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Analysis: For Paxton, a Bumpy Start on the Big Stage

Most Texans don't know who Ken Paxton is, and a pending investigation and a waiting grand jury could leave them with a bad first impression of the state's new attorney general.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaking at the Texas Public Policy Foundation's opening of its new building on April 21, 2015.

Average citizens have no idea who currently serves as attorney general of Texas.

It’s an occupational hazard. Most politicians are relatively unknown. Only a sustained period on the center stage — a long tenure as governor, say, or the presidency — can turn a civic personality into a celebrity. Greg Abbott, for instance, is a much more familiar name now that he is governor, even though he was the longest-serving attorney general in state history.

Great achievements can help. Sustained public failures can do it. Infamy works, too.

Ken Paxton, the name most people couldn’t supply for the first sentence above, is still making first impressions even though he’s a statewide elected official. The McKinney Republican succeeded Abbott as attorney general this year. Paxton was a state representative, a candidate for speaker of the House in 2011, and was elected to the state Senate in 2012.

But if you’ve heard much about him lately, it was either because of his advice to county officials last week on how to handle gay marriage applications (something he wants to be talking about) or because of an investigation into whether he violated financial securities laws (something he no doubt wishes had ended with his election).

It didn’t end: The special prosecutors handling that case will take their evidence to a grand jury this month. One of them, Kent Schaffer, told The Texas Tribune they are seeking first-degree felony charges against Paxton. If the grand jury agrees, the state’s top lawyer could find himself on trial in criminal court.

That’s not necessarily a career-ender. In fact, it happened 32 years ago when the late Jim Mattox, a Dallas Democrat, was charged with commercial bribery. Some of the parallels are noteworthy: Though they came from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Mattox, like Paxton, was something of an irritant to his party’s establishment. Both were in the first months of their first terms. Both professed their innocence.

Paxton can hope the parallels continue. Mattox was acquitted, won re-election in 1986 and made it into a runoff for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1990 (he lost to Ann Richards). His two comeback attempts — a 1994 race for U.S. Senate and a 1998 race for attorney general — both fell short.

That wasn’t the career ending he wanted, but it beats prison.

The next Texas attorney general, Dan Morales, went to federal prison in 2003 on charges that developed from an investigation of his handling of a multibillion-dollar settlement between the state and several big tobacco companies. Morales had fallen short in the 2002 race for governor, losing to Democrat Tony Sanchez (who in turn lost to Republican Rick Perry); his conviction cost him any chance at a political comeback after that.

Texas is full of voters who can’t remember either of those guys. Morales’ gubernatorial effort never got enough wind in its sails to capture much public attention, and by the time he was under investigation and convicted and imprisoned, he had become a political footnote. As many people know his name for the crimes he committed as for his public service.

The Mattox affair was three decades ago, for one thing, and while his later races generated lots of headlines and notoriety — especially that 1990 primary and runoff for governor — he had settled into the role of private lawyer and family man by the time he died in 2008.

He managed to outlive his indictment and is better known as a political scrapper of the first order.

The best outcome for Paxton would be a grand jury deciding not to indict — effectively saying he did not break the law. He’d be able to declare the entire episode a political concoction served up by his enemies — a standard line when politicians find themselves in the dock. A spokesman primed the pump on Thursday, calling the investigation “a politically motivated effort to ruin the career of a longtime public servant.”

The worst outcome would be an indictment, a conviction and a tough penalty. Punishments for first-degree felony convictions range from five years to 99 years or life in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. That would be the end of the political line.

Even that “best” outcome bears thorns. Without the legal entanglements, Paxton could be toiling away at one of the most powerful posts in the state government, building his reputation and continuing on what has been a steady climb up the political food chain.

Instead, the attorney general is playing defense, trying to keep his reputation intact, and hoping that if he becomes known to most Texans, it will be for something other than his rap sheet. 

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Attorney General's Office Ken Paxton