One November evening in far West Texas, Sarah Stogner decided to strip down to pasties and her underwear, plus boots and a cowboy hat, and climb onto an oil pumpjack while a small film crew watched.
The crew, in town to film a documentary about an unplugged oil well spewing contaminated fluids, was sharing beers with Stogner when one of the videographers said they always wanted to do an artistic photo shoot on a pumpjack, Stogner recalled.
“And I thought, oh my God, yes, what if I got naked or almost naked on top of it?” Stogner said. “This will be hilarious. Just for our own fun. I didn’t have any grand schemes with it. But fuck it, this will be fun.”
In February, the video turned into a now-viral campaign ad for the 37-year-old oil and gas attorney from Monahans, who is running for a seat on the Railroad Commission of Texas, the regulatory agency in charge of the state’s massive oil and gas sector. Stogner released the five-second video on Super Bowl Sunday in a tweet with the caption: “They said I needed money. I have other assets.”
“I need to get people’s attention, right?” Stogner said in an interview, adding that she didn’t want to do that in a “pornographic” way.
“And here we are, it’s working,” she said, listing various news stories about her campaign since the video went public.
Stogner’s seminude stunt is only the latest twist in what has become the strangest Republican primary campaign for Railroad Commission in decades. The incumbent, Railroad Commission Chair Wayne Christian, is facing corruption allegations after he voted — against the recommendation of Railroad Commission staff — to approve a permit for an oil field waste dump facility, then days later accepted a $100,000 campaign donation from the company that received the permit.
Another candidate, Marvin “Sarge” Summers, died earlier this month on the campaign trail after crashing into a tanker truck in Midland.
Despite the agency’s power over Texas’ largest industry — including the natural gas system, a crucial element of the Texas power grid that failed last year during a powerful winter storm, leaving millions of people without power for days — elections for the three-member board that oversees it typically don’t generate much attention from voters.
“They might know about it now because of Sarah Stogner,” said Tom Slocum Jr., a 38-year-old engineering consultant from the Houston area who is one of the four surviving candidates in the Republican primary.
Christian, a 71-year-old Grammy-nominated former gospel singer and financial planner who is seeking his second six-year term, is trying to fend off challenges from Slocum, Stogner and Dawayne Tipton, a former oil field roughneck who has worked various oil sector jobs including offshore drilling.
Summers’ name will still be on the ballot, too, because he died too close to election day to change the ballots. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the March 1 election, the two candidates with the most votes will meet in a May runoff election.
The race is wide open, according to a recent University of Houston survey. Christian was the top choice of 9% of registered voters in that poll, with the other candidates receiving between 3% and 5%. The vast majority of those polled, 74%, said they weren't sure who they’d vote for.
Slocum is hoping his support of conservative priorities — top issues on his campaign website include building the border wall and protecting gun ownership, issues the Railroad Commission has no jurisdiction over — and his years of experience working in oil and gas operations and plugging abandoned oil wells will help propel him over the incumbent.
“I have real oil and gas experience in Texas, unlike Wayne,” Slocum said.
Tipton, 41, has also leaned on his oil and gas experience and is running on a platform of being a clear and competent communicator to lead the Railroad Commission. He criticized Christian’s role in last February’s deadly winter freeze, when power outages and equipment failures choked off much of the fuel to many of the state’s gas-fired power plants when they needed it most to produce electricity.
In order to keep the power grid from total collapse, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas directed transmission companies to cut off power to residents, businesses and gas producing facilities because they were not registered as critical infrastructure — part of a cascade of power failures that led to hundreds of deaths.
“If the incumbent had been more proactive when the event was actually happening and reached out to ERCOT and implored them not to shed that critical load, which compounded our power generation problems, we wouldn’t have been in nearly as bad of a situation as we were,” Tipton said.
Christian did not respond to criticism of the commission’s handling of the grid’s collapse, but in an email he did rebut allegations from some of his opponents that accepting a big campaign donation from the company that received the oil waste dump permit amounted to a payoff for his vote.
Christian said he has “never allowed a political contribution to influence my decisions in elected office” and said the agency’s general counsel advised him to approve the permit for the waste facility “with the requirement that the company use a geosynthetic clay liner to protect the environment and remain consistent with other similar permits granted by the Commission.”
“I am running a positive campaign based on my record,” Christian said in the email. “The publicity stunts and mudslinging are a sign of desperation. I am the only candidate with the endorsements, campaign infrastructure, and resources necessary to win this race.”
Like the other challengers, Stogner has criticized Christian for his lack of experience in the industries the Railroad Commission oversees.
“He has no oil and gas experience — he won on a pro-life platform because that’s what primary voters cared about in 2016,” Stogner said. “He’s a Grammy Award-winning gospel singer. Well, here’s my Grammy Award-winning video, Wayne.”
Stogner, who is not accepting campaign contributions in her first campaign for public office, said she wants to focus on helping the oil and gas industry make more progress as responsible stewards of the state’s natural resources.
“We can’t [produce oil and gas] at the cost of our groundwater,” Stogner said. “We can’t do this at the cost of safe air.”
Michael Williams, a railroad commissioner from 1999 to 2011 who went on to lead the Texas Education Agency, said in an interview that while Christian is a good friend, “I’m impressed with Stogner. I didn’t even know who she was until I saw the ad.”
Former Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton, who was upset in the 2020 Republican primary election after serving one term, said he thought Stogner was smart and had the technical and legal expertise required for the job, but her video “probably dismissed any legitimate shot she had at winning the race.”
Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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