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Analysis: It Was a Tough Day for the Class of 2014 in Texas Politics

Some of the state officeholders elected in 2014 face struggles to gain control of their government, political and legal duties. They're looking like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, or the 1962 Mets. But the stakes are more serious than that.

From left: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.

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Monday was a busy day for the Class of 2014 in Texas politics.

These guys — a pack of state officeholders struggling to gain control of their government, political and legal duties — look like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, or the 1962 Mets.

But this is more serious than that. Maybe fraud, waste and abuse aren’t the things we should be most worried about in our state government.

To recap:

• After more than a year of struggling unsuccessfully to get things right at the state agency that's supposed to be watching over Texas' most vulnerable residents, Gov. Greg Abbott installed new people at the top and promised an overhaul. Instead of going with a health and human services expert, the governor went with a new director who once headed the Texas Rangers and worked on border security after a career with the state police. The hire is a signal that the governor sees problems in child protection and foster care, at least in part, as a law enforcement issue.

• The state’s top lawyer, Attorney General Ken Paxton, was charged by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission with steering investors to a Collin County company without telling them that he was being paid in company stock for doing so. He was indicted last year on state securities charges; those are still pending.

• The head of communications at the two-faced Texas Department of Agriculture quit after the agency put out contradictory stories about whether taxpayers paid for Commissioner Sid Miller’s calf-roping trip to Mississippi.

Take them one at a time.

Abbott has been chasing problems at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services since his first week in office in January 2015, when a 2-month-old girl was drowned by the teenage daughter of the victim’s state-approved caretaker. The problems have worsened. A federal judge found the foster care system inhumane and appointed special masters to oversee the state’s operation on the court’s behalf.  

On Monday, the governor announced new leadership for the agency, putting former Texas Ranger Hank Whitman, a well-known figure in law enforcement, at the top, and naming Kristene Blackstone, a respected former caseworker who has experience with the issues, to head Child Protective Services.

The governor is looking for a full reboot in the wake of two recent cases — the beating death of 4-year-old Leiliana Wright of Grand Prairie two months after CPS was warned she was in danger and the killing of Haruka Weiser, a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin whose alleged murderer is a 17-year-old foster-care-runaway named Meechaiel Khalil Criner.

But the agency Abbott is trying to fix is beset with other problems, including a shortage of space for foster children and a shortage of caseworkers to help them out.

Abbott is being tested against a cardinal rule for people in his line of work: The best politics is doing your job. Whatever else he does as governor, he’s going to be judged in part by the shape of this section of the state’s safety net when he’s finished.

Paxton’s troubles are of the legal variety — or maybe it’s just dog piling. Whatever it is, the attorney general’s problems have been a major distraction for a statewide elected official serving his first year in office.

Paxton, a former state legislator, is accused of persuading clients and friends to invest in a company called Servergy without telling them he was receiving stock in compensation for his sales efforts.

This came up during the Republican primary that vaulted Paxton into office, but he extinguished talk by paying a fine to the Texas State Securities Board for soliciting investment clients without being registered. After he took office, he was indicted on related charges that he is still fighting in court.

The attorney general’s test isn’t the same as the governor’s. Paxton is trying to survive three traps: the legal one over his guilt or innocence; the financial one, in which he has to pay big-time lawyers without using public or campaign funds because the charges don’t involve his official duties; and the political one, which starts with the worry that more voters might end up knowing him for the charges than for his public service.

Finally, we come to the continuing adventures of Yosemite Sid, the Texas agriculture commissioner whose personal and official antics during his 16 months in office have probably generated more headlines than his three most immediate predecessors combined.

He’s raised fees, allowed cupcakes and fryers back into schools, dickered with the Legislature for a bigger budget and brought a chaplain to conduct prayer meetings at his state offices. He made news lately with a trip to Oklahoma for something called a “Jesus Shot” that is touted as a one-time cure of all pain. Miller initially charged that trip to the state but then repaid the money.

He also went to Mississippi on the state dime to participate in a calf-roping competition, then repaid the state for the trip out of his own funds to make it right. The question was over the original intention: Was the trip personal or official?

When the agency’s official version of those events was contradicted by the commissioner’s own version, Lucy Nashed, his communications director and a former aide to then-Gov. Rick Perry, bailed out.

Miller is becoming a self-made stooge, a political superfund site. His colleagues from the Class of 2014 — the year these statewide officeholders were elected to their current posts — are scrambling to avoid the same fate.

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Health care Politics State government Attorney General's Office Governor's Office Greg Abbott Ken Paxton Sid Miller