With renewed attention on abortion, Democrats in attorney general runoff vow to defend reproductive rights

Civil rights lawyer Rochelle Garza, left, and former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski will face off in the Democrats attorney general runoff on May 24. (The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune)

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Rochelle Garza locked hands with her mother and marched through Dallas at a reproductive rights rally this month to let voters know she could lead the fight for abortion care.

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“Our mothers fought before and won. Now, it’s our turn to continue the fight and win for OUR daughters and everyone’s access to abortion care,” Garza wrote to her base on Twitter after the rally.

Reproductive care has always been central to Garza’s campaign as she vies to be the Democratic nominee for the Texas attorney general race in November. But with the recent leak of a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion suggesting that the constitutional protection on abortion established in Roe v. Wade might soon come to an end, both Garza and Joe Jaworski, her opponent for the Democratic nomination in a May 24 primary runoff, are pitching themselves as the last line of defense for access to reproductive care in Texas.

“Really the last stand for reproductive rights are the attorney general of each state,” Garza told The Texas Tribune in an interview. “So now more than ever, having an attorney general in the state of Texas is going to be critical to protecting reproductive rights.”

Garza is a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer from Brownsville. Jaworski is the former mayor of Galveston. Early voting began Monday and ends Friday.

The winner will face the victor of the Republican primary runoff in the general election — either Ken Paxton, the incumbent attorney general, or Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush. Paxton is the frontrunner in that race, clinching twice as many votes as Bush in the primaries and the support of former President Donald Trump.

Abortion rights fight gives Garza a leg up

Garza emerged from the crowded March primary with 43% of the vote among Democratic voters. Jaworski came in second place with 20%. Garza has since earned the support of the candidates she beat out, civil rights attorney Lee Merritt and Michael R. Fields, a former judge in Harris County.

Primary runoff elections have historically had low voter turnout rates, and among those who usually show up to vote are progressive Democrats who will likely cast ballots for Garza, said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.

As abortion takes center stage in the attorney general race, political analysts like Jillson say this is a chance for Garza to build off her existing momentum.

“She is the frontrunner and has a number of advantages, some of which she had before the Roe v. Wade document leak and some that she now has as a result of it,” Jillson said.

Although they have never faced off in the ballot, Garza and Paxton have been on opposite sides of an abortion case. Garza made a name for herself in 2017 when she sued the Trump administration, seeking access to an abortion for an undocumented teenager held in detention. After a federal appeals court ruled in Garza’s favor, Paxton filed a brief in response, arguing that immigrants have no constitutional right to abortion. Garza also testified in 2018 against the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who ruled against the case as an appellate court judge.

The teen was able to obtain an abortion while the case was being litigated. The case was later dismissed after the federal government adopted a new policy under which it would not interfere with immigrant minors’ access to abortion.

“Having this nuanced understanding of what it takes to build a case like that and to fight for someone who the government believes is not powerful — that’s what I bring to this race and bring to this position,” Garza said.

Garza was nine weeks pregnant when the state’s controversial ban on abortions after about six weeks into a pregnancy went into effect in September. She was worried at the time about her limited reproductive health care options.

Garza, who balanced her newborn daughter in her arms as she spoke to the Tribune, is now arguing she’s the right choice to defend reproductive rights in the state.

She also stands a clear favorite among national and state abortion rights advocacy groups, garnering endorsements from EMILY’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes and Avow.

Both Jaworski and Garza have stated they would defend reproductive rights as Texas’ next attorney general, who can play a major role in the fight over abortion law in courts. The state’s top lawyer also determines how an abortion ban can be regulated and enforced.

But Jaworski has presented himself as the most experienced candidate. While Garza’s run for attorney general will be her first political race, Jaworski is an established local politician. He served three terms on the Galveston City Council and one term as mayor.

And while Garza’s reproductive rights bona fides stand on her well-known 2017 case, Jaworski points to his experience as a trial attorney for over 31 years. Jaworski has said he would use federal and state court channels to initiate litigation to preserve reproductive rights under both the U.S. and the Texas constitutions.

“I’ve actually been to court and been first chair on over 250 civil lawsuits, some of which had huge political implications,” Jaworski said. “I really appreciate Ms. Garza, a young attorney, to be sure … but that sort of practical experience and leadership will come in very handy.”

Going after Paxton

Whoever wins in the runoff, the Democratic nominee will face an uphill battle to beat their Republican opponent. A Democrat has not filled the seat since 1994.

But Paxton’s critics from both parties think a slew of controversies over the years have made him a vulnerable candidate — and that the time is right to challenge him. He has been indicted since 2015 on felony securities fraud charges and is under FBI investigation over claims he abused his office to help a wealthy donor. Paxton has denied all wrongdoing.

An analysis from the University of Virginia Center for Politics also characterized the attorney general race in Texas as potentially competitive if Paxton is the GOP party’s nominee.

Democrats are hopeful that the recent attacks on abortion access will drive Texans across party lines to vote blue in November. Most Texas voters think access to abortion should be allowed in some form, according to a University of Texas at Austin poll conducted in April. Among Republicans, 24% said abortions should never be permitted, and 42% said abortions should be allowed only in cases of rape or incest, or when a person’s life is in danger. The majority of Democratic respondents — 67% — said Texans should be allowed to seek an abortion as a personal choice.

In his two terms as attorney general, Paxton has aggressively fought to restrict abortion access in the state. Paxton fended off challenges to Texas’ abortion ban, which prohibits the medical procedure after about six weeks into a pregnancy. He has also advocated against using state funds to cover abortions and worked to defund Planned Parenthood.

“This issue will be a major headache for AG Paxton,” Emily Trifone, a spokesperson for national group Democratic Attorneys General Association, wrote in a statement. “We’re confident that volunteers and voters are going to work extremely hard this year to beat AG Paxton and his anti-abortion regime.”

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood, Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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