State Land Commissioner John Thurston is a pleasant, unassuming sort of fellow, which is about as much as can be said for any land commissioner. His is, as Thurston himself acknowledges, "a low-profile kind of job."
Indeed. Below governor and attorney general, all the state constitutional officers are little noted, and the land commissioner least. Even the lieutenant governor, whose job is baldly unnecessary, occasionally draws attention by presiding over the state Senate when the legislature is in session — a couple of months every couple of years — and appearing at public functions when the governor's out of town. Barring a catastrophe of New Madrid Earthquake proportions, the land commissioner toils in obscurity, or, more precisely, the land commissioner's staff toils. Unless a constitutional officer sets out to make waves, as Secretary of State Mark Martin seems to have done, longtime employees in his or her office will keep it running smoothly for the most part. There are 37 employees in the land commissioner's office today, and most of them were there before Thurston arrived in January. Some have more than 20 years' service. Even Nikki Heck, whose title is "communications specialist" and who sits in on a reporter's interview with Thurston, came to work in the office when Charlie Daniels was commissioner, a decade ago.
Daniels is fairly representative of the kind of person usually found in the lesser constitutional offices — someone who's supported and made friends with various politicians (most often, Democratic politicians), has certain political skills himself, and knows his limits. Since the voters approved term limits in 1992, these people can no longer settle down in one constitutional office indefinitely, as they once did, but they're adapting. (Sam Jones was land commissioner for a quarter of a century, ending in the early '80s, and was largely forgotten except when his name appeared on the ballot in election years. Lack of attention seemed to please him. He gave a bottle of whiskey to every state Capitol reporter at Christmas, and it was generally believed this was in gratitude for keeping his name out of the paper.)
After Daniels was term-limited out of the land commissioner's office, he then took over as secretary of state for the maximum two four-year terms. He's now the state auditor, having been elected in November 2010, at the same time Thurston was elected land commissioner. Mark Wilcox, Daniels' successor and Thurston's predecessor as land commissioner, was term-limited out. Thurston became commissioner by defeating the Democratic nominee, L.J. Bryant, who was not especially well-known either — really well-known people don't run for land commissioner — but more prominent than Thurston.
Now 38, Thurston was born and raised in Sardis (Saline County) and graduated from Sheridan High School. He attended Henderson State University in Arkadelphia before graduating from Agape College, a Bible college affiliated with Agape Church in Little Rock. He was a licensed minister for a time, ministering to prison and jail inmates, but he stopped preaching when his wife got sick, and didn't feel like going back to it after she died. For 13 years before he was elected land commissioner, he worked for Agape Church, a nondenominational congregation. Asked what he did at the church, he said he was involved with maintenance and security, "those type of things." He doesn't claim that it was a high-ranking position.
When people ask him what the land commissioner does — and they ask frequently — Thurston explains that he's essentially a tax collector. When the owners of real property don't pay their local property taxes, the counties convey the property to the state land commissioner for public auction. The proceeds from the sale of a particular piece of real estate are sent back to the county where the property is located. Most of the money eventually goes to the public schools. Since 2003, the land commissioner has collected more than $123 million for public schools, according to the office's website.