastic website for my campaign at, plus served as my campaign manager.

My wife Lisa and my five children were very supportive of me, for which I am a very lucky man.

My experience of running for office has taught me what to do differently next time.

I was a campaign of one person when it came right down to it. I wrote my own speeches which gave me an air of truthfulness and authenticity. I wouldn't change this.

I scheduled my itinerary and as a result missed many important functions and interviews. The single most important change I would make would be to have a staff, no matter how small. A paid staff, preferably.

I re-evaluated my contribution limit and removed it publicly Feb. 14, 1998 in an Austin American Statesman article. I ended up with less than half a dozen over $100 anyway. I held true to two of my pledges: namely, no money from industry I would regulate as Railroad Commissioner and no soft money. Of course, money was not offered from either quarter in the primary.

I served as my own campaign treasurer and have paid off all $15,000 in campaign debts thanks to many people. My account has about $50 left and will remain open until I run again for the Railroad Commission.

My special thanks go to Carrie Baron and Lisa Holder and all of my supporters in Wise County. Thank you, Jim Hightower, for your endorsement.

I wholeheartedly encourage good populist men and women to run for positions of power.

Footnote: I got 36.8 percent of the vote statewide, or 207,765 votes. This is a lot of votes for a first-time candidate with little money. My father Ronnie Dugger's good name opened doors to many progressives across the state. Ronnie told me that Ralph Yarborough ran three times before he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Food for thought.

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