Shannon Hutcheson has billed herself as a fierce reproductive rights advocate. But the corporate lawyer has papered over a troubling record, including her defense of a prison guard who sexually abused migrant women.
After working at the prestigious corporate law firm Baker Botts for more than a decade, Shannon Hutcheson decided to hang out a shingle of her own. Along with a colleague, in 2011 she started the women-owned boutique law firm Hutcheson Bowers, which specialized in representing businesses on labor and employment matters and quickly developed a sterling reputation in the Austin legal community. In 2014, the Travis County Women Lawyers’ Association awarded it law firm of the year.
Now Hutcheson is running as a Democrat in Texas’ gerrymandered 10th Congressional District, which carves up parts of liberal Austin and stretches across a string of ruby-red rural counties all the way to suburban Houston. The 10th District, currently held by the uber-wealthy and influential GOP incumbent Michael McCaul, is a top-tier target for national Democrats heading into 2020; national political groups are already throwing their weight into the three-way Democratic primary.
On paper, Hutcheson looks like a solid candidate. Her first-time bid for public office has gained an improbable amount of traction. Last week, EMILY’s List—a highly influential pro-choice political group that works to get women elected to Congress—endorsed Hutcheson, the sole woman in a primary that also includes Mike Siegel, a progressive who ran for the district in 2018 and unexpectedly cut down the margins by a substantial amount.
In its endorsement of Hutcheson, EMILY’s List cited her work at her law firm, “where she has fought for causes including reproductive justice, access to health care, and served as a voice for survivors of domestic abuse.” That experience seems important to Hutcheson, too. As a candidate, she’s emphasized her legal work for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, her working-class roots, and her ascent in the legal profession. As her campaign biography states, “having her own firm allowed Shannon the time and flexibility to work on the causes that are important to her.”
But Hutcheson’s professional, political, and voting history tells a different story. It shows that she voted in the 2010 GOP primary—a referendum election cycle for Obama and the Affordable Care Act—and has made several campaign contributions to conservative judges. It shows that her bid is backed by her husband Mark Hutcheson’s high-powered property tax litigation firm, with ties to powerful Republican state lawmakers. And it shows that as a corporate lawyer, Hutcheson has defended a litany of businesses against claims of wrongdoing by aggrieved workers, women, and migrant detainees and advanced corporate interests. A testimonial on the law firm’s website quotes the CEO of a pipeline company saying, “You really did do a good job—and saved us a significant amount of money.”
That groups like EMILY’s List have rallied behind Hutcheson is emblematic of a deeper divide within the Democratic coalition—between the establishment status quo who see socially liberal, business-friendly moderates as the key to expand the power of the party and the progressive left, which sees bold economic populism and grassroots movements as the way to advance a political agenda.
In 2010, Donald Dunn, a former guard at the T. Don Hutto private migrant detention center in Taylor, was tried and convicted of multiple misdemeanors for abuse of power, admitting that he groped female detainees while he transported them to bus stations and the Austin airport. Eight female victims were discovered, and the case put a national spotlight on the potential for sexual abuse of migrant detainees in federal custody. In October 2011, the ACLU filed a civil suit against ICE, the Corrections Corporation of America—which operated the facility—and Dunn, among others, on behalf of three victims.
Hutcheson’s law firm was hired to defend Dunn in what became a protracted legal battle. In early 2013, Hutcheson was named as Dunn’s lead attorney, court records show. By 2017, the case was settled out of court. It’s not clear whether CCA directly paid Hutcheson Bowers to defend Dunn; the campaign told the Observer that those specifics were covered by attorney-client privilege.
Hutcheson Bowers, which has just three attorneys, is also actively representing CCA (now called CoreCivic) in a lawsuit by Martha Gonzalez, a Mexican migrant who says that she was illegally forced to work while in Texas detention camps run by the company. Hutcheson’s campaign said that though she does not recall doing any work on the case, it was not immediately able to conclusively rule out any direct involvement the candidate might have had.
The CCA case is far from the only questionable litigation with which Hutcheson has been involved. In 2014, she was hired to defend the Texas Attorney General’s Office against a discrimination claim filed under the Equal Pay Act. A female attorney at the center of the case alleges that, despite having the same level of experience and doing a job that was equal to if not more difficult than her male colleagues’, she was paid “substantially lower” than them and was passed over more often for promotions, according to the court filing. The case went to mediation and was eventually settled.
Hutcheson was also hired by the Association for Student Conduct Administration—a group of university officials who handle sexual assault cases—to investigate a case within its own ranks. In February 2016, Jill Creighton, an ASCA board member, alleged that Jason Casares, a former president of the organization, had sexually assaulted her after the two had drinks at a professional convention in late 2015. As Mother Jones reported, Creighton said Casares made unwanted sexual contact with her after she had too much to drink; Casares denied the allegations but eventually resigned from his position at Indiana University. In response to Creighton’s allegations, ASCA launched an internal investigation, hiring Hutcheson to lead it.
Creighton criticized the investigation, saying it failed to follow ASCA’s own best practices. Hutcheson was said to have leaned on “ancillary witnesses” and did not attempt to track down potential third-party witnesses. After a six-week investigation and at least $30,000 in expenses, Hutcheson released a report ruling that Creighton’s allegations “could not be substantiated.” Creighton was shocked when she read the report.
“At no moment was I provided with fairness,” Creighton told Mother Jones. “The report blames me for being in the same hotel room, blames me for not crying out for help in the moment, blames me for not taking physical pictures [of my injuries] … and blames me for confronting him.”
Hutcheson’s campaign declined to make her available for an interview for this story but emailed a written statement in response to questions about the cases she’s worked on. “As the co-founder of a women-owned law firm, my goal is fair outcomes for everyone. My job is to ensure employers are complying with laws to create an equitable workplace for employees,” the statement read.
Hutcheson’s campaign has taken care to highlight her working-class roots and struggles to pay off mountains of student loan debt. On Labor Day, her campaign sent an email describing how she “grew up in a union family.” Her mother was a Houston teacher, her father was a post office worker, and her uncle was an autoworker for General Motors. “I have lived the difference between the good times and the hard times, and it almost always came down to a good job,” the email read. “Things are harder these days. Solid, good-paying jobs are harder to come by. And, now they don’t often come with affordable healthcare benefits, let alone pensions or retirement benefits. It seems like working Texas families are under constant attack.”
But Hutcheson’s career as a lawyer has repeatedly put her on the opposite side of the table from workers who have tried to fight back against similar attacks.
Hutcheson has criticized what she saw as federal overreach by agencies charged with enforcing the country’s labor laws. In a 2014 report entitled “Agencies Run Amuck [sic]: Defending Against Federal Investigations,” she bemoans that President Barack Obama’s Department of Labor “is not shy in exercising its power” to investigate potential labor violations. “In fact,” she wrote, “the past decade has seen a steady increase in the amounts of back wages recovered annually. This trend is unlikely to end under current U.S. Labor Secretary, Tony [sic] Perez.”
Tom Perez, Obama’s second-term labor secretary, was unabashedly pro-union and took an aggressive, innovative approach to enforcing labor law. Perez is now the national committee chair for the Democratic Party.
As an attorney, Hucheson has defended a host of companies in cases where workers alleged wage theft, age, gender, and racial discrimination, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In October 2018, she defended a tire shop against an employee’s claim that his wages were stolen. The case was settled in mediation.
On multiple occasions, Hutcheson has represented Austin-based NetSpend, a prepaid debit card company that has a reputation for high fees and has been charged by federal regulators with deceptive marketing tactics. In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission ordered the company to return $10 million to its customers. In one case, Hutcheson defended NetSpend from a man—who wrote his legal complaint from behind bars—contesting that the company defrauded him out of tens of thousands of dollars in Social Security benefits. That case was settled out of court.
Still, Hutcheson’s record hasn’t deterred Democratic insiders. In a statement to the Observer, EMILY’s List emphasized Hutcheson’s work for Planned Parenthood. “She is the strongest candidate to beat Congressman McCaul and we are proud to support her,” spokesperson Benjamin Ray said. NARAL Pro-Choice America, another top reproductive rights group that also recently endorsed Hutcheson, echoed EMILY’s List. Hutcheson has “dedicated nearly a decade of her career to advocating for women and families, and we’re proud to support a candidate who will be a true champion for reproductive freedom in Congress.”
The EMILY’s List support could have a big payoff. The group has grown increasingly close with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—the official House campaign arm of the party establishment. As the Intercept has reported, some progressives have criticized EMILY’s List for acting as a gatekeeper that elevates candidates who are favored by party insiders and have robust donor rolodexes—the sort that the party believes are best positioned to win swing districts—at the expense of grassroots progressives with fewer connections.
And Hutcheson is well-connected. Her campaign finance chair, Aimee Boone Cunningham—a Planned Parenthood Texas activist and Container Store heir—is a major Democratic Party donor who cut a $35,500 check to the DCCC in early 2019. Soon after, Hutcheson went to Washington to meet with DCCC officials, the Intercept reported.
But the endorsement from EMILY’s List was just the latest score for Hutcheson’s campaign. Texas state Senator Kirk Watson, a former Austin mayor and powerful figure in both the local party establishment and the legal community, also recently endorsed Hutcheson. A Watson staffer said the senator was on a plane and not available for comment.
Hutcheson is in a three-way primary with Siegel and Austin physician Pritesh Gandhi. She’s already raised a formidable sum—nearly $535,000—of campaign money. Almost half of that has come from big donors who gave more than $2,000; just $40,000 came from small donors, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
Large donors from Popp Hutcheson, the law firm where her husband, Mark, works, have contributed more than $75,000 to her campaign. As progressive activist and blogger Howie Klein first highlighted, the firm’s top partner, James Popp, is responsible for lobbying for and drafting property tax laws with loopholes big enough to let corporations shave off billions of dollars in tax savings, diverting hundreds of billions in potential tax revenue from state coffers.
Hutcheson has also made campaign contributions to a trio of Texas judges, including Scott Field, a self-described “constitutional conservative” who formerly served on the state’s Third Court of Appeals. There, he was part of a panel that granted a right-wing group’s request for an injunction to block Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance in 2018. They argued that mandatory compensation for sick leave is equivalent to a wage and therefore violates state minimum wage law. From 2011 to 2013, Hutcheson and her husband, as well as her law firm gave Fields $2,000, campaign finance records show.
In 2018, the 10th Congressional District was seen as a long shot. Thanks in part to the inroads made by Siegel, who came within 5 percentage points of ousting the powerful Republican incumbent, national Democrats now see it as a top 2020 swing district target and, as such, it’s likely to be one of the most competitive Democratic primary races.
Siegel, a former attorney for the city of Austin, is running again on a progressive platform that includes Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and workers’ rights. But the DCCC hasn’t rallied behind the Berniecrat like it has for other Texas congressional candidates who are running again in competitive districts.
Siegel, who is trailing both of his Democratic opponents in fundraising, believes that the DCCC—which ostensibly stays neutral in party primaries—prefers business-friendly types like Hutcheson. Asked to comment for this story, Siegel played up his experience advocating for the vulnerable as a public school teacher, union organizer, and civil rights lawyer. “The best way to see who someone will fight for in Congress is to look at their record,” he told the Observer. “We already have a representative who takes money from private immigration jails and abusive employers—we don’t need another one.”
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