AUSTIN (KXAN) — This week was monumental for Rochelle Garza in more ways than one: marking the start of early voting and her daughter turning 7 months old.
The Democratic candidate from South Texas is taking on Republican incumbent Ken Paxton, who is seeking a third term as the Texas Attorney General. On Monday when the polls opened, Garza pushed her 7-month-old daughter in a stroller through Brownsville’s Veterans Park to cast her ballot and pose for pictures, along with several other candidates.
“I’m in this fight for her, and for her future. I want to make sure that my daughter has more rights than I did when I was growing up. That includes the rights over her own body. It’s one of the most fundamental things that we have as human beings — is to be able to decide our own futures,” she said.
Access to abortion has become a central issue for Garza’s campaign, after the Supreme Court’s summer ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization which gave states the right to regulate abortion and effectively overturned Roe v. Wade. In the wake of the decision, a Texas law kicked in, banning abortions except in certain emergency scenarios.
Garza has been fighting for abortion for years and even faced off with Paxton on the issue in 2017. In a federal case, Garza represented a detained migrant teen who was seeking an abortion. Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a brief defending the federal government’s right, under former President Donald Trump, to deny access to abortion services to this teen and others — saying “Texas must not become a sanctuary state for abortions.”
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He told the court, “Texas has a legitimate and substantial interest in preserving and promoting fetal life, as well as an interest in promoting respect for human life at all stages in a pregnancy.”
This year, after Dobbs, Paxton filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, criticizing its use of something called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). He argued that the department was improperly using this patient protection law to “force Texas hospitals and doctors to perform abortions.”
Garza said, as a civil rights attorney, she’s putting choice at the front-and-center of her campaign: “Once we let go of one civil right, it’s going to impact all of the other hard-fought rights that we have. So today, it’s choice. Tomorrow, it’s marriage equality. It’s our right to contraception. And where does it end?”
KXAN contacted Paxton’s campaign several times in the weeks leading up to early voting to request an interview, but has not heard back.
What are the issues?
Monday marked an important day for Paxton, as well, with his office announcing the launch of its 2022 General Election Integrity Team. These lawyers, investigators and support staff will look at alleged violations of the Texas Election Code to ensure elections are “transparent and secure.”
In his announcement, the AG’s office listed some of those violations, which include a vote harvester collecting your mail-in ballot or anyone helping you vote suggesting by word, sign or gesture how you should vote. It’s a similar initiative to one the office launched last year, as well.
A KXAN investigation from 2020 found voter fraud complaints are rare, and it’s even less common for them to result in jail time. A Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling also recently noted that Attorney General does not have the power to prosecute these cases, unilaterally.
“I’ve spent my career defending our state and the rule of law,” Paxton said, after the release of a recent attack ad, critiquing his opponent on immigration.
The ad claims Garza wants “completely open borders” and calls her a “liberal extremist.”
Over his tenure in office, Paxton has filed several lawsuits against the federal government aimed at policies at the border — saying the Biden Administration “has sown nothing but disaster” for the country with policies he claims are illegal.
The ad goes on to say Garza will defend human traffickers; Garza told KXAN she worries her opponent has been “soft on crime” and cited an Associated Press investigation into a series of human trafficking and child sexual assault cases dropped by his office because it was “unable to locate” the victim.
“You have a criminally indicted Attorney General who is just absolutely unconcerned with doing the job. We need to get back to basics. We need to have someone in this office that’s going to be protecting Texas families,” Garza said.
Garza went on to criticize Paxton’s handling of other consumer protection cases, referencing the 2021 Texas winter storm and her goal of holding price gouging corporations accountable.
Meanwhile, the incumbent filed his latest lawsuit in a series of cases against big-tech companies over users’ privacy concerns. It accuses Google of allegedly using consumer’s biometric data without permission; he sued Facebook’s parent company over the same issue in the spring.
Earlier this month, he announced a new program targeting opioid abuse among students.
At the time, he said, “This will be the largest drug prevention, education, abatement, and disposal campaign in our nation’s history, at least that is our hope.”
KXAN political reporter Jala Washington approached Paxton after this press conference to request an on-camera interview about other topics; his team declined.
What do the polls show?
Recent polls show Paxton ahead in the race for attorney general.
An August Dallas Morning News-UT Tyler poll showed Garza within two points of Paxton, while an Emerson College-The Hill poll released Monday shows her five points behind.
In addition to his criminal indictment over securities fraud, which has been pending since 2015, Paxton has faced other scandals in the years since the last election.
Several employees made allegations against him of bribery and abuse of office in 2020 — accusing him of using his office to help Nate Paul, a wealthy Austin-area real estate developer and Paxton donor. Four former top aides eventually sued Paxton for wrongful firing and retaliation after blowing the whistle.
This year, the State Bar Association filed an ethics complaint and eventually sued Paxton for his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. He maintains the bar association is “politically motivated” against him.
It’s unclear what impact these mounting incidents will have on the election.
Recent polling from the Texas Politics Project found 16% of responding voters said they had not heard about Paxton’s legal troubles at all. 26% said they had heard “not very much” about it, and 37% of people had heard “some.” 20% reported hearing “a lot” about it.