Ken Paxton situation presents the Texas GOP with an opportunity

This article was originally published on the Quorum Report.

Now that the worst-kept secret in Texas politics has been revealed and Attorney General Ken Paxton has surrendered to law enforcement because he’s been indicted on three felony fraud charges in the Metroplex, there is a lot of talk in Austin focused on what Gov. Greg Abbott will do if it turns out Paxton is unable to serve out his term.

Conspiracy theories have already emerged as to why “God’s Lawyer” is facing persecution – er, a prosecution partially based on Paxton's own admission to state regulators last year that he violated securities law.

Some might argue it is premature to speculate about how Abbott might handle the appointment of a successor to the Attorney General who was hand-picked by Sen. Ted Cruz and midland oilman Tim Dunn. After all, the indictment is closer to the beginning of due process than the end and does not force his resignation.

But believe me when I tell you that some of those who wish to step into the role have been working overtime behind the scenes to jockey for position. And unlike Paxton, none of the names mentioned so far would necessarily have the full-throated support of Sen. Cruz or Tim Dunn’s Empower Texans and allied organizations.

Former Gov. Rick Perry has had some political success in arguing that his indictment in Travis County is all about “Austin liberals” on a witch hunt. There were even some Democrats and mainstream media members who decried Perry's indictment as the "Stupidest thing I've seen."

Try as he might, Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm’s claims of prosecutorial bias have not been as convincing.

That’s because former U.S. House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s attorney Brian Wice was appointed by a GOP judge as one of the special prosecutors to look into Paxton’s business dealings and a three-count felony indictment was handed up by a grand jury in deep red Republican Collin County. A Republican judge from the largest GOP urban county in America – Tarrant County – has been appointed to oversee the case. When DeLay eventually won his case, by the way, he thanked two people: Jesus Christ and Brian Wice.

Thanks to this mess, Gov. Abbott may have an opportunity to move the ball forward for the Republican Party of Texas in its bid to win the Hispanic vote for the long term. In much the same way Abbott’s winning gubernatorial campaign sought to expand the party’s appeal with Latinos, the new governor could in a single action signal to that increasingly important population that he is dead serious about ensuring their values are reflected in the highest levels of Texas government.

For that reason, two names in the list of potential replacements for Paxton stand out: Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and Rep. Jason Villalba. Both of them are rock solid Hispanic Republicans, but conventional wisdom in Austin at the moment points to the choice of Supreme Court Justice Don Willett. Willett’s name has been the one floated most often lately. His public relations effort has been impeccable.

Willett’s state and national media appearances highlighting his social media prowess – Willett is considered the“Tweeter Laureate of Texas” – have given him considerably higher name ID than any other person on the bench in the Great State. A few weeks ago, national columnist George Will went so far as to promote Willett as a potential nominee for the United States Supreme Court. With that kind of buzz, Abbott’s best choice would be Willett, right?

Maybe not.

When talking about Texas as a land of opportunity in his Inaugural Address, Abbott pointed to Justice Guzman as a prime example of all that is possible. He noted her story as a 13-year-old daughter of immigrants from Mexico who worked nights in a drapery factory “but never gave up on her dreams.”

“Now Eva Guzman is the first Latina to serve as a Justice on the Texas Supreme Court,” Abbott said. She is also the first Latina ever elected statewide. In the months since that speech, her name has often come up in high-level conversations as a potential replacement for Paxton.

Justice Guzman first got the political bug in the union halls of Houston’s East End. Many Latinas of Guzman’s generation saw their parents’ incomes rise thanks to union involvement and would later go on to be Republicans when they became part of a professional class that also holds socially conservative views. “See? Not all Republicans are anti-union,” she said as laughter erupted during a speech in Houston in 2013.

Rep. Villalba’s name first surfaced this weekend as the indictment of Paxton became public knowledge. Some Texas Capitol insiders have said Villalba “is on the short list” for consideration. The sophomore lawmaker has made it a personal mission to make it clear to his fellow Latinos that they belong in the Party of Ronald Reagan. "Latinos are Republican. They just don't know it yet,” Reagan once said.

Contrast that welcoming message with the current rhetoric of GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump and the challenge for Abbott could probably not be more difficult. Villalba would be an effective ally in the fight. He’s already taken it on himself in recent years to travel the state speaking to Republican groups about the future of the party and what it needs to do to remain viable with the fastest growing segment of the population.

Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson has also been mentioned as a potential replacement in recent days. Two others who have been mentioned are Gov. Abbott's Chief of Staff Daniel Hodge and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams. Williams has said he is not interested in the job.

One name heard less and less for AG is former Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who like the others mentioned here is eminently qualified for the position. The trouble with this choice is the Tea Party anger that would undoubtedly be directed at the governor. Branch and Paxton tangled in a bitter primary runoff in 2014 that stings to this day. Abbott’s embrace of Jade Helm 15 hysteria and “Open Carry” activism has made it clear he has no interest in incurring too much wrath from those on the right, the majority of whom also preferred Paxton to Branch.

Copyright August 03, 2015, Harvey Kronberg,, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission.


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