AUSTIN — A Texas Democrat hasn’t been elected attorney general in nearly 30 years.
Several Democrats are vying for the job: Mike Fields, a former Republican judge in Harris County; Rochelle Garza, a former ACLU attorney from South Texas; Joe Jaworski, a mediator and former Galveston mayor and Lee Merritt, a civil rights lawyer in North Texas.
They face an uphill battle in a midterm year when turnout typically favors Republicans. But the candidates say Paxton’s legal troubles, which include an FBI investigation over corruption allegations and a six-year-old securities fraud indictment, leave him vulnerable. Paxton has denied any wrongdoing.
A sea change at the attorney general’s office, one of the most powerful statewide posts, could dramatically shift Texas politics and policy by giving Democrats a check on Republican policies. The attorney general can shape policy through lawsuits and wields great influence over which government records must be made public.
Since taking office in 2015, Paxton’s pursued a decidedly conservative agenda. He’s sued to overturn the Affordable Care Act, resurrect Trump-era immigration policies and block COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
“We really need to take it back to basics. We need to focus on Texas families,” Garza said. “Waking up every day and finding a way to sue the federal government is not the way.”
The Democrats vying for Paxton’s job generally align in their goals. Most said they would drop the office’s lawsuits against the Biden administration and decline to defend laws they consider unconstitutional, such as Texas’ six-week abortion ban.
They also advocated disbanding the election fraud unit in favor of a civil rights division meant to protect voters’ access to the polls.
“There seems to be a concerted effort to attack the ability of certain communities to vote in free, fair and open elections,” Fields said. “We need greater access to the polls.”
The primary is March 1. Whoever wins will take on the GOP nominee in the November election in what is widely expected to be one of the year’s most competitive races. In the Republican primary, Paxton is facing state Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and East Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert.
While the Democrats generally align on policy, they differ in work experience and personal background.
Merritt is known nationally for his work fighting police misconduct and racial violence. He has represented the families of Black people killed by police officers, including George Floyd and Atatiana Jefferson.
The McKinney lawyer decided to run after working with attorneys general in other states who he found receptive to reforms and active in their own communities. By contrast, Merritt said, Paxton’s office has typically denied requests to release evidence and videos important for transparency.
“The AG’s office is designed to be the people’s firm, it’s where citizens should be going to have their civil liberties protected,” he said. “Not only are we doing it really bad in Texas, but I discovered there are places that are doing it really well.”
If elected, Merritt wants to make it easier for people to file complaints and to grow the consumer protection division, particularly to ensure federal relief funds are getting to communities of color and low-income Texans.
Jaworski is a third-generation trial lawyer whose grandfather was a special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal. He said he is running to restore integrity to the attorney general’s office.
“It’s supposed to be a consumer protection office staffed by an attorney above reproach,” he said. “Paxton has chosen to become a culture warrior, not so much a lawyer. I’m running to change that.”
Jaworski served one term as mayor of Galveston. He was unseated in 2012 in a race that focused on his support for a controversial plan to construct affordable housing. Jaworski is now a mediator who focuses on claims brought by military contractors.
If elected, Jaworski said he focus on emphasize consumer protection, specifically to prevent ratepayers from footing huge bills after the winter freeze. He also wants to recruit attorneys graduating from Texas law schools to staff the office.
Garza was motivated to run for attorney general after becoming pregnant, when she said the fight became more personal. The only Latina in the Democratic race, she also wanted to ensure people in elected office reflect the state’s large Hispanic community.
The Brownsville native emphasized her experience taking on the Trump administration in 2017, when she represented a teenage immigrant denied an abortion in federal custody. Garza’s side prevailed, and her client got the procedure, in a case that eventually went before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Among her top priorities is building up a robust civil rights division to protect voters, she said.
“It’s really important we protect the rights of the folks who are the most marginalized because where does it end?” Garza said. “If we’re willing to give up certain constitutional rights, ultimately it snowballs and it will impact the rest of us. It’s important to have an AG who knows that.”
Fields served five terms as a Republican on the Harris County criminal court, but switched parties after being voted out in 2018. He agrees more with Democratic policies now than the GOP’s changing direction, he said.
While on the bench, Fields broke with Republicans to push for bail reform. Locking up low-level defendants, even for short periods of time, can cost them their jobs and put their families at risk, he said.
As a former employee at the attorney general’s office in the 1990′s, Fields is campaigning to refocus the agency’s work on assisting local prosecutors, protecting water rights and ensuring payment of child support.
“It’s not supposed to be used as a billy club for social issues and that’s a lot of what we’re seeing right now,” he said.