Pigeon poop and Paxton trial: Texas politics needs the cleanup … – Houston Chronicle

In the glare of the horrendous summer heat bedeviling Austin these days, a visitor to the state capitol might be disinclined to glance up and notice the scaffolding that encloses portions of the 134-year-old building from bottom to top. The intricate web of steel will be spoiling photos of the majestic structure for some time to come, while workers replace its 75-year-old roof. In preparation, they’ve removed mounds of trash that have collected atop the building over the years — trash and pigeon droppings, nearly 200 pounds of the stuff.

Inside the building, lawmakers gathered in the Senate chamber this week are attempting to do something similar. Members of the Texas Republican establishment — as opposed to the noisier, angrier Donald Trump-inspired MAGA base — are involved in restoration work. Although it’s still surprising that they have taken on the task, a task as necessary as replacing a roof, it could be they’re acting responsibly, even nobly. 

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Maybe, just maybe, by daring at long last to seek the removal from office of a three-term, scandal-plagued attorney general, a prominent member of their own party, they are seeking to restore a sense of integrity to the office he has besmirched. It’s easy to be cynical, but maybe they’re working in the people’s interest, politics and personal interest be damned.

The Capitol’s roofing job will be completed in about two years. We will know in a couple of weeks, maybe a little longer, how the Texas Legislature’s work of restoration turns out. Impeached by the Texas House more than three months ago, the now-suspended AG, Warren Kenneth Paxton, Jr., may or may not become only the third state official in Texas history to be convicted after impeachment. 

Whatever Paxton’s fate, Texas is better off without him serving as its chief law-enforcement officer. The Legislature has decided, with good reason, to do the job that voters should have done at the ballot box. Paxton’s defense argues that his reelection should essentially absolve him of alleged wrongdoing while the prosecution points to his success at preventing the discovery of the most troubling facts. Until now, that is.

In the 31-member Senate, 21 votes are needed on any one of 16 impeachment charges to remove Paxton from office. Although several pretrial motions that could have ended the trial before it began were voted down on Tuesday morning, with six Republicans siding with Paxton on each of the motions, lawmakers could decide that he’s innocent of all charges, or at least undeserving of removal. The six Paxton stalwarts, all Republicans — state Sens. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, Brandon Creighton of Conroe, Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, Paul Bettencourt of Houston, Bob Hall of Edgewood and Tan Parker of Flower Mound — have made up their minds, apparently. Twenty-four of their colleagues, Republican and Democrat, seem open to at least hearing the evidence. Ken’s wife, Angela Paxton, is a state senator who publicly supports him. She’s attending the trial but isn’t allowed to participate in the deliberations or vote. With the 12 Democratic senators expected to vote for Paxton to go a-packing, that means nine Republicans are needed for conviction. 

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Almost as notable as the pecan-brown summer tan of Paxton defense attorney Tony Buzbee is the Houston role in the proceedings. In addition to Buzbee, a Houston City Council candidate when he’s not defending the embattled AG, the defense includes prominent Houston attorney Dan Cogdell, perhaps best known for defending Sheila Kahanek, the only defendant in the Enron case to be acquitted. The lead House prosecutors are the venerable Houston warhorses, Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin. The “judge,” of course, is Houston’s own Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor.  

Also surprising during the first week of the Senate trial was what seemed to be a relative lack of interest among Paxton supporters. Paxton, blaming his plight on RINOs (Republican in Name Only) and “radical left Democrats” — he has a Trumpian way with invective — perhaps anticipated his minions marching up Congress Ave. to the Capitol and rallying in noisy, sign-waving support on the grounds. They hardly showed up. “This trial has everything — sex, money, grift — and yet the People just don’t seem to care,” observed another Houstonian, Texas Monthly’s Mimi Swartz.

In the visitors’ gallery, at most only half filled daily, a handful of Paxton supporters, identified by red T-shirts festooned with Paxton slogans — including “RINO Hunting Permit, Permit Number 1836” — sat through the legal tedium. A resident of Collin County, Paxton’s home base, mused to a Texas Tribune reporter that perhaps buses full of Paxton supporters broke down on the way to Austin. Could be, although the searing heat and the fact that proceedings were being live-streamed were more likely reasons for the empty spectator seats in the Senate gallery.

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Or, it could be that Texans, even Republican Texans, just don’t care that much about Paxton’s fate, even though they’ve sent him to Austin three times. That would be a welcome development.

Even Paxton was a no-show after pleading not guilty.    

He assumed office way back in 2015, enveloped almost from the beginning in a Pig Pen cloud of scandal.  Under indictment on charges of felony securities fraud, Paxton seemed to trust that voters were Charlie Brown-gullible enough not to care. 

It was a good gamble on his part, although the long-delayed fraud trial is scheduled to begin in a few weeks. Also under federal investigation for the same conduct that triggered his impeachment, Paxton has frequently found himself under a cloud of misconduct during his three terms in office. On Wednesday afternoon, one of eight former Paxton deputies who went to the FBI about their boss’s questionable dealings with a campaign contributor testified that “[Paxton] was acting like a man with a gun to his head.” 

We are speculating, admittedly, but the Senate proceedings may prove to be a tipping point. Buzzsaw Tony Buzbee is doing his best to defend his client, but as the charges unfold in compelling detail — bribery, misuse of office, firing whistleblowers on his staff, an extramarital affair — Texas Republicans may finally decide that Paxton is dispensable.

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Out of 30 million Texans, Republicans surely could have found at least one person more qualified. They stuck with baggage-laden Paxton, possibly because of inertia and name recognition, or his ability to distract and delay his day in court. Almost any of his GOP opponents in his three elections would have been just as conservative, just as focused on Republican-priority issues as Paxton. That includes his 2022 opponents, former Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and former Land Commissioner George P. Bush, although neither would have been the Trump toady that Paxton has been. Certainly, they would not have been as ethically obtuse.  

Speculating even further, it could be that the Paxton proceeding is a portent. If Texas Republicans — among the most ardent in the nation — can decide to quit their Trump mini-me, perhaps their counterparts around the nation might decide that they can move on from a twice-impeached, quadruple-indicted former president. 

Unlikely perhaps, but as the time for choosing approaches, the scaffolding remains. It’s time to get serious about the work before us.


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