MCALLEN, RGV – The race for Texas Attorney General is not about party political affiliation but rather restoring integrity to the office.

That was the message Texas Democratic Party candidate Justin Nelson made on a campaign swing through the Rio Grande Valley on Friday. 

The Houston-raised attorney who clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor when she was on the U.S. Supreme Court is challenging ethically-challenged Republican incumbent Ken Paxton. 

“Right now we have an Attorney General, Ken Paxton, who is indicted for fraud. He faces three felony counts for defrauding his friends, his clients, even his fellow Republican lawmakers,” Nelson said, in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM. 

Justin Nelson

“I am not a politician. I am doing this because I believe the people of Texas need a real lawyer for Texas Attorney General. Someone who will fight for Texans every single day. People do not want a crook as attorney general.”

Less than a year after being elected attorney general, Paxton was indicted in July 2015 for securities fraud. Nelson has his theory on why Paxton has yet to be tried in a court of law.

“The reason he has not gone to trial is because he has been colluding with his cronies on the Collin County Commissioners Court, one of the most heavily Republican counties in Texas, not to pay the special prosecutors. Think about it. We are in the position where the chief lawyer for Texas believes that prosecutors should not be paid for prosecuting crimes, at least in the sole instance where it is his crime they are trying to prosecute. It is ridiculous,” Nelson said. 

Indeed, Paxton is the first statewide official in Texas history to run for re-election while indicted, Nelson said.

“That is a first. Think about it. Not only is he the first indicted official to run for re-election, he is the chief lawyer while he is doing it. He cannot even serve on a jury because he is indicted. He cannot even own a gun because he is indicted. We can do so much better.”

The question voters must ask, Nelson argued, is whether they want to elect someone interested in upholding the rule of law.

“I am proud of my legal career. I have been honored by my peers as one of the top lawyers in Texas, I teach law at the University of Texas Law School. I clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the United States Supreme Court. I believe the people of Texas want someone who will fight for everybody regardless of party and that is what I intend to do. We need somebody as Texas Attorney General who is going to enforce the law not somebody who is going to break it.”

According to financial disclosure statements, Paxton received more than $600,000 in gifts over a three year period that were used to cover his legal defense. These gifts came from family friends or others not covered by state bribery laws, he has argued. 

If elected, Nelson wants to close this loophole. 

“Mr. Paxton has taken $100,000 in gifts from his contributors, who are also people who have business in front of the Texas Attorney General’s Office. He then drops investigations for pennies on the dollar for these fraud investigations. It is wrong. I think we need full transparency in Texas state government, especially in the Attorney General’s Office,” Nelson said.

“So, what I have called for is the closing of loopholes that allow food, lodging and transportation gifts if you claim a pre-existing relationship. I would also tighten up the lobbying ban. I would impose a five-year ban (on becoming a lobbyist) if you are a high-ranking Texas state government official. I think we need full transparency for financial disclosures. It is vital the people of Texas trust their elected officials to do the right thing.”

Texas is a reliably “Blue” state. Asked if his message is getting across, Nelson said:

Ken Paxton

“Texas has voted Republican for a long time. But, Texas was closer than Iowa in the last presidential election. It was just as close as Ohio. My race is not a partisan race. You have to run as a Democrat or a Republican but I believe you have to be a Texas Attorney General for everybody. 

“My goal is to take the law out of politics as much as possible, to make sure the law is above politics and to make sure we enforce the rule of law. That is the most important thing about this campaign, to make sure we have a Texas Attorney General who is working on behalf of everybody and that is what is wrong with Mr. Paxton is doing, in addition to being a disgrace because he is indicted, he is putting his own personal and political interests ahead of what is best for the state of Texas and that is wrong.”

Nelson said he and Paxton are virtually tied in the polls. 

“When people find out Mr. Paxton is indicted we are actually ahead. His whole strategy is to make people forget or not know about the indictment. People want someone who will do the job fairly and accurately and according to the Constitution. One of the main jobs of the Texas Attorney General is to crack down on fraud. Right now we have an indicted fraudster who is in charge of the fraud department.”

Another fact Valley residents should now about, Nelson said, is that Paxton wants to close offices in the Rio Grande Valley and other places that go after fraud and consumer abuse. T

“That is wrong. We need to make sure we are protecting the people of Texas against fraud. We need someone who will fight corruption, not be a part of it. In his budget he is proposing closing offices that would allow consumers to report instances of fraud.”

Nelson said he is “within striking distance” of winning in November in part because of the “unique nature” of the attorney general’s race. Another factor, Nelson said, is Texas is changing.

“More importantly than an any political angle, is the fact that we are hiring a lawyer for Texas. A lot of the people that know Ken Paxton don’t want to hire him as that lawyer because he is indicted. He faces decades in prison. Think about it. How is he going to do his job behind prison walls? That is a real possibility,” Nelson said.

“The only thing he has said in court lately, best we can find, are the following four words: ‘Not Guilty, Your Honor.’ We can do so much better. We out-raised him (in campaign donations) in this last quarter. We more than doubled what he raised. The people of the Rio Grande Valley have a real choice here. I am hoping the people of Texas choose a real lawyer.”

Nelson added: “This race is about integrity versus indictment. This race is about enforcing the rule of law. This race is about a check on power and not a rubber stamp. This race is about someone who will enforce the rule of law, not break it.” 

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Hidalgo County Democratic Party activists Kathryn Hearn and Rosalie Weisfeld at a campaign event with Justin Nelson in McAllen on Friday, July 12, 2018.

Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian will feature Ken Paxton on his next swing through the Rio Grande Valley. Click here to read a story on his last public engagement in the region.