Rochelle Garza was nearly eight months pregnant when she took the stage for her final in-person event of the race for the Democratic party’s nomination for attorney general: a candidate forum in Denton on February 18. “My doctor told me, ‘You need to stay in the Rio Grande Valley until your due date,’” she explained. But first, the Brownsville-based former staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, who declared her candidacy in November, articulated her case to the University of North Texas Democrats while Joe Jaworski, the former Galveston mayor who began his campaign for the office back in the summer of 2020, made his. (Dallas-based civil rights attorney Lee Merritt, who had previously planned to attend the event, ended up in Houston to receive the endorsement of longtime congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.)
“I have nearly ten years of relevant legal experience fighting for families in Texas. I’ve practiced immigration, family, criminal defense, and constitutional law,” Garza told the crowd, touting her signature accomplishment to that point in her career—the “Garza Notice” rule that requires the federal government to inform detained immigrants of their right to an abortion, named for her work representing an immigrant woman who was denied access to the procedure during the Trump administration. “I know what it’s like to build up a case and fight for someone who has been overlooked,” she said.
Merritt and Jaworski had another eleven days of campaign events available to them, as did former Harris County criminal court judge Mike Fields, who wasn’t in attendance. But being on that stage was important to Garza. “Pregnant people need to be visible, and to have a seat at the table, because there are decisions happening as a result of us not having representation,” she says. “After the debate, these young women came up to me to say, ‘Wow, seeing you walk across the stage pregnant and then debate for an hour, it was incredible.’”
The theme of the 2022 Democratic primary for Texas attorney general might well be “representation.” It’s certainly not policy disagreement. The candidates are in sync on virtually every key issue that the office of attorney general can affect, from voting rights (they’d like to see them expanded) to abortion access (they oppose the restrictions Texas has implemented) to the role of the state in restricting transgender kids’ access to gender-affirming health care (they don’t think it should be involved) to consumer protections (which they’d emphasize) to marijuana legalization (they’re for it). So Democratic voters are choosing a candidate based in part on who best represents their vision for the party—and their best chance to win in November. As Jaworski puts it, “It’s really more about what our emphasis is.”
The attorney general’s race is perhaps the best pickup opportunity that Democrats have statewide in 2022. The incumbent, Republican Ken Paxton, is as beleaguered as they come—facing both long-standing criminal indictments and an FBI investigation around allegations of bribery—yet leads his three primary challengers in the polls. Should Paxton retain his party’s nomination, he’ll enter 2022 in a similar position to the one he was in in 2018, when legal troubles led him to underperform relative to Governor Greg Abbott by a whopping ten points. In recent history, finding Democratic candidates willing to run for attorney general has been a challenge for the party. Those candidates—as with the 2018 challenger, Justin Nelson, and the 2014 nominee, the famously named but otherwise unknown Sam Houston—are typically private-practice lawyers with little political experience who run unopposed in primaries. Nelson, however, came within three-and-a-half points of defeating Paxton.
Given all that, maybe it’s no surprise that this year’s Democratic field for the office features four candidates who, in most recent primaries, would all have been considered front-runners. “There are some young up-and-comers in this race, very credible candidates,” says Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. “If Paxton is indeed the Republican nominee, this race gives Democrats their best chance to end that twenty-eight-year curse in which no statewide Democrat has won a general election.”
If Paxton is upset by one of his primary opponents, the path for whichever Democrat emerges from the primary will narrow—though Cross says it depends on who the Republican pick is. “There seems to be some pushback on George P. Bush from many in the Republican party,” she says. “That doesn’t mean they would necessarily vote for a Democrat, but they might not vote in that particular race.”
Among the Democrats in the race, the question of how to handle Paxton is one of the handful of points of differentiation. For Jaworski, Paxton’s presence on the ballot is the whole ball game. Jaworski presents himself as a candidate of high principle—something his personal history helps with, as the grandson of famed Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski, and as someone who lost reelection in Galveston in 2012, in part, because of his stance on a public housing commitment he’d made. “Here’s my emphasis,” Jaworski says. “What a shame that Ken Paxton has abused the office of attorney general by turning it into a culture war office where he picks winners and losers weekly, where he could be using it in this very divided time as a consumer protection office, which is what it is designed to be, and sue or investigate the large business interests that rule our lives—on behalf of Republicans, Democrats, independents, and take on, for example, the utility companies who made bank during the winter storm.”
Would Jaworski’s strategy for a general election change if he ends up running against another Republican? “Yeah, oh my gosh,” he says. “I mean, we’ll come up with one. But think about all of the money we’re saving on opposition research by running against Ken Paxton.”
Merritt is less interested in a Paxton-centered strategy. “He won the last election against a Democratic candidate after he was indicted,” Merritt points out. “I don’t think our voters care that much. I think that’s a losing strategy to focus on that. Whether he’s indicted or not, that’s not going to make children any safer, it’s not going to protect women’s rights.” Of the four leading Democrats, Merritt’s the one with a national profile, big out-of-state endorsements (Bernie Sanders offered his support as early voting began), and the largest social media following. Merritt built a successful national practice as a civil rights attorney representing the families of Black citizens who’ve been killed, often by police—his clients include the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Jordan Edwards, George Floyd, and Botham Jean—and says he’s seeking the attorney general’s office because he’s tired of being able to help individual families only after their loved one has been murdered. “After a while, it starts to feel like I’m on a hamster wheel,” he says. “In a position like attorney general, we get to not only deal with the cases and respond to them, but look at policy and why these things continue to happen.”
Merritt’s opponents, especially Jaworski, have questioned why the candidate doesn’t have a license to practice law in Texas, something Merritt says he declined to pursue in order to avoid retaliatory efforts from the State Bar for taking on controversial cases—though he says he’ll obtain one to clear up confusion (he’s currently licensed to practice in federal court). Merritt envisions an attorney general’s office that addresses the state’s mental health crisis, and develops new practices at the local and county levels to prevent Texans in the midst of a mental health emergency from encountering armed police.
Fields, who was a Republican during his time as a judge in Harris County, is hoping that opportunity boosts him into a runoff. He identifies himself as the “old man” of the field, having graduated from law school in 1991 (the same year as Jaworski, and decades before Merritt or Garza), and he corrects me when I say he hasn’t raised much money. “I haven’t raised any money,” he says. “I don’t think money is going to win this race—I think ideas are going to win this race.”
While Fields’s policy positions are generally consistent with the rest of the candidates, he proudly identifies himself as a centrist by temperament and experience, and maintains that most Texans are with him on that. “I don’t think Texans are far left or far right—I think most of us are right down the middle,” he says. He’s taken to virtual events and remote campaigning—you don’t need a staff, or even gas for your bus, to get to a Zoom forum—and argues that running this sort of campaign delivers on voters’ long-stated desire to see money play a less prominent role in politics. (He acknowledges that if he secures the nomination, a zero-spending strategy “would be foolish” in a general election against a well-funded GOP candidate.)
The primary is almost certainly headed for a runoff. Recent polls show Garza leading the pack, with Jaworski in second place by a small margin, and Merritt and Fields behind them. (A fifth candidate, S. “T-Bone” Raynor, polls in the distance and has yet to create a campaign website.) In polls where “undecided” is an option, however, unsure voters make up the bulk of the respondents, which means that there’s considerable opportunity for any candidate to pick up late support.
All four contenders, in other words, offer different versions of a Texas Democrat—and different theories about what kind of candidate appeals to voters. If primary voters choose Garza, for example, they won’t get wildly different policies—but they will get them from a candidate who’s made abortion access and border issues central to her campaign. If they prefer Jaworski, they’ll send the message that replacing a Republican mired in allegations of corruption is at the top of their priority list; supporting Merritt indicates that voting rights and police issues are at the front of mind; and if Fields triumphs, it’ll speak to an appeal among Texas Democrats for a candidate who puts centrism at the core of his message.
It’s unusual for Democrats to have a contested primary for a statewide race, but when I ask Fields—whose experience on the bench and bipartisan credentials would have made him a coveted candidate in previous election cycles—how it feels to be just one of a number of contenders vying for the nomination, he’s upbeat about it. “All bullcorn aside, it’s exciting to be in a race with a Rochelle Garza, a Lee Merritt, a Mayor Jaworski,” he says. “It’s exciting to see that kind of legal talent, where everyone is so smart and their positions are well-thought-out. When I listen to them, I think, ‘Yeah, that sounds good.’ ”