From 2005-2020, now-retired Austin Chronicle News Editor Michael King wrote about city and state politics from a progressive perspective in his weekly column, “Point Austin.” We’re pleased to bring back his column whenever he’s inspired to tackle the state we’re in.
Whatever else happens in the latest, artificially elongated version of the 88th Texas Legislature, the symbolic human bookends are already apparent. At one end is the disgraced and eventually expelled Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, who found time between his denunciations of Democrats, gay people, and unbelievers to ensure his teenage intern’s first sexual experience was dreadful. At the other, starring in a long-running mini-series, is Attorney General Ken Paxton, impeached by the House, currently suspended from office, and awaiting his projected trial in the Senate.
Their private behavior has undoubtedly been appalling – yet it pales in consequence, when set against the dismal public policies that they (and their party) have enthusiastically imposed on all Texans. Isn’t it a great time to be a Texas Republican?
The Slaton debacle was initially more salacious, featuring a panoply of political, religious, and sexual hypocrisy. Slaton, who has degrees in both Divinity and Accounting, campaigned as an authority on moral values and budget-cutting. As a legislator, he prided himself on being further right than his colleagues (a high bar in the Texas GOP); he proposed capital punishment for abortion (patients as well as doctors); abolition of property taxes; tax benefits for heterosexual parents; a ban on minors attending drag shows; and a referendum promoting state secession, aka “TEXIT.”
Before running for office, Slaton, 45, had spent 13 years as a “Youth and Family Minister,” experience that may well have proved useful in seducing his 19-year-old intern, although not in successfully suppressing the evidence. According to the report of the House investigation, he got her thoroughly drunk, had sex with her, sent her off to buy “Plan B” contraception, and then faked a threatening email to frighten her and her co-workers into silence. To their credit, it didn’t work. Once exposed, he attempted to simply resign his seat, but his mortified colleagues voted unanimously to expel him.
In light of Slaton’s documented behavior, he should be relieved he wasn’t prosecuted for rape. Considering his own declared opinions on contraception, perhaps he should have faced execution.
Quids Pro Quo
On the Public Official Disgrace Scale, Bryan Slaton would seem to be a tough act to follow. But Paxton, the state’s chief law enforcement officer, might well have walked up to Slaton with a Bud Light and declared, “Hold my beer.” Already under a long-pending felony indictment for securities crimes – still un-adjudicated because of dubious judicial delays – the now-suspended A.G. allegedly performed a brace of extra-legal favors for a major donor, Austin developer Nate Paul, and Paul (also recently indicted) reportedly returned the favors, among these providing expensive renovations to Paxton’s home (shared with his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton). When some of Paxton’s staff attorneys objected (and complained to the FBI), Paxton fired them – leading to a whistleblower lawsuit.
All this is unseemly enough, but then it appeared that a particular favor Paul provided was to hire Paxton’s San Antonio mistress to work in Paul’s Austin office — in part so the AG wouldn’t have to drive so far for an assignation. But the straw that reportedly broke the Legislature’s otherwise imperturbable conscience was Paxton’s proposal that Texas taxpayers pay his $3.3 million settlement of the whistleblower lawsuit. That was apparently a grift too far. Hence, the House voted, 121-23, for impeachment.
Paxton has denied any wrongdoing. A Senate trial is scheduled for September.
Accountability for Other People
It’s a fairly impressive pile of dirty laundry – the allegations include bribery, dereliction of duty, obstruction of justice – yet it’s arguable that there’s a much bigger wardrobe of Paxton’s malfeasance. Of the 20 specific articles of impeachment, the Senate has already “set aside” for the moment four that address his still-pending 2015 security fraud indictments – eight years of “due process” is apparently inadequate for the likes of Paxton. But I’m thinking more generally of the bill of particulars reflecting Paxton’s broader record as a public official.
The House impeachment evidence included that the AG generally showed very little interest in the workaday procedures of his office, only becoming directly and aggressively involved over matters that affected the business interests of his friend Nate Paul. Otherwise, Paxton was more devoted to issuing almost daily press releases recounting his agency’s reactionary legal campaigns: suing the Biden Administration over immigration and border controls; defending restrictions on voting, and relentlessly pursuing phantom “voter fraud”; tormenting young transgender Texans, their families, and their doctors; undercutting environmental regulations; opposing vaccine mandates; attacking public education; promoting the gun industry and its P.R. division, the NRA … and so on.
Beyond all this is Paxton’s slavish devotion to Donald Trump, whom he apparently considers not only a political idol but a moral role model. Paxton, who has claimed that his success at voter suppression enabled Trump to win Texas, aggressively engaged in various (and laughably unconstitutional) red-state legal efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. He also spoke at Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021 D.C. rally that preceded the violent Capitol insurrection (by people Paxton would later claim were “not Trump supporters”). Back home, emulating his mentor, Paxton called for protests at the state Capitol on the day of his House impeachment — his exhortation proved less feloniously effective than that of Trump.
None of these more significant offenses in policy or politics, of course, inform any aspect of the Paxton impeachment articles. That’s understandable, because virtually all of the GOP legislators considering impeachment heartily endorse the same oppressive policies and treasonous politics, having spent much of the session enacting them into law.
Trump has dutifully come to Paxton’s defense, threatening to primary any Republican legislator who voted or votes for impeachment, a threat that will no doubt carry considerable weight as the Senate, under Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, acts as Paxton’s jury in September. Patrick in particular will have to weigh his options in ruthlessly presiding over the dicey business of damaging a potential rival at the risk of offending his base and his billionaire donors. Vulnerable Republican senators will be making similar calculations.
Perhaps there remains a redemptive role in Texas politics for the disgraced Bryan Slaton, after all: Trump and his MAGA politicos could eventually tap Slaton to primary some misguided Republican official foolish enough to vote to convict Ken Paxton. As Trump famously declared: “When you’re a star, they let you do it.”
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