Democrat running for agriculture commissioner reckons with her past


By David Yaffe-Bellany

Wherever she goes, Kim Olson carries with her packets of wildflower seeds advertising her campaign to unseat Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.

Olson calls the seed packets her "calling card." She distributes them to everybody she meets on the campaign trail, from fellow Democrats at fundraisers in Austin to farmers selling pickles at outdoor markets in conservative West Texas. After lunch last week at an eatery in Midland, Olson had one of her supporters slip a seed packet into the bill.

Olson, a third-generation farmer, has only slightly less cash on hand than her Republican opponent, and over the last few months, she has established herself as the most outspoken feminist on the statewide Democratic ticket, with a loyal following of women who admire her barnstorming speeches. Although every Texas Democrat running this year faces an uphill battle in a state dominated by Republicans, experts in both parties say that Olson, 60, stands as good a chance as anyone on the Democratic slate of winning statewide office. Olson has pledged to visit all 254 counties in Texas — a feat recently achieved by fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who's running for U.S. Senate — and meet with voters in conservative areas that Democrats typically avoid.

“The only way we’re gonna make a difference is if we go to them," she said at a fundraiser earlier this month. "You’ve got to walk their fields, you’ve got to visit their farms, you’ve got to sit at their family dinner tables, because the last time I checked representative government was going out and listening."

Olson, who has short gray hair and wears blue jeans and work boots, travels the state in a white pickup truck, where she stores cardboard boxes stuffed with seed packets. But for all their utility on the campaign trail, those packets hint at a potentially damaging episode from Olson's past. In red lettering on the back of each packet is Olson's military rank: retired Air Force colonel. In speeches at fundraisers and conversations with voters, Olson often touts her military credentials, particularly when she pitches her campaign to Republicans. The circumstances of her retirement from the Air Force, however, may represent her most serious political vulnerability.

In the mid-2000s, at the end of a trailblazing career as one of the Air Force’s first female pilots, Olson was accused by the Pentagon of steering government contracts to a private security firm that military investigators said she helped operate while she was stationed in Iraq.

Olson denied the charges and eventually pled guilty to two lesser offenses, including creating the appearance of a conflict of interest. She was allowed to retire with an honorable discharge and no reduction in rank, but she received a formal reprimand and a $3,500 fine.

"There are all kinds of things that happen in war zones," she said in a recent interview. “If you’re going to judge me, go to frickin’ war."

The Los Angeles Times reported on the allegations against Olson in 2006, and she discusses the episode at length in her memoir, “Iraq and Back.” But until the Austin American-Statesman published a story about the investigation earlier this month, the ignominious end to Olson's military career had not figured in the race for agriculture commissioner.

The morning the Statesman story came out, Olson was cooling off in the lobby of a Midland hospital after a visit to the local community garden, where she’d spoken approvingly of the zucchini. Later, in her campaign truck, Olson read aloud messages of support from other Democrats on the statewide ticket, including O'Rourke. Then she sighed.

“Well, this is the honeymoon,” she said. “But we can take it. We’re a tough campaign.”

"Let's just get something straight."

Olson’s parents were school teachers for the Department of Defense, and as a child she traveled widely, from her family’s farm in Iowa to military bases in Germany, Bermuda and the Philippines. In 1979, she graduated from Ohio State University with a teaching degree, planning to embark on a career in education.

But when Olson outlined those post-graduation plans to her mother, she “leveled eyes at me lovingly and then she slapped me upside the head,” Olson recalled.

“Nothing was available to her except secretary, nurse or teacher when she got out of school,” Olson said. “What she wanted for her daughters was something she could never have.”

With her mother’s encouragement, Olson entered the male-dominated world of the Air Force, becoming only the 36th American woman to work as a military pilot, she says. Sexism was a fact of everyday life. Early in her career, one of Olson’s superiors invited her into his office for a chat. “Let’s just get something straight, Lieutenant,” he said, according to an account in “Iraq and Back.” “I don’t think girls belong in the military, much less in the cockpit. So as long as we understand each other, we’ll get along fine.”

Undeterred, Olson went on to fly refueling jets over the Middle East and Kosovo, pumping gas through a tube that extended from her aircraft to the fighter planes hovering below. “It’s very phallic,” she said. “You can tell men created that.”

When she was in the Air Force, Olson would kiss her daughter on the forehead before work every morning and say, “I’m off to make the world safe for democracy.”

“I never felt like I couldn’t do something because I was a girl,” said Olson’s daughter, Katelynn, who works as a scheduler for Southwest Airlines. “In our household, you could do whatever you wanted if you put the work in, regardless of your gender.”

Kim Olson was promoted to colonel in 2000 and deployed to Iraq three years later, where she worked alongside Gen. Jay Garner on the American rebuilding effort.

It was in Iraq that Olson’s troubles began. Over the course of several months in 2003, she struck up a friendship with a group of South African bodyguards hired by the American military to protect her and Garner. After receiving an anonymous complaint, Pentagon investigators discovered that Olson had filed paperwork to become the director of the new American branch of a private security firm, Meteoric Tactical Solutions, run by the South Africans. In her book, Olson defends her conduct in Iraq, saying she had no financial stake in the company and was simply helping her bodyguards find work. But she concedes that she should have sought approval from military higher-ups before getting involved with Meteoric.

The investigation put financial strain on Olson’s family, who sold their house in Virginia to help pay her six-figure legal fees and moved to Weatherford.

Since relocating to Texas, Olson has worked as human resources chief for Dallas ISD and served on the Weatherford school board. In 2010, she started a nonprofit, Grace After Fire, designed to help female veterans re-enter civilian life. That same year, Olson and her husband moved to a farm in Mineral Wells, where they have lived ever since, growing peaches, nectarines and pecans. Olson has worked to put the Pentagon investigation behind her, she said, trying not to “relive that shit.”

Olson is unapologetic about her decision to help Meteoric and attributes any mistakes she made in Iraq to “the fog and friction of war.” She maintains that she has never tried to conceal the investigation, pointing out that she dedicates an entire chapter to it in her memoir, which came out a few months after the Los Angeles Times covered the allegations against her. But she refused to give The Texas Tribune a copy of the Pentagon’s report on her conduct in Iraq — a confidential document that is not publicly available — or the memo her lawyer wrote in response to it.

“I’m not running to be a nun," she said. "That ship has long sailed.”

"Who is this hurricane?"

The day after the 2016 presidential election, Olson had lunch with a group of female friends at her home in Mineral Wells. Hillary Clinton’s defeat had left Olson feeling physically ill, but two of her lunch guests announced they had voted for Trump — not because they particularly liked him, they explained, but because they couldn’t stand his opponent.

“In my mind, I said, ‘What are you doing to your daughters?’” Olson recalled. “And then they said, ‘Had you been on the ticket, we would’ve voted for you.’ And I thought, ‘I’m gonna hold you to that.’”

Olson was one of the first Democrats to announce a run for statewide office this cycle, filing in March 2017. She introduced herself to the party establishment later that month at a luncheon in Graham attended by Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa and by Mike Collier, the Democrat looking to unseat Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in November.

“Everyone took turns saying a few words, and when she got up to speak, people’s jaws just dropped,” Collier said. “It was, ‘Holy mackerel, who is this hurricane?’”

Over the course of her campaign, Olson, who ran uncontested in the primary, has grown close to several members of the Democrats’ statewide ticket, especially Collier, whom she describes as a mentor. O’Rourke likes to refer to Olson as “a badass.” And Olson has taken it upon herself to offer the Democratic star a steady stream of motherly advice.

“He’s losing weight. His voice is all raspy,” Olson said. “I was barking at him the other day, I said, ‘For God’s sake, Beto, stop talking. You should have a cone of silence. Don’t talk to your team, just be still. And always at your ready you should have warm, room temperature water and lemon, because it helps relax the vocal cords.’”

Last month, Olson’s speech to the Texas Democratic Convention ended with one of the biggest applause lines of the three-day event. “If anyone asks you, ‘Are Texas women really badass?’ you just answer with, ‘Hold my purse, and watch this,’” she said, gesturing as if pulling a lever in a voting booth.

Democrats were still buzzing about that line two weeks later at a fundraiser in Austin, where members of a local advocacy group presented Olson with a trophy they called the “Hold My Purse Award.” Nearby, the Travis County Democrats sold T-shirts with Olson’s face superimposed onto a World War II-era Rosie the Riveter poster.

“She’s just put herself out there. She’s got ambition, she’s not afraid,” said Cindy Whitesides, a Democratic activist who attended the fundraiser. “I look up to her and I think, ‘That’s what female power looks like.’”

Supporters say Olson’s greatest political strength is her public-speaking ability. An experienced farmer, she is just as comfortable discussing the threat that casebearer moths pose to pecan cultivation as she is rallying Democrats behind female candidates. In her stump speech, Olson emphasizes the vast scope of the agriculture department’s responsibilities, pledging to expand broadband internet access in rural communities — an issue she says Miller's administration has neglected — and to devise a more nutritious free-and-reduced-price meal program for low-income students in Texas.

Miller, who was elected agriculture commissioner in 2014 after beating the Democratic candidate by more than 1 million votes, is a controversial figure, even among Republicans. He has a penchant for unapologetically spreading fraudulent news stories on Facebook, and he secured the Republican nomination only after surviving a tough primary.

“In terms of the candidates on the Republican side who might seem to be the most beatable, certainly Miller is a guy the Democrats consider to be among the top one or two,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist in Texas.

Still, it would require a “blue wave” of historic proportions to propel a Democrat into statewide office in November, for the first time since 1994. No polling indicates where Texas voters stand on the race for agriculture commissioner. Olson remains a relatively obscure figure in Texas politics, and for all his foibles, Miller has undeniable political strengths. Earlier this year, Trump, who remains popular among Texas Republicans, hailed Miller as his “Man in Texas.” And it’s entirely possible, experts say, that nothing Olson says on the campaign trail will outweigh the letter “D” next to her name on the ballot.

Miller has not publicly mentioned his opponent’s name since she won the Democratic nomination. He said in an interview that he plans to start campaigning full-time in September and that the Iraq investigation makes Olson “damaged goods.”

“It’ll be something we’ll bring up on the campaign,” Miller said. “You haven’t heard the last of that, I can promise you.”

As the midterms approach, the investigation could become a serious liability for Olson, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“Sid Miller doesn’t pull any punches. He doesn’t do nuance,” Rottinghaus said. “Miller will amplify the attack in a way that may not be true but will resonate with his voters.”

For now, however, the prospect of an ugly back-and-forth with Miller is far from Olson’s mind. At a lunch meeting with some fellow Democrats in Midland, Olson pulled out a thick white binder filled with spreadsheets detailing the number of voters she could plausibly attract in each county, given voter turnout in the last two election cycles. Over the next four months, the campaign’s primary objective is to ensure that enough of those Democrats turn up at the polls in November to counter the hundreds of thousands of votes by which Texas Republicans typically win statewide elections.

Even if she loses to Miller, Olson said, she will look back on the campaign as a success.

“Every time I fire some woman up, and get them to run for something they never would have run for before, I win,” she said. “Every time I make you less afraid about what’s going on on the national platform and give you power and inspire you to go out and do something, I win. Every day I’m in front of someone, I’m winning.”

Beekeeping

Twenty years ago, on the day that Olson became one of the first-ever women to take command of an operational Air Force flying squadron, a male officer presented her with a military flag, or guidon, to signify her newfound authority.

“When that guy handed me that guidon, I jerked it out of his hand,” she said. “It’s like, I have waited 15 years for this moment. Oh, my God, I have done it.”

Olson’s mission this election cycle is twofold: To beat Miller in November and to help female candidates across Texas seize the guidon themselves. Currently, only three of the 38 members of the state’s congressional delegation are female, and women hold just 37 of the 181 seats in the Texas House and Senate.

This year, those numbers are poised to increase. Across the state, Democratic women are running for elected office in record numbers, motivated largely by opposition to Trump. Over the course of the campaign, Olson has urged more women to join that wave of first-time candidates and has offered guidance and encouragement to those who already have. In Fort Worth in June, she hosted a conference for female candidates, where a series of speakers discussed the basics of campaigning, from staying healthy on the trail to communicating effectively with the media.

The thermos Olson carries on the road is emblazoned with an image of a queen bee, and last Friday, Olson took a break from campaigning to tour the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, where visitors can peer at a stack of beehives surrounded by flowers.

In the corner of the orchard at her farm in Mineral Wells, Olson keeps about half a dozen hives. Olson loves bees because “they’re girls,” she said. In the observation area, she tried on a beekeeper’s glove, before launching into an extended disquisition on the life cycle of the typical hive.

The hive’s ruler is the queen, she explained, a sexually mature female responsible for producing new generations of honeybees. In the summer, the queen mates with the hive’s male contingent, the drones, most of whom die during reproduction. Any leftover drones remain in the hive, but they serve no practical function.

“They don’t forage, they don’t nursery, they don’t clean up the hive,” she said. “They don’t really do anything but hang around.” As summer changes to fall, she continued, the hive’s worker bees — the band of females who gather pollen, suck nectar and produce honey — grow tired of feeding these hangers-on.

“They chew the wings off the drones,” Olson said with a smile. “And then they boot them out of the hive.”

This article originally appeared at The Texas Tribune.

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