Better Call Ken
Mother Jones|January/February 2022
The Texas Attorney General provided a radical legal pretext to overturn the election. Now he’s using the same tactics to gut Roe v. Wade.
By Tim Murphy

IT WAS HARDLY the keynote slot—before Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle, before Eric and Lara Trump, before Rudy Giuliani calling for “trial by combat,” before John Eastman, dressed for some reason like Indiana Jones, and long before President Donald Trump, who would speak for more than an hour and incite an insurrection against Congress. But Ken Paxton didn’t mind being an afterthought when he took the stage at the “Save America” rally in Washington on the morning of January 6. The Republican attorney general of Texas was happy just to be there at all.

The 58-year-old Paxton wore a thick tartan scarf with a long black coat and no gloves, and his gray hair, stubbornly parted for decades, drifted haphazardly across his forehead in the stiff January wind. When he was 12, Paxton nearly lost his right eye in a freak accident during a game of hide-and-seek. It left permanent damage—it’s a different color from his left one, and the lid above it is half-closed. The effect is that whether he is posing for a mugshot or addressing a large group of people preparing to hang Mike Pence, Paxton’s face appears fixed in a mischievous half-smirk.

But as he stood on the podium that morning, Paxton had good reason to smile. One month earlier, beset by a damning series of allegations from his own staffers of personal and professional wrongdoing, Paxton’s career seemed to be free-falling. Then he found a parachute. Rejecting centuries of constitutional law and democratic traditions, Paxton filed a lawsuit arguing that Pennsylvania and three other states won by Joe Biden had harmed Texas by expanding mail- and early-voting access during the pandemic. He asked the Supreme Court to strip those states of their Biden electors and instruct their legislatures to replace them with new ones, effectively making Trump the victor of the 2020 election. Paxton’s gambit was one level removed, legally speaking, from one of those ransom notes they send in movies with all the letters cut out from magazine headlines. His brief miscalculated the number of electoral votes at play and, citing the calculations of one random man in Berkeley, falsely asserted that “the statistical improbability of Mr. Biden winning the popular vote in these four States collectively is 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000.” But that did not stop many of the gop’s most prominent figures from endorsing it. A majority of the House Republican conference signed their names to an amicus brief. So did 17 other Republican state attorneys general. Trump truly believed it could work, and Sen. Ted Cruz promised to argue the case before the Supreme Court.

The justices unanimously rejected Paxton’s argument. Only two of them even believed he had standing to make it. In normal circumstances, such a defeat would have been a great embarrassment. But here in front of the White House, looking out on a sea of red hats and flak jackets, Paxton was taking a victory lap. With his wife, Angela, a Republican state senator, standing silently beside him, Paxton sped through his record in the frenzied cadence of a French cinematographer wrapping up at the Oscars. Texas had stayed red when states such as Georgia had flipped, he explained, because he had been willing to “fight” by filing lawsuits to restrict voting. “We kept fighting in Texas,” Paxton said. “We will not quit fighting,” he promised. His speech was over in three minutes. And then, not long after, the crowd made its way to the Capitol and kept fighting there.

If you put all the component parts of Trump-era conservatism in a fridge and went away for a while, Ken Paxton is what you’d get when you finally opened the door. In a state that’s produced some of the most significant political personalities of the last half-century, Paxton is a mediocre mess. He is not one of the Republican Party’s big thinkers. He has not, like Cruz or Josh Hawley, his partners in the would-be coup, been groomed since his teenage years for the national stage. He has never had to appeal to the unconverted or deviate from what passes for the norm in Texas Republican politics. He has been under indictment for six years. As the crowd at the Ellipse witnessed, he has all the charisma of a writ of certiorari. Even the lawsuit he championed in Washington was borrowed from somebody else. Prior to his election as attorney general, the most notable thing he’d done at a courthouse was filch a $1,000 pen from another lawyer.

But you don’t need to be brilliant or ethical or charming to wield a lot of power in state government; you just need to keep the right people happy for long enough. And Paxton, for all his transgressions, has been a dependable vehicle for reactionary interests, inside and outside his state, for years. He’s led a legal crusade against immigrants, voting rights, environmental regulations, health care access, and trans equality. He’s scuttled local efforts to protect citizens from gun violence and covid-19. And he’s taking an axe to Roe v. Wade.

Paxton’s persistence in the face of endless scandal makes him a model apparatchik for the current moment. He will never be president, but in a golden age of Republican corruption, in which anyone with ambition must bend the knee to an aspiring autocrat, a warm body with nothing to lose can do a lot of damage. By laundering the theories of conspiracists and hacks, he did as much as anyone short of Trump to make the Big Lie the new party orthodoxy. And in the process, he held a black light up to the rest of the conservative legal movement—the institutions and officials and donors who have turned jobs like his into some of the most powerful in state politics, and the compromises they’ve made to do it. There are a lot of Ken Paxtons out there, it turns out, and they were all just waiting to fall in line.

LIKE MANY OF Texas’ loudest Republican leaders, Warren Kenneth Paxton Jr. came from somewhere else. The son of a B-52 pilot, Paxton spent his childhood on the move, living with his family in a trailer without air conditioning in six different states in 10 years. Paxton was raised Christian but traces his personal religious awakening to a summer he spent as a teenager at Falls Creek, the city-sized Baptist youth camp in Oklahoma. “I realized as I saw people coming to Christ that I didn’t have what they had,” he said in a 2017 interview with the Christian broadcasting mogul Joni Lamb, whose husband, Marcus, flew the Paxtons to Trump’s 2017 inauguration.

Teenage Paxton was anxious about committing himself to Christ, fearful that “God would send me somewhere like Africa.” Instead, he ended up in Waco, where he was elected Baylor’s student body president, raised a live bear cub—the school mascot—in his apartment, and met his wife. They soon moved to Charlottesville, where Angela taught public school and Ken studied law at the University of Virginia.

Paxton went to uva rather than the University of Texas, he later explained, believing he would have to compete with fewer classmates for jobs in Texas after graduation. On a campus that nurtured egos— Fox News host Laura Ingraham was in Paxton’s class—Paxton “wasn’t somebody who would draw attention to himself,” recalls Neil Rowe, a fellow law student who belonged to a small Christian fellowship with the Paxtons and about a dozen other students and spouses. Paxton wasn’t on the law review. He didn’t send letters to the Cavalier Daily. Most of the fellowship’s members were married, and they would meet at each other’s homes once a week to have dinner and play board games, and sometimes chip in to assist fellow law students facing financial difficulties. “He was kind, he was caring—he cared about people who had different needs than we have,” Rowe says. “Every time he opens his mouth, I’m disappointed all over again.”

Paxton’s faith was a natural conduit to politics in North Texas, where the family settled in the mid-1990s—initially, to help plant a church in the small city of Frisco. Ken worked as a lawyer for J.C. Penney. Angela home-schooled their four children, then taught math at a private Christian academy they later sent their own children to. Suburbs like Collin County, north of Dallas, were the launchpad of the Christian conservative takeover in the state, and the Paxtons were deeply involved in the antiabortion movement that powered it. Ken served on the board of a crisis pregnancy center attached to a megachurch called Prestonwood Baptist (which they eventually joined); Angela, deeply influenced by her own adoption, has worked with an organization that sells upscale clothing and uses the proceeds to pay for sonograms.

Angela, everyone who has met both of them seems to agree, is the family member with the more evident political talent. But Ken is a common denominator, a white man in institutions made for them, carried along on the current of conservative politics and privilege. He once said that the key to his political success is that he has a three-syllable name. So when Angela told him one morning in 2001 that she’d had a dream that he would run for office, it was only a matter of time before Ken acquiesced.

“I don’t know what happens when you ask God for an answer and you don’t do it,” he explained later, “but I don’t want to find out.”

PAXTON WAS AN unremarkable legislator in his first half-decade in Austin—a backbencher whose highest-profile stunt was a law adding President George W. Bush’s name to “Welcome to Texas” signs. But while Paxton’s political career was idling, his business career was never busier.

In Texas, where the legislature convenes for a few months every two years, members often keep whatever jobs they hold in private life. This leaves the chamber rife with conflicts of interest. The legislature’s ethical guidelines, says Andrew Wheat, research director at Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit that has filed numerous complaints against Paxton over the years, are “basically a joke.” It is a perfect place for a lawmaker with few scruples to leverage new connections.

When Paxton took office in 2003, his financial disclosure listed just one venture, a small law firm specializing in estate planning. By 2014, the Dallas Morning News revealed, Paxton was involved in 26 businesses. There was a real estate scheme with his local district attorney, which netted $1 million by flipping property to the county. Paxton was a major investor in a startup that produced dashcams—and then voted for a law making them mandatory for cops. People who stopped by Paxton’s law office for some estate planning might come away with a referral to a donor’s investment firm—which, unbeknownst to them, was paying Paxton a commission.

Paxton had a nose for business ideas, but they were not always good ones. Take Pirin Electric. In that case, he and three other Republican state representatives were part of a group of investors who lost $2.5 million to a Prestonwood member who had become a local celebrity after claiming to have found the possible remains of Noah’s Ark in Iran. The scheme, which involved speculating in the state’s deregulated utility market, offered a window into Paxton’s world—a tight network of suburban white men, linked closely by politics and faith, playing a little too fast with money. As one Collin County resident who was a member of the Rotary Club with Paxton during this time told me, “Jesus is involved in every deal.”

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