Local political experts and party leaders were watching intently Friday as the Texas Senate deliberated the guilt of Attorney General Ken Paxton, a 1985 Baylor University graduate, in his historic impeachment trial.
No statewide officeholder has faced impeachment since Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson in 1917, and Paxton’s trial is only the second in Texas’ history.
The Texas House on May 27 impeached Paxton by a 121-23 margin and suspended him from office until his Senate trial concludes. He was originally charged with 20 articles of impeachment, which have since been reduced to 16 for this trial.
The articles allege Paxton abused his power to intervene in an investigation against his friend and political donor Nate Paul, cover up an extramarital affair, took bribes and retaliated against whistleblowers who reported his misconduct.
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Pat Flavin, the Bob Bullock professor of political science at Baylor, said impeachment trials in state governments are fairly rare because most states are controlled by one political party and usually, politicians would not pursue charges against someone in their own party.
“More and more states are controlled by a single party more than say, even 10 or 20 years ago,” Flavin said. “Another thing that makes this stand out and draw national attention is that it’s a Republican majority in the House and Senate, a Republican lieutenant governor potentially holding one of their own accountable, which is very different from say, the impeachment of Trump where it was a Democratic Congress leading the way.”
Flavin said there is currently a split in the Texas Republican Party between traditional establishment Republicans and a “competing Trump strain” that includes Paxton. He said the suggestions that Democrats or so-called RINOs — Republicans In Name Only — were behind the impeachment may be a “good political strategy.” But in fact, a majority of House Republicans have supported impeachment, including ones that were farther right.
Representative Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, voted against impeachment and told the Tribune-Herald at the time his vote was based on process concerns, as he said House members did not even know Paxton was being investigated until the articles were revealed, and said members had little time to fully consider the articles before voting to impeach.
Representative Angelia Orr, R-Itasca, whose district includes part of McLennan County, voted in favor of impeachment and said in a statement that the allegations against Paxton were disturbing and serious enough to merit a full Senate trial.
She also noted that 70% of House Republicans voted to impeach, and said she felt it was important for voters to know the investigation was triggered by Paxton asking the Legislature to use $3.3 million of taxpayer money to settle a lawsuit against whistleblowers who he fired after they reported his misconduct to the FBI and Texas Rangers.
Senator Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who represents Waco, declined comment after the May vote. The Texas Legislature is currently under a gag order, so Orr and Anderson were unable to comment when contacted by the Tribune-Herald this month.
In order to be removed from office, 21 of the eligible 30 Senators must vote to convict Paxton. Anything less means he will be acquitted. The current sway of the Texas Senate is 19 Republicans to 12 Democrats.
Paxton’s Waco ties include his time as student body president at Baylor, and he won 64.2% of the McLennan County vote in the 2022 general election.
McLennan County Republican Party Chairman Brad Holland said the impact of the trial will certainly be felt locally, but not to the point of affecting local or state primary elections. He said he doesn’t foresee Paxton’s troubles fracturing the Republican Party in Texas.
“Some people want to make this a wedge issue for the party,” Holland said. “I think we still stand for what we stand for. The fact that one individual has been accused and gets his day in court shouldn’t fracture the party.”
Holland said that while many people may try to politicize the impeachment, the trial is a legal process that should not be swayed by politics and should instead be decided on evidence. He said he has been very impressed by the expertise of the legal representation on both sides of the trial.
He said the situation surrounding Paxton’s impeachment trial is unfortunate and said nobody wants it to happen, but reserved his judgment on Paxton’s guilt and said it is up for the Senate to decide.
“As a party, we have been trying to make sure this process is done correctly, and that justice is served,” Holland said.
Holland said despite the accusations against Paxton, he has done many good things for Texas and many Texans are proud of Paxton’s political record. Holland said Paxton has been instrumental in keeping the power of the federal government in check and allowing Texas to stand for itself and resist federal intrusions into state matters.
Jim Dunnam, a Waco lawyer and former Democrat Texas State Representative who represented parts of McLennan, Falls, Robertson, Leon and Madison counties from 1997 to 2011, served in the Texas House around the same time Paxton did. Paxton was a state representative from 2003 to 2013, and was a state senator from 2013 to 2015 before becoming attorney general.
Dunnam said he didn’t have much of an impression of Paxton as a state legislator, calling him an “odd duck” and “non-entity” who didn’t really seem to have much of an influence within the Legislature. Dunnam said he was surprised that Paxton was able to get to where he is today.
Dunnam said Paxton has largely been able to hold office due to riding the “MAGA wave,” referring to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. He also said Texas suffered from political polarization, and many state politicians have been campaigning on national issues such as immigration that state legislatures have no control over instead of issues that are actually decided in Austin, such as schools, roads, prisons and healthcare.
Dunnam also said Paxton has been given preferential treatment over the delays in his securities fraud cases. Since July 2015, Paxton has been under indictment on charges that he solicited shares of Servergy Inc. to investors without disclosing that he was receiving compensation from the company in return.
The trial has been delayed many times, and Dunnam called it a “travesty of justice” that the trial has been delayed so long.
“Just because of who you are, you shouldn’t be treated differently and not have a trial,” Dunnam said. “They’ve managed to stall it out for so long, that in and of itself is an injustice.”
Flavin said the prosecutors in the securities fraud and impeachment trials reached an agreement to postpone the fraud trial until the impeachment trial has concluded.
If Paxton is impeached, Flavin said Gov. Greg Abbott can decide to keep the interim attorney general, Angela Colmenero, or appoint someone else until an election in fall 2024 would select someone to fill the remaining two years of Paxton’s term.