State Comptroller Susan Combs, an Austin Republican who contemplated a run for lieutenant governor in 2014, instead announced Wednesday that she will retire from elective politics when her term ends in 18 months.
The sudden vacancy in one of the big six statewide offices set off a flurry of announcements by would-be successors and other Republicans testing the waters, including several members of the Legislature and a former gubernatorial candidate — with no clear front-runner for the moment.
Combs, who turned 68 in February, was hemmed in by a lack of options after Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst declared his intention to seek re-election after last year’s failed bid for U.S. Senate.
Instead of four more years as the state’s tax collector and chief accountant, Combs will leave a formidable $7.3 million campaign fund sitting in the bank, saying she will shift her attention to family matters, particularly a Big Bend-area ranch established 130 years ago by her great-grandfather.
“I want to thank each and every one of my friends, colleagues, supporters and fellow Texans for the generosity of spirit and the warmth and affection you have shown me and my family,” Combs said in a letter posted on her personal website.
Combs’ retirement will end a two-decade political career that began with a squeaky-close victory in the 1992, when the discovery of uncounted ballots turned a 22-vote defeat into a seven-vote victory in the Republican primary runoff for a Texas House seat.
Combs, recognizable by her 6-foot-2 frame and almost manic energy level, had an easier time with her second and final House term, running unopposed two years later as her limited-government, pro-landowner views meshed well with voters in her southwestern Travis County district.
After a stint as then-U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s state director, Combs returned to the ballot in 1998, becoming the first woman to serve as Texas agriculture commissioner. After eight years, she made the move to comptroller, winning the first of two four-year terms.
In an open letter to Texans posted Wednesday, Combs said she and her husband, Joe Duran, ended months of discussions about their future when they settled on a plan last weekend.
“We decided we want to spend more time on the ranch,” Combs wrote. “With the arrival of our first grandchild, we wanted to be sure that when we turn our ranch over to our descendants, it will be in even better shape than when we got it.”
Combs added, without elaborating, that she also plans to actively promote the policies she championed while in politics, including protecting private property rights, “fighting federal overreach, finding ways to combat the effects of obesity and ensuring governments are transparent.”
As comptroller, Combs earned widespread praise for her efforts to improve the transparency of state government spending — creating the TexasTransparency.org website that breaks down where the money goes— and for working to reunite owners with almost $1 billion in unclaimed property held by the state.
Gov. Rick Perry praised Combs as a “trusted and capable steward of the public accounts.”
“A major proponent of openness in government, she leaves behind a legacy of transparency, and a state that’s more responsive, more accessible and more accountable to the public,” Perry said.
But sharp criticism also accompanied Combs’ time in office, particularly over the reliability of her tax revenue estimates, a key factor in setting the state’s two-year budgets.
State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filed legislation this spring to require the comptroller to revise revenue estimates every six months, instead of making a prediction every two years.
“Last session, Republican leaders cut $5.4 billion in funding to public education resulting in the loss of more than 25,000 educators. The reductions were never needed,” Davis said after introducing the bill, which was unsuccessful, noting that Combs had recently acknowledged that her 2011 estimate was almost $9 billion short.
Combs defended her 2011 estimate, saying the wild swings in state revenue could not have been foreseen because the depth of the recession caught many financial analysts off guard.
Announced and potential Republican candidates for comptroller:
• State Sen. Tommy Williams of The Woodlands, chairman of the Finance Committee, said he will explore a run after the Legislature’s special session, begun Monday, winds down.
• State Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy was more definite, saying he will campaign for comptroller while remaining in his Senate seat.
• State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran of Kerrville, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he is “putting the pieces in place for a statewide run in 2014, and I will have a formal political announcement very soon.”
• Debra Medina, a tea party activist who received 19 percent of the vote in 2010’s three-way GOP primary for governor in 2010, confirmed that she will seek the office.
• Other Republicans mentioned as potential candidates include former House speaker and current state Rep. Tom Craddick of Midland and former state Rep. Raul Torres of Corpus Christi.