Paxton Is Burning
Was yesterday’s performance by the Texas House of Representatives intended to restore public faith in the body’s commitment to the rule of law? Separate the good cops in the GOP from the bad cops? Or prove that a legislature that spent a year cravenly ignoring the pleas of Uvalde victims’ relatives for common-sense gun safety laws before rejecting them outright while rushing through an attempt to put the Ten Commandments in every classroom isn’t really the 10th circle of hell? If so, the hearing leading up to a 121-23 vote to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton for corruption was an epic fail.
What the public saw—regardless of the lawmakers’ intentions—was the eruption of fissures that have more to do with pride and power than justice. It was a cross between the state’s largest intra-party catfight and its most public self-inflicted gunshot wound, as the bad blood between Paxton and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, who serve as proxies for Trump and Republicans trying to distance themselves from Trump in advance of next year’s elections, finally spilled out into the open.
The lineup featured, on the one hand, GOP representatives who suddenly had a lot of worries about “due process,” “precedent,” and “evidence” that had not been evident while banning abortion and stripping transgender youth and their families of access to healthcare. Or during the next day’s vote, when the GOP ended their regular legislative session by singling out Houston, with its sizable Black population, for a different election process than the rest of the state. The thinly veiled voter suppression measure gives the secretary of state under certain conditions the power to run elections in Harris County, home to Houston and 4.8 million residents. It follows a bill approved days earlier that shifts the oversight of elections from its appointed elections administrator to the county clerk and county assessor.
The opposition to the allegedly process-and-fairness-obsessed wing of the GOP were those GOP colleagues who solemnly intoned about what appears to be their newly discovered “obligation to protect the citizens of Texas from elected officials who abuse their office and their powers for personal gain.” Notwithstanding their shared enthusiasm for consolidating power both by passing voter suppression laws and by riling up their base through culture war moves like banning abortion and stripping transgender youth and their families of access to healthcare and human rights.
Various media outlets, and a few of Paxton’s defenders, have made much of the lightning speed of this past week. But while it may have been mere days between the Republican-led House General Investigating Committee’s announcement of their investigation and their unanimous vote to introduce 20 articles of impeachment to the full House for Saturday’s hearing and impeachment vote, Paxton has been under felony indictment for securities fraud since he became attorney general in 2015. The FBI had been investigating Paxton on allegations that he used his office to benefit a wealthy donor, Nate Paul, since late 2020. Only in February of this year did the Department of Justice take over that probe, breathing new life into it.
Paxton’s overreach the next month, in March of this year, appears to have been the second-to-last straw. According to the committee’s own memo, released the day before the full House hearing: “But for Paxton’s own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement over his wrongful conduct, Paxton would not be facing impeachment.” Not, please note, the wrongful conduct—that is, Paxton’s firing of four whistleblowing members of his own senior staff after they accused him of using his office to help out Paul. Nor Paxton’s decision this past spring to pay $3.3 million to settle out of court. Or even the $600,000 the House spent defending Paxton. But Paxton’s request that taxpayers pay that $3.3 million—and that his fellow GOP colleagues go on record approving that request.
The final straw? Paxton, likely knowing that Phelan was going to try to gloss this most recent disgusting legislative term by ending it on a high note, called on him to resign last week over alleged drunkenness—via a tweet. Making it look super-extra-duper political when the House General Investigating Committee revealed that afternoon that it had been investigating Paxton in secret since March. The committee then heard a three-hour presentation from its investigators detailing allegations of corruption against the attorney general and voted to forward 20 articles of impeachment to the full House.
Believe me when I say that I, like many people who have been burned by the Texas GOP’s seemingly endless appetite for cruelty, ignorance, and hypocrisy, felt a certain satisfaction as I watched yesterday’s coverage of it setting itself on fire. Top moment? When the first group to appear outside the Capitol in Austin in response to Paxton’s call for supporters to turn out was around 100 people preparing for the “Trot for Trans Lives,” a 5K run held in support of transgender Americans affected by the waves of anti-trans rights legislation passed in recent years, including by Texas lawmakers.
Small pleasures aside, none of this is as satisfying as it sounds, nor do I think it will end well. Not considering all the bureaucracy that lies ahead. Governor Greg Abbott, who has remained curiously silent this past week while he sticks his finger into the political wind, has 10 days to tell the Senate to start a trial. A trial that would be presided over by Paxton buddy arch-conservative Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and that’s likely to be kicked down the road infinitely and/or end with an acquittal.
But the bottom line: While Paxton burns—or simmers or escapes entirely—and intra-party fighting and dirty laundry airing be damned, the members of the USA’s largest, richest, and most powerful wing of the GOP have screwed Texas on such a large, systemic level that they’ll still prevail. In the state, through control of both chambers and the governor’s seat, held in place by voter suppression and gerrymandering. Nationally, with courts packed with ideologues, including a Supreme Court that has already demonstrated its willingness to let Texas gut constitutional rights, overturn precedent, and play an enthusiastic role in the new national sport: playing on whatever field offers your agenda the best advantage. That means valorizing states’ rights when it’s convenient, or passing the ball to the Supreme Court if a federal ban looks more likely or appealing.
Call this, with apologies to Taylor Swift, the “Errors Tour” or, in a nod to the Ziegfeld Follies, “Hypocrisy on Parade.” Or let’s go “Paris is Burning” and give the representatives a Realness Award for their impersonation of legislators who seriously care about integrity, democracy, and the will of voters.
But whatever you do, don’t hold your breath waiting for justice.
NANCY GOLDSTEIN has written about politics and culture for The American Prospect, The Guardian, The Nation, and The Washington Post. A New Yorker for the past few decades, she is currently spending as much time as possible in the Mediterranean.