WASHINGTON, Dec. 30, 2016 - President-elect Donald Trump met with more Texans who are candidates for agriculture secretary, including former Rep. Henry Bonilla and former state official Susan Combs, who has already met with Vice President-elect Mike Pence. 

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller also had a meeting scheduled with transition advisers at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, but a transition spokesman only announced the meetings with Combs and Bonilla. The spokesman didn't describe the purpose of the interviews, but sources in Texas and Washington told Agri-Pulse that they were under consideration for USDA. 

Trump interviewed a fourth Texan, former Texas A&M University President Elsa Murano, on Wednesday, along with former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado.

No Texan has ever served as agriculture secretary, although the state ranks third in agricultural production after California and Iowa. 

Optics from the meetings suggested that Bonilla and Murano may be the favorites. 

Both were photographed with Trump, and Bonilla had about 30 to 40 minutes with Trump on Friday, while Combs met with him for less than 10 minutes, according to one source. 

Bonilla told reporters after his interview that Trump appeared to be close to a decision. According to a pool report, Combs didn't comment when she left her meeting with Trump. 

Miller met only with Trump advisers Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon. Miller told Agri-Pulse later that the discussion covered "border security, farm commodities, international trade" as well as his ideas for reforming federal nutrition programs. 

Bonilla, now a lobbyist who turns 63 on Monday, served 14 years in the House, including a tenure as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls the budgets for the Agriculture Department, Food and Drug Administration and Commodity Futures Trading Commission. He was defeated for re-election in 2006 in his southwest Texas district. 

Walt Smith, an aide to Bonilla during his subcommittee chairmanship, said the panel was faced with tight spending caps that required shifting money from the 2002 farm bill by reducing mandatory spending levels in several programs, including conservation and rural development. However, Bonilla didn’t make the cuts, known as "changes in mandatory spending programs," or CHIMPS, without consulting with GOP and Democratic leaders of the House Agriculture Committee, said Smith, now a lobbyist. 

Bonilla and his lobbying firm, The Normandy Group, have represented a variety of companies and organizations, many of which have Texas connections but few links to agriculture. They include American Airlines, which the firm assisted on several issues, including FAA reauthorization legislation and international open skies agreements. 

Other clients include the city of San Marcos, Texas; the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio; and BCFS, a San Antonio-based network of health and human services non-profit organizations.

Bonilla, a former television journalist, told Roll Call this summer that he overcame some initial misgivings to agree to serve as a Hispanic surrogate for Trump. Bonilla also said that he tries to stay abreast of public opinion in “Chili’s restaurants and Wal-Marts, not just among the media or the Republican or Democratic elites.” 

Bonilla, who contributed $2,700 to Trump in June, later expressed concern about Trump’s tone, telling the Dallas Morning News in August that he would “strongly advise” Trump “to tone it down and talk to people in a little more compassionate manner.” Bonilla also said that while the public has little sympathy for people who enter the country illegally, voters want younger undocumented immigrants treated with "some compassion."

Former Rep. Charles Stenholm, who represented a neighboring Texas district to Bonilla’s and was the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said Bonilla was easy to work with. He “didn’t have an agricultural background from the standpoint of knowing the ins and outs of ag policy but he was a quick learner.’ Stenholm said Murano and Combs were more obvious choices for agriculture secretary because of their backgrounds. 

Combs, who grew up on a ranch in far west Texas, served two terms as Texas agriculture commissioner from 1999 to 2007 and two more as state comptroller from 2007 to 2015. In Texas, the comptroller serves as the state treasurer and is one of Texas' most powerful officeholders. 

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has publicly thrown his support behind Combs, who met with Pence on Dec. 20. 

Combs is best known in agriculture circles for raising school nutrition standards and for seizing a lead role in fashioning endangered species policy to protect energy development and farming interests. 

She began coordinating state endangered species policy as Texas agriculture commissioner and took that role to the comptroller's office, and the state legislature subsequently gave the comptroller statutory control of endangered species issues. 

The folksy Miller, an eighth-generation farmer and rancher from central Texas, would offer a sharp contrast to Combs and other candidates. Miller, who was elected agriculture commissioner in 2014 after 14 years in the state legislature, almost immediately started rolling back some of Combs’ nutrition initiatives, a move she described as “baffling.” 

Other changes he has made include creating a water office in the state agriculture department to handle water policy issues, including water rights. He says he has also accelerated inspections of motor fuel pumps. 

(Updated 5:45 p.m. with additional details from meetings.)