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Analysis: Ken Paxton faces a predicament familiar to Texas attorneys general

Four of the seven Texas attorneys general since 1972 have gone on to higher office, one stalled and one went to prison. Ken Paxton, the current AG, is in a situation now that could determine which way his career will go.

Ken Paxton receives an applause as he is sworn into office as Attorney General. Paxton replaced outgoing Attorney General Gr…

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Texas has had seven attorneys general in the last five decades. Two became governors, one became chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, another became a U.S. senator and the other three got into the kind of legal trouble that can stop a political career dead in its tracks.

Jim Mattox was acquitted. Dan Morales went to federal prison. And now, Ken Paxton — who is already under indictment on securities charges — faces allegations from seven of his top aides of “abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses.”

Paxton is at an inflection point familiar to some of his predecessors, one that resolves into an absolution on the way to higher political office or into the last station in what has been his steady rise in state politics. The best thing going for him right now might be the timing: He’s not on the 2020 ballot. Neither is his spouse, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, who might otherwise suffer from having the same last name as the guy getting all of those negative headlines.

Those headlines are doozies. The Austin American-Statesman and the Houston Chronicle reported that the seven agency lawyers acted after the AG appointed a special prosecutor who targeted “adversaries” of Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and Paxton donor.

Last week, those Paxton assistants made their accusations in a letter delivered to the agency’s human resources department — a way of protecting their jobs while pointing the finger at their boss. One of them, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, abruptly quit. The other six remain in an awkward work environment on the same floor of the Price Daniel Sr. State Office Building as the boss they’ve confronted.

Chip Roy, a former top Paxton assistant who’s now in Congress, said Monday that Paxton should resign.

The AG has no such plans. “Despite the effort by rogue employees and their false allegations I will continue to seek justice in Texas and will not be resigning,” he said in a statement released Monday.

And this is not his first hoedown. Paxton rode into office in 2014 amid allegations of securities fraud that quickly became indictments that are still pending today, more than six years later. He’s accused of advising investors to buy stock in a technology firm without telling them he was being paid to do so.

This is not the tale of an elected official who is in a hot mess for the first time. It’s the story of a politician who has become accustomed to a hot mess. In the first case, he has blamed political enemies and has said he did nothing wrong. Faced with new allegations, he says his employees “impeded the investigation” and that he appointed a special prosecutor to make “an independent determination” since he knows Paul.

The politics reach from here to 2022 and beyond. Paxton is one of several Republicans serving in statewide office, and only one person in that group — Greg Abbott — is serving in the top statewide office. He’s in his second term, and has a group of allies, like Paxton, who are both supportive and personally interested in what he might do next, and when.

They’re playing a game as old as government. So old, it comes with jokes, one of which is that AG — the shorthand for attorney general — stands for “almost governor.”

Paxton has never said publicly he will seek higher office. It’s just that the six Texas AGs who preceded him — a line extending back to 1972 — have all sought higher office. It’s been a mixed bag.

John Hill, a Democrat elected attorney general in 1972, lost the 1978 race for governor to Bill Clements, the first Republican to win that office since Reconstruction. Hill recovered from that loss, later becoming chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. His successor in the AG’s office, Mark White, beat Clements in 1982 and became governor. Clements came back and won in 1986. White’s comeback bid in 1990 stalled out in the Democratic primary that included his successor in the AG’s office, Jim Mattox. (State Treasurer Ann Richards beat them both and went on to become governor.)

Mattox had been acquitted but politically scarred after a commercial bribery indictment early in his first term in 1983. He was accused of threatening a major law firm’s bond practice after the firm’s client tried to depose his sister in a lawsuit that involved a major Mattox contributor. He won reelection, but AG was his last elected office. Mattox made a couple of unsuccessful runs after that — first for U.S. Senate and then for a return to the AG’s office — but never clawed his way back in.

Not quite governor.

His successor, Dan Morales, ran for governor, too, in 2002 — four years after leaving the AG’s office. He lost a one-sided Democratic primary to Tony Sanchez Jr. and in a surprising turn of fortune, pleaded guilty in 2003 to charges of filing a false tax return and mail fraud, and admitted to altering and forging government records to benefit himself and others. He’d been charged with trying to divert money from a state settlement with tobacco companies to another lawyer. Morales did prison time, lost his law license and squandered a once-promising political career.

The next two AGs did what Hill, Mattox and Morales had been trying to do. In 2002, Republican John Cornyn, a Texas Supreme Court justice who had succeeded Morales, won an open U.S. Senate seat and now, 18 years later, is trying to win a fourth term. His successor, Greg Abbott, was the state’s longest-serving AG — 12 years — before running successfully for governor in 2014 and again in 2018.

For Abbott, that “almost governor” joke was a good omen, as it was for White and Cornyn, and in its way, for Hill. It was a bad omen for Mattox and Morales. It has worked a little more than half the time for almost 50 years.

For Paxton, the AG now, the answer is still ahead.

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