It’s been nearly three decades since a Texas Democrat won a statewide election. For voters who might be discouraged by such a lengthy losing streak, Rochelle Garza, a first-time candidate running against Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, wants this to sink in: “In almost 30 years, a Latina from the border has come closer than any other Democrat,” she says.
Though the Texas governor’s race has drawn the most attention this election season, it is the race for attorney general that remains the most competitive, according to polling by the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler.
Garza doesn’t just want supporters to believe she can win. The 37-year-old civil rights, immigration and family law attorney from Brownsville also wants them to believe she can enact real change as Texas attorney general – a position, she described to the two dozen people gathered to meet her in El Paso’s One Grub Community Diner last week, as the “the queen of the chessboard.”
“Not everyone thinks it has that much power, but it really does,” she adds.
As Texas’ chief legal officer, the attorney general represents the state in civil litigation. The office has more than 40 divisions covering a wide range of legal issues, from consumer protection to criminal prosecutions to child support.
Chess metaphors notwithstanding, “queen” might be a surprising description for a position that’s never been held by a woman; even the Texas State Historical Association, in its entry describing the attorney general, casts the role only as “his.”
But Garza has a history of challenging powerful men. In 2017, she gained national attention for successfully suing the Trump administration to get an abortion for a 17-year-old detained in immigration custody. When the case was appealed to a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., Brett Kavanauagh was one of two judges to rule against the teen’s request – a decision that was later overturned. Garza went on to testify against Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, noting that his ruling had not respected Roe v. Wade as a precedent.
Since launching her bid for attorney general last fall, Garza has made protecting abortion rights a major theme of her campaign against Paxton, who as attorney general has championed restrictions on reproductive rights in Texas.
Paxton did not respond to requests for an interview or comment.
Garza sat down with El Paso Matters to discuss abortion, LGBTQ rights and immigration. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
El Paso Matters: What has it been like, becoming pregnant and becoming a new mom, as new abortion restrictions – and now an almost complete ban on abortion in Texas – was coming down the pike?
Garza: I was nine weeks pregnant when a six-week abortion ban went into effect (in September 2021). It was my first pregnancy, a very wanted one, but I was scared nonetheless about what it meant for my health care. And angry. Part of why I decided to run for office was because there had been such intense attacks on reproductive rights. And I knew that Roe was going to fall. I know a lot of people didn’t believe it was going to happen, but it was very clear to me that everything had been set up to make that happen.
Paxton is someone that has just used his office to fight choice at every turn. So it was really important for me to step up even though I was pregnant – maybe especially because I was pregnant – to make sure that we would protect choice in the state of Texas. And now I’m even more motivated because I have a daughter. I don’t want her to grow up in a state where she has less rights than I did when I was growing up.
El Paso Matters: You’re from South Texas, where people’s views on abortion are pretty complicated. How have you talked with people about abortion where you’re from?
Garza: I’ve been talking to people about abortion rights for years, and unapologetically because it’s so fundamental to your ability to live a full life. The ability to decide if, when or how to become a parent impacts your entire life – your economic situation, your social situation, what you can do. It’s so fundamental. And I’ve always talked about it in those terms.
I grew up in a Catholic household, but I grew up in a pro-choice Catholic household. There are a lot of Latinos that are pro-choice, and we are seeing that in the data. A lot of Latinos are Catholic, but that doesn’t mean that they believe that their religion should be imposed on others, or that their views on choice should be imposed on others. It’s one of those things that I think a lot of Latino Catholics don’t talk about, but probably all feel the same way about. And now we’re seeing it in the polling data.
El Paso Matters: Right now, there are at least three laws that criminalize abortion in Texas. If elected, what would you do to protect abortion rights, in so far as you’d be able to?
Garza: As attorney general, I would have independent constitutional powers to protect Texans from these extreme abortion bans. I could partner with district attorneys across the state to protect reproductive rights in state courts. There are lots of things that we could do to protect doctors. Right now, the issue with the trigger ban is that it criminalizes doctors and providers, and it also empowers the attorney general to collect fines of $100,000 for each abortion that occurs. I would be able to use the power of the office to ensure that doctors don’t risk prison or their medical license just for trying to save lives and provide life-saving abortion care.
As attorney general, I can also withdraw from a lot of the litigation that Ken Paxton has implemented to eviscerate reproductive rights in Texas. And then there are lots of other ways of working with counties and cities, and making sure that we can protect rights on the local level.
El Paso Matters: Ken Paxton has directed Texas Child Protective Services to investigate parents who help their transgender children access gender-affirming care for potential child abuse. What would you do if elected?
Garza: I want to have a fully funded Civil Rights Division. That’s the vision that I have for the office, and it will include an LGBTQ rights unit. I do not believe that children should be taken from their families for providing gender-affirming care. Family unity is incredibly important to me and (gender-affirming care) does not constitute child abuse.
El Paso Matters: Both Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott have grown more involved in immigration issues, even though immigration law and policy is mostly set at the federal level. What would your approach to immigration issues be?
Garza: As an immigration attorney, I understand the complexities of immigration law, and as someone from the border, I understand the complexities of immigration on the ground. In the community where I’m from, Brownsville, everyone knows someone who’s an immigrant – and also knows someone who works in border enforcement, whether it’s ICE or customs. I have customs agents in my own family. And yet we all get along, and it works for our communities.
We need to recognize that the federal government has a role to play on these issues. We can be protecting our communities, we can stop human trafficking – because that is a huge concern, when people are sold into sex slavery and sold for labor. But we can also treat people with dignity, people that are just seeking protection in this country. That is something that the federal government should be doing, and that is something that I would hold them accountable to do.But I don’t believe the way that Ken Paxton or Greg Abbott have been using their power is beneficial for the state at all. I mean, we’ve had eight people (National Guardsmen) commit suicide while working under Operation Lone Star. We’re talking about billions of dollars that have been wasted on this political stunt, when it could have been put towards Medicaid expansion, when it could have been put towards stopping rural hospitals from closing across the state. I mean, there are things that are really pressing and all I see is these folks using the border as their political football.