Democrats Spar to Challenge ‘Trump’s Counselor’ Ken Paxton

Lee Merritt and Joe Jaworski debated worker protections and the incumbent's perennial legal woes at an AFL-CIO conference.

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Two of Texas’ leading Democratic candidates for attorney general sparred in a debate Thursday hosted by the Texas AFL-CIO, but they were in total agreement on one point: Current Attorney General Ken Paxton must be defeated in the November general election.

Civil-rights attorney S. Lee Merritt and former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski debated why they would be the ideal Democratic nominee to defeat Paxton, who is seeking his third term as Texas’ top lawman. Candidate Rochelle Garza, an attorney and immigrant-rights advocate, was expected to attend, but was hospitalized the day before. The AFL-CIO is expected to endorse one candidate based on the performance; the group endorsed candidates in several other races Friday but did not announce its endorsement in the AG race.

“Texas is led by corrupt officials who can’t see past their primary race,” Jaworski said. “It’s embarrassing to endure their daily contempt for voters. They’re embarrassing Texas on the world stage. You can’t trust the Texas GOP any longer.”

It makes sense that both Jaworski and Merritt are taking aim at Paxton—and not just because he’s the incumbent. Paxton has been under indictment on charges of securities fraud since taking office in 2015 and is currently fighting to conceal records of his communications regarding the January 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington, D.C. Both candidates said they have a strong background in rooting out corruption.

Jaworski is a trial attorney in Galveston whose law firm specializes in mediating personal injury claims. His claim to fame is his grandfather Leon Jaworski, who worked to prosecute former President Richard Nixon in the Watergate case. In the debate, Jaworski promised to live up to his grandfather’s legacy of holding crooked politicians to account.

Merritt is a nationally known civil rights attorney who has represented the families of Black men who were murdered by police, including Ahmaud Arbery, Botham Jean, and George Floyd. Merritt also advocates for voting rights in Texas and abroad.

“I am a fighter that has repeatedly stood up to Republican bullies and won,” Merritt said. “Considering the historic attack on people’s rights by Texas Republicans, I am prepared for such a time as this to continue the fight as your attorney general.”

Paxton wasn’t the only focus of the debate, though. Jaworski questioned Merritt’s bona fides, pointing out that Merritt does not have a license to practice law in Texas state court (Merritt, however, has a law office in Dallas and is licensed to practice in federal court). Jaworski, on the other hand, noted that he has been licensed in Texas for 31 years. Merritt said he has resisted joining the State Bar of Texas because of conservatives’ propensity to weaponize it against progressive, Black lawyers. He said he retains the right to join the Texas bar if he wins the election.

“When I began this work in Texas, I knew that they would probably come after my law license that I had fought so hard to obtain,” Merritt said. “I suspected that they might come after my freedom, and if history is any indicator, this fight might very well cost me my life. I stood up and fought anyway.”

Regardless of who wins the Democratic primary in the AG race, it’ll be tough to take Paxton down. The incumbent has $7.5 million in his campaign war chest and reported raising $2.8 million in the second half of last year. Merritt and Jaworski each pulled in a little under half a million dollars during the same period, while Garza raised $120,000 after entering the race in November.

Former President Donald Trump has endorsed Paxton and helped Paxton’s campaign with fundraising. Paxton was among several state attorneys general who filed suit to overturn the results of the 2022 election.

“Paxton is Trump’s counselor,” Jaworski said. “If you want to stop Trump in 2024, you need to stop Paxton in 2022.”

In lieu of relying on outsize campaign contributions, Merritt said he plans to capitalize on the state’s growing demographic of young voters. He said he hopes his national reputation as a civil rights champion will inspire voters in his favor.

“This is my opportunity to signal to some of the communities in our state who have often felt unrepresented by our slate of candidates … to show that we have the energy and the dynamism to attract voters who have typically stayed at home, particularly in off-year elections,” Merritt said.

Paxton faces three other primary challengers for the Republican nomination: Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, unforgettable East Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, and former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. Just like the Democratic hopefuls, Paxton’s primary opponents on the right have also made a campaign issue out of his extensive legal woes.

Both Jaworski and Merritt also promised to enact enhanced protections for workers during the debate: Merrit said he would advocate for a living wage and robust unions by hiring progressive solicitor generals while Jaworski said he would fight utilities price-gouging and focus on consumer protections in health care and property insurance.

“Texas is the ninth largest economy in the world, but it seems that all the benefits go to the businesses and very few trickle down to the workers,” Merritt said. “That is because we doubt we have an active attorney general who is willing to use that office as a tool to support the workers.”