Democrats see their opening in race against embattled AG Ken Paxton
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, with his snowballing legal troubles and slim margin of victory in his 2018 re-election, has instilled new fervor in challengers from both parties — but especially Democrats hoping to seize on what they see as a prime opening.
Paxton, who has been under indictment since 2015 for felony securities fraud charges and is facing an FBI investigation after being accused of corruption by his top aides last October, will face at least two high-profile challengers in the Republican primary: Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. Both have identified the seat as one vulnerable to a Democratic flip.
“They see that Ken Paxton is our weak link,” Bush said about Democrats at his campaign announcement in June. “They know that if he was the lowest vote-getter statewide in the last election cycle, and they know that if he is our nominee again, they have their first statewide elected office in close to 30 years.”
Two candidates are so far vying for the Democratic nomination: Joe Jaworski, 59, a mediator and former Galveston mayor, and Lee Merritt, 38, a nationally recognized civil rights attorney.
Both of the Democrats have emphasized the need to bring integrity back to the attorney general’s office. It’s a line of attack that Paxton’s Republicans challengers are putting front and center, as well.
“Of course, I was saying that before George Bush was, but I welcome his perspective,” Jaworski said. “I mean, of all offices, for Christ’s sake, the attorney general’s office needs to be above reproach.”
Austin attorney Justin Nelson also focused on Paxton’s legal woes when he came within 3.6 percentage points of defeating him in 2018.
Paxton has denied any wrongdoing in both the securities fraud case and the corruption inquiry. The FBI investigation has been ongoing for nearly a year without a resolution.
A Paxton primary win would indeed give the Democrats their best chances to win a statewide election next year, said Juan Carlos Huerta, professor of political science at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
“If Guzman or Bush were to win the nomination, that takes away all the scandal and investigations that surround Paxton,” Huerta said.
Republicans understandably have the advantage over Democrats when it comes to attracting well-known candidates because of their hold on power in Texas, Huerta said. It’s an issue also afflicting the party when it comes to finding a Democrat to run against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
“There’s not a deep bench of high-profile candidates,” Huerta said. “Also, some of the higher profile names may already have elected positions and don’t want to risk those. Other than (former 2020 presidential candidates) Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro, there are not many Democrats in Texas who have a high statewide profile.”
‘A Ken Paxton problem’
Practicing law was part of the family legacy for Jaworski, whose grandfather is the late Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski.
Jaworski was elected mayor of the Gulf Coast island city in 2010 after pulling 53 percent of the vote in a five-way contest. Prior to that, Jaworski had served three terms on the city council before unsuccessfully challenging state Sen. Mike Jackson, R-Pasadena, in 2008.
His tenure as Galveston mayor was marked by a controversial plan to rebuild public housing destroyed by Hurricane Ike as a mixed-income development, a move that cost him politically.
In 2012, despite backing by prominent Democrats including U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and then-state Rep. Sylvester Turner, Jaworski was defeated by retired businessman Lewis Rosen who opposed the project — and took 57 percent of the vote to his 43 percent after a heated runoff.
“Some of it was racism, some of it was Galveston has a landlord industry there,” Jaworski said. “It was hostile. It was incredible. I just couldn’t believe I’d gone from this wonderful, popular, new-energy guy to this single-issue bean bag, but I knew I was doing the right thing.”
Jaworski now runs his own law firm that concentrates on mediation for claims brought by military contractors.
If elected, Jaworski said he plans to push for policies that increase voter access to the polls, support the Affordable Care Act, expand Medicaid and legalize cannabis. Jaworski, like Merritt, says the attorney general’s office is wasting tax dollars on investigating rare voter fraud cases.
“We don’t have a voter fraud problem; we have a Ken Paxton problem,” he said. “He is using this as an ideological pivot for his base and to justify whatever few prosecutions he can muster.” Jaworski said Paxton should instead be doing more to address gun violence, adding “people are actually dying in those instances.”
Both Merritt and Jaworski have said they would create a civil rights division within the office.
Merritt was top fundraiser
Merritt, though he entered the race this summer, almost a full year later than Jaworski, has wasted no time fundraising. In the last reporting period that spanned July 7 to Aug. 6, Merritt raised more than $285,000, more than any Republican in the race, including Paxton.
Over the same period, Jaworski raised about $30,000, while Bush raised about $158,000 and Guzman raised $193,000. Paxton raised about $39,000, but the incumbent maintained the most cash-on-hand by millions at last count.
Merritt rose to prominence in recent years for taking on high-profile police accountability cases and representing families of Black Americans killed by police, including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson and Botham Jean. If elected, he would be the state’s first Black attorney general.
In 2017, online magazine The Root named Merritt the eighth-most-influential African-American between ages 18 and 45 in the U.S, three spots ahead of Beyoncé.
Having worked on criminal justice reform issues with attorneys general in other states, even Republicans such as Chris Carr of Georgia, Merritt said he could see a stark contrast between the work they were doing and what little Paxton has done.
For instance, Carr in May signed a law repealing the “citizen’s arrest” that was used as a defense in the fatal shooting of Arbery. Meanwhile, Merritt said, he sees Paxton’s office regularly allowing law enforcement to keep video evidence of police abuse of force outside of public view.
“It was that frustration of: The most basic responsibility of the attorney general is to uphold the constitution and protect life, liberty and property,” he said about his decision to jump in the race. “And we have an attorney general who has been completely asleep at the wheel, and people are dying.”
Though it’s not his only campaign issue, Merritt says he’s confident that police reform will appeal to voters of both major political parties.
“When we’re all in a room together, we find that we’re not really that far apart,” he said. “Law enforcement officers agree that they aren’t equipped to deal with the mental health crisis.”
Merritt said he hopes to address other areas where Paxton falls short, such as advocating for Texas consumers, especially in the wake of the February 2021 winter storm, and finding root causes for unpaid child support rather than focusing on criminal penalties.
“This is going to be a campaign about meeting the practical needs of Texans,” Merritt said.