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DALLAS — After a whirlwind day of canvassing voters and donors, Rochelle Garza ended a recent evening at Sokol Dallas, a Czech heritage center, where more than a thousand locals came for a fish fry dinner and to quench their curiosity about the Democratic candidate for Texas attorney general.
With Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” blaring from loudspeakers, Garza introduced herself as a Rio Grande Valley native and the daughter of public school teachers.
“My parents taught me to work really hard and to respect every person, that everyone is deserving of dignity and respect,” Garza said. “And right now we have someone in the attorney general’s office who does not care about people, who does not care about our families.”
She then delivered her standard punchline: “I’m ready to beat criminally indicted Ken Paxton,” she shouted to loud cheers.
Polls show the contest is the tightest of all statewide races. Garza, 37, is within single digits of Paxton, who was endorsed by former President Donald J. Trump but long plagued by legal trouble that has turned him into the most vulnerable among Republican incumbents. Indicted seven years ago for securities fraud charges still pending, Paxton is under investigation by the FBI after several former aides claimed he abused his office by helping a wealthy donor. The whistleblowers sued Paxton after he fired them. Paxton has denied wrongdoing.
But despite the incumbent’s weaknesses, Paxton is still popular with Texas Republicans. Garza remains the underdog, battling her own low name recognition and a fundraising disadvantage in an expensive statewide race that is already demanding considerable resources for travel and TV ads.
“Garza is clearly competitive in this race, but she’s competitive based on Paxton’s weaknesses, because she’s not well known,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
The Democratic establishment “does seem reluctant to put money behind her campaign, even though it’s the closest race and Paxton has weaknesses that make him the most vulnerable of statewide office holders,” Jillson said. “So they’re hanging back.”
The Garza campaign had nearly $500,000 on hand as of July, after raising about $1.1 million. Paxton has raised more than $8 million and still has about $3.5 million on hand to spend during the same period. The next campaign finance reporting deadline is in October.
Garza meets with voters Sept. 15 at a campaign stop at the Sokol Athletic Center in Dallas. Credit: Hunter Lacey for The Texas Tribune
Bill Compton, a Dallas lawyer who’s often donated to Democratic candidates in the past, would agree with Jillson. He said he’s still hesitant to write a check to Garza, whom he described as “an unknown.”
Compton attended the Dallas Democratic Forum where Garza spoke earlier in the day and said he liked what he heard. But he and others view the candidate right now only as an “alternative” to Paxton.
“Her biggest problem is name recognition,” Compton said. “If her name was Wendy Davis, you’d see more checkbooks coming out,” he said, referring to the 2014 Democratic candidate for governor who had gained statewide and national recognition after her filibuster in support of abortion rights in the Texas Senate. (Davis lost to Republican Greg Abbott 59% to 38%.)
While acknowledging that name recognition is important, Garza said more voters are seeing that she will use the attorney general’s office to fight for the average Texan on issues most important to them, “and that’s their families and their communities,” she said.
“And this office can really protect people, not only protecting voting rights and reproductive rights, but also making sure that Texas consumers aren’t being taken advantage of.”
Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said he’d like to see more support for Garza from the national Democratic Party and big donors from outside Texas. Texas Democrats have tightened the margins in statewide races in recent years, he said.
“The only thing that can help her beyond what’s being done right now is if she gets a big investment of national resources.”
The Democratic Attorneys General Association launched a digital ad buy targeting attorney general candidates in various states, including Texas, said Geoff Burgan, a spokesperson for the group. “We’ve also provided focus groups, polling, and video throughout her time as the nominee,” Burgan said in an email.
Indirectly, Garza was helped by the messy, Republican primary and runoff that included many negative ads targeting Paxton.
“These were Republicans in these ads saying, “I don’t trust Ken Paxton to be attorney general,” Burgan said. “These are people that Republican voters listen to.”
Candidates without name recognition typically work with their donors to raise enough money to talk to the general public over a period of months, said Jillson, the political scientist. “You introduce yourself with a series of ads and then slam your opponent toward the end,” he said.
“And she just hasn’t had the money to do that and doesn’t have the money today,” Jillson said.
Garza said her campaign outraised Paxton in the last reporting period: “We have the momentum.”
“I keep telling folks this is our race to lose,” Garza said. “This is the closest we have come in almost 30 years and it’s time we elect a Democrat to this office.”
Fronteriza, new mother and hunter
When she introduces herself to crowds, Garza likes to call herself a fronteriza. She’s a Rio Grande Valley native and new mother who wants a better Texas for her 6-month-old daughter.
“This is for my daughter. This is for our children,” she said of her campaign. “I’m not going to let her grow up in a state where she cannot decide her own future and what happens to her,” said Garza, who has not yet released her daughter’s name to the public.
If elected, Garza would be on a short list of Latinas to ever win a statewide office in Texas — something she brings up in her speeches. She’s proud of her family heritage that goes back five generations on her father’s side. Robert Garza, her father, was the fifth of 13 kids in a farming family in Brownsville.
“He grew up picking cotton, okra and tomatoes,” Rochelle Garza said, sitting down for an interview with The Texas Tribune in Dallas. “He always told me that okra was the hardest crop to pick because it cuts through your gloves, and you’d end up with bloody hands by the end of the day.”
The youngest of three and the only girl, Garza fondly remembers her childhood in Brownsville.
“I love the Valley deeply. It was a beautiful place to grow up,” she said. “You live at this intersection of two countries, two cultures and two languages.”
On a typical Saturday, she and her dad would cross the Mexican border to Matamoros to pick up cases of Topo Chico. “This was before it was imported,” she said. They’d stack the empty bottles in the family’s old, blue Chevrolet Astro van and exchange them for filled bottles.
Growing up along a farm-to-market road, she relished her rural lifestyle. “My brother and I used to catch tarantulas, snakes and even horned toads and take them to school for show and tell.”
Her father taught her to hunt with a rifle. “I grew up hunting nilgai,” she said, referring to the Asian antelope introduced into South Texas about 100 years ago.
The day after the May 24 shooting in Uvalde, where 19 children and two adults were killed at Robb Elementary School, Garza brought up her hunting background during an interview on MSNBC, saying she loved that part of Texas culture. But Texas needed to review its “permissive gun laws,” she said.
“I grew up hunting, and I knew know how to use guns safely,” Garza said. “We need to do better. We need to have better policies that are here to protect communities because we can’t go on like this.”
Robert Garza decided to go to law school in his late 20s and became an attorney in 1979. He then was elected as a state district judge in 1985, serving over 20 years.
Garza said he didn’t steer his daughter into law. He encouraged his children to follow their interests. “I never told my kids no, never discouraged them from pursuing a career they wanted to do,” he said.
Her older brother, Robby, left a lasting impression on her life, Rochelle Garza said. Robby suffered a brain injury during childbirth and grew up with profound disabilities. “He was in a wheelchair, couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, couldn’t see,” she said.
Her mother and father gave Robby as normal a life as possible. “My parents really made sure that we were all treated equally as people and had the same kind of birthday parties,” Garza said.
Robby died at 23, just before she left home to start college. So deep was his influence, she initially wanted to focus her career on working in the disability field after graduating from Brown University and the University of Houston Law Center. She interned at Disability Rights Texas, which she described as “a wonderful organization fighting for people with disabilities and making sure they have full access to work, transportation, everything.”
Armed with an Ivy League education, a law degree and bilingual skills, she likely could have cashed in with a high-paying job at a big law firm. But she was drawn back to the Valley.
Robert Garza said his daughter has never been motivated by money. “She really cares about people,” he said. “She has a big heart.”
In 2014, she became involved in a crisis at the border, which was experiencing an influx of unaccompanied minors.
She took a job with the American Bar Association representing unaccompanied minor children in immigration removal proceedings in Harlingen, near the Texas-Mexico border.
“I felt like it was a good use of my education,’’ along with her Spanish language skills, Garza said, “and the fact that I could understand the cultural background of the children.’’
Many of them left her with indelible memories. “I remember one little girl who had a phone number written on her shoe for a parent already in the U.S. She was too young to memorize it.”
The vast majority of the children were from Central America and simply looking for a safe place to live, she said. “They’re experiencing violence in their home country. The government is unstable. The police can’t protect them, and they’re just looking for safety. It’s devastating.”
One of the young people Garza met would be the subject of a legal case for which the young lawyer would make a name for herself. The client became known as Jane Doe.
A 17-year-old Central American who asked for asylum was placed in an immigration detention center and underwent a routine health screening. That’s how she found out she was pregnant, Garza said. “She immediately knew she didn’t want to become a parent in that situation, especially because she was fleeing from abuse.”
In that case, Garza found herself opposing not only the Trump administration but also Paxton — the attorney general of Texas and her future political opponent.
Paxton issued a public statement at the time siding with the Trump administration saying that undocumented immigrants did not have the same broad rights as citizens. The case wound its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which cleared the way for the abortion procedure. The day after the ruling, Doe terminated her pregnancy.
Looking back, Garza sees the stakes as clear cut, pitting the powerful against the powerless. “These are powerful people that don’t believe that certain people matter,” she said.
The nearly monthlong legal fight made national headlines but also laid the groundwork for what would become one of the main issues dividing the Paxton and Garza campaigns.
Abortion dividing Texas, candidates
According to Paxton’s website, abortion is a “deeply personal” issue to him. His wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, was adopted. “Because her birth mother chose life, I met the woman of my dreams and have been blessed with a wonderful life with Angela and our family.”
Paxton declared June 24 an annual holiday for his agency to mark the date of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. He then issued an advisory on the state’s “trigger law,” which has banned virtually all abortions in Texas.
Before that, Texas’ strict law banning abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy went into effect Sept. 1, 2021 — when Garza was nine weeks pregnant. She was angry that “women were all being put in the situation where their health care was at risk,” she said.
“Pregnancy can be a very dangerous state,” she said. “You don’t know how things are going to go.”
Her anger helped propel her candidacy, she said. “Yes, I ran angry,” she said. “And I’m glad I did.’’
Abortion “is the biggest issue for all voters in this country. For women especially, it’s the biggest issue,” she said. “It’s more than a choice. It’s health care. And it’s more than health care, it’s your life. And I hear that on the campaign trail every day.’’
As the campaign heads into its final month, Garza’s schedule has stops in different cities almost every day, including Austin and San Antonio.
Her daughter, born in March, is with her on the road. In a blog post on Medium, Garza said she was inspired by the resilience of her grandmother, who often worked in the fields when she was pregnant. Garza’s husband, Adam, who works in the oil and gas industry, also spends time with her on the campaign trail.
Last week, her campaign pounced when the Tribune reported that her opponent fled his home to avoid being served with a subpoena.
Paxton did not respond to a request for comment or interview but released a statement to the media: “This made-up controversy around serving me a subpoena is nothing but a shameless stunt from my political opponents.”
“Ken Paxton is running from the law,” Garza said on Twitter.“I’m running to replace him.”
David Tarrant did investigative and narrative enterprise reporting during 31 years at The Dallas Morning News, leaving at the end of 2020. He’s now a freelance writer who lives in Hays County, south of Austin.
Disclosure: Chevrolet, Southern Methodist University and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction, Oct. 3, 2022: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Rochelle Garza would be the first Latina to win statewide office if she wins her attorney general race. Eva Guzman, a Latina woman, was elected to the Texas Supreme Court in 2010.