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In AG Race, Contentious Issues but Little Debate

Some of the most contentious issues on the 2014 campaign trail surround the duties of the attorney general's office, but it's not the AG candidates who've been debating them.

Attorney General candidates Sam Houston, left, and Ken Paxton, right, have not had a debate.

Some of the most contentious issues that have surfaced in statewide campaigns this year — if Texas is required to disclose the locations of hazardous chemical warehouses, or if sweeping cuts lawmakers made to public education should be defended in court — will fall to the next attorney general.

But it's not the candidates for attorney general who've been debating them.

The issues have come up most visibly in the high-profile governor’s race, which pits Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican frontrunner, against state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth. In two debates, the candidates have sparred over Abbott’s ruling in May that the state may withhold information about the location of hazardous chemicals under an antiterrorism law and over his defense of the state’s public school finance system in a case that has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the two top candidates for attorney general have met in person just once, when they gave separate speeches to a sheriff’s association in July. State Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, has otherwise had few public events since winning his party’s nomination. He entered the final month before the election with more than 12 times as much cash as his Democratic opponent, according to filings with the Texas Ethics Commission.

A spokesman for Paxton’s campaign said in a written statement that, as attorney general, Paxton would have “a duty to defend the laws of the state,” including its system of financing public schools. The spokesman did not say whether Paxton agreed with Abbott’s ruling that exempted information about hazardous chemicals from open records law, but he said Paxton would consider “the arguments for and against making all information available to the public, including threats of terrorism.”

Sam Houston, a lawyer and the Democratic candidate, said in a telephone interview that he would reverse the hazardous chemicals ruling and would seek to settle the public school finance lawsuit. He has challenged Paxton to a debate, saying the issues that have emerged in the governor’s race were “hugely important questions” that needed to be discussed by the state’s next top lawyer.

Representatives for Paxton’s campaign have ignored Houston’s calls to debate, calling them a “desperate ploy” from an underdog seeking publicity.

Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, said that in a state where Democrats have not won a statewide election in two decades, Paxton has little incentive to draw attention to his campaign.

“The less people know about the attorney general’s race, the more likely they are to vote just based on partisanship,” Jones said. “Paxton has certainly run a campaign that is flying under the radar.” 

Colleagues of Paxton say his ideology was already well known as solidly conservative and similar to Abbott’s.

“If you start looking at the big things the attorney general looks at, like all the times Abbott has asserted the rights of Texas against the Obama administration, Ken’s going to be taking the same approach,” said Kelly Shackelford, a college friend of Paxton’s and chief executive of the Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group. But he said Paxton’s experience as a legislator could “lead him to take a different leadership style.”

Houston said his opponent had not been open with the news media or the public since he paid a $1,000 fine for violating the Texas Securities Act by soliciting investment clients in 2012 without being registered with the State Securities Board. A representative for Paxton has called the violation an “administrative oversight” that has been resolved.

Houston will continue to hope for a debate, he said, because he considered it especially important in an attorney general’s race to be transparent about policy issues.

“You can get way off into legalese with all these things if you’re not careful, because it’s complicated,” Houston said. “But with all of these issues, the devil’s in the details.”

Disclosure: Rice University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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