Houston Chronicle endorses Rochelle Garza

Rochelle Garza, Democratic candidate for attorney general, may or not enjoy a good joke. Although we see her smiling and laughing in photos and newsreels, we didn’t ask her that question when she visited with the Chronicle editorial board a few days ago. If she happens to be a connoisseur of jokes, we have one she might appreciate:

A lawyer walks into the HR department of a major law firm. Filling out a job application, he includes the following information on his resumé:

Under felony indictment since 2015 on securities fraud charges; trial postponed repeatedly (although under order from a judge to sit for a deposition in the case next month)*** Under FBI investigation for assisting a real estate developer who allegedly hired a woman with whom he, the applicant, was having an extra-marital affair*** Is being sued by four former top aides in the office he now heads; they claim they were fired in violation of the state’s whistleblower protection law for reporting their boss’ potential crimes to the FBI*** Instigated a frivolous lawsuit seeking to throw out 2020 presidential election votes in states where he did not reside or represent; court laughter ensued*** Faces court sanctions from the state ethics association for peddling false claims about 2020 voter fraud*** Was warm-up act for former President Donald Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021,“Stop the Steal” rally*** Recently headed major investigation into human trafficking and child sexual assault; rank incompetence wrecked investigation*** Vacancies abound in his sprawling office; can’t seem to find attorneys eager to work for him.

A job applicant with such a resume would be laughed out of any law firm in the land, any corporation with a legal department, any government agency. We Texans, though, have elected such a man as our attorney general — not once, but twice and some among us want to make it three times. Ken Paxton is his name. As long as he remains in office, the joke’s on us.

Fortunately, Texas voters have a credible alternative to the nation’s worst AG (whose actual resume we summarized above). Unfortunately, Paxton’s Democratic challenger is a former American Civil Liberties Union attorney who’s barely known beyond the Rio Grande Valley, has never run for public office and can’t seem to persuade the Democratic establishment to throw money her way. (Mark Ash, a Libertarian candidate, also is running, but he’s not a factor in the race.)

Despite the hurdles she faces, we heartily endorse Garza (and not only because she’s not Paxton). She is, by all accounts, a capable and experienced attorney. She adheres as a matter of course to legal and ethical standards. We also have no doubt she will open wide the windows of the AG’s office, airing out a vital state agency that has been thoroughly sullied by the current officeholder.

“I’m running for this office, because it’s absolutely critical that we bring transparency and accountability to what’s supposed to be the People’s Lawyer,” she told the Chronicle editorial board. We could not agree more.

The 37-year-old Brownsville native, with degrees from Brown University and the University of Houston Law Center, has spent most of her career as a civil rights attorney. She has worked on behalf of people with disabilities, telling the board that she was inspired by her parents’ struggle to make sure her disabled brother could live with dignity. She also has represented unaccompanied minor children in immigration removal proceedings and has experience in family law, criminal defense and constitutional law.

She’s probably best known for suing the Trump administration in 2017, so an undocumented teen held in detention could have an abortion. After a federal appeals court ruled in her favor, Paxton filed a brief in which he argued that immigrants have no constitutional right to the procedure.

The teen was able to terminate her pregnancy while the case was being litigated. Under an agreement with the government, teens in custody these days are given the “Garza Notice,” which informs them of their right to an abortion without obstruction or retaliation. The notice remains in effect despite the high court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

“Having this nuanced understanding of what it takes to build a case like that and to fight for someone who the government believes is not powerful — that’s what I bring to this race and bring to this position,” Garza told the Texas Tribune.

She also testified in 2018 against the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who ruled against the pregnant teen as an appellate court judge.

Paxton declared June 24 an annual holiday for the AG’s office to commemorate the date the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. He also issued an advisory opinion on the state’s “trigger law” banning almost all abortions in Texas. If re-elected, he would likely try to prosecute Texas women who seek an abortion out of state or who order abortion pills through the mail.

As attorney general, Garza would withdraw Paxton’s suit against the federal government order that’s meant to protect hospitals that provide lifesaving care to women experiencing miscarriages or other complications. She would partner with district attorneys who choose not to pursue abortion charges.

Restoring abortion rights, albeit important, is far from the only issue a Texas AG needs to engage; Garza seems to be aware of that. She promises to use the power and resources of the AG’s office to fight for voting rights and consumer rights. “I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck,” she told us, “and I’m going to lead from that. I’m not here to engage in any sort of political stunts.”

Needless to say, that’s not Paxton. He has gone to court to outlaw the Affordable Care Act, and, as Chronicle business columnist Chris Tomlinson points out, invariably sides with big business — “unless they are political opponents.” He fought to keep 5 million Texans from getting overtime pay and defended Exxon Mobil against a climate investigation. The People’s Lawyer he’s not.

Garza, who would be the first Latina attorney general in Texas history, has proved to be a smart, effective campaigner. In last spring’s Democratic primary runoff, she soundly defeated former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski, 62.7 percent to 37.3 percent. What’s more, she gave birth while campaigning. “I had a C-section, and I went back on the trail three weeks later,” she reminded us.

As energetic and focused as Garza is on the campaign trail, we can’t say whether she has the skills to effectively administer a sprawling state agency, one so seriously damaged after nearly eight years of profound maladministration it would challenge the top-to-bottom renovation expertise of Chip and Joanna Gaines. Garza simply hasn’t had the equivalent experience.

What we can say with confidence is that she would be honest, fair and hard-working. We also have no doubt that she’ll do her dead-level best to restore a level of competence and professionalism that hasn’t been seen in the AG’s office since Paxton was elected.

Those inclined to vote for Paxton purely on party affiliation or to base their decision on one issue — abortion, for example — should keep in mind that they’re voting for a fellow who touted a major human-trafficking and child sex abuse investigation last year, only to see it fall apart due to his rank incompetence. This is the fellow who lost his chief assistant and several top prosecutors when they walked out the door and reported to the FBI that their boss was engaged in improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other serious crimes. As the Associated Press reported recently, numerous vacancies pock the sprawling agency. No attorney careful of their reputation would dare get close to the man, despite the important work of the AG’s office.

In light of all that, it’s incredible that Paxton is still a narrow favorite in this race. Texas remains a fervid-red state, to be sure, but a vote for Paxton, to be blunt about it, is an affront to the people of Texas. Shorn of raw partisan politics and blind tribal loyalty, there’s absolutely no reason for voters, whatever their political affiliation, to allow the man anywhere near an office of public trust. And really, it’s no laughing matter.