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Democrat Justin Nelson relishes role as underdog in attorney general’s race

Democrat Justin Nelson relishes role as underdog in attorney general's race

AUSTIN – Justin Nelson stood with his wife around the island in their kitchen and had one final gut check about campaigning to become Texas’ next attorney general: Were they really ready to give up a year of their lives so he could run as an underdog for the state’s third-highest political office?

Democrats have lost every race for statewide office for more than 20 years. Political analysts say even if a so called “blue wave” of Democratic voters flood polling places in next year’s election out of frustration with the Trump administration, Democrats like Nelson are still unlikely to break into statewide office.

But Nelson, an Austin-based trial lawyer counting on support from generous Democratic donors, contends 2018 can be different in a race running against Ken Paxton.

“I don’t think most people know (Paxton) is under indictment,” Nelson said recently from a table at Julio’s, his favorite Austin neighborhood restaurant. “I really believe to my core we need actual choices to run for office and I see an indicted, corrupted, extreme attorney general that looks like he’s going to get a pass from his own party, and I feel that we can do better.”

Nelson is political newcomer who specializes in high-stakes civil litigation including fraud, patents and constitutional issues for Susman Godfrey LLP, which is active in Democratic political circles, and his accolades include being named as among the “World’s Leading Patent Practitioners” by Intellectual Asset Management magazine and chaired the Economics of the Profession Committee in the American Bar Association’s Intellectual Property Division. He has also practiced and taught constitutional law and is an adjunct professor at The University of Texas School of Law.

He said he wants to sell voters on his qualifications and remind them that their state’s top lawyer has his own legal troubles.

But that might be a hard sell to some voters. Paxton is a tea party darling in Texas politics who won the office handily in 2014 despite talk of potential indictment before his election. He has since built his reputation on battling the Obama administration, fighting abortion, pushing to end deferred action for immigrants who arrived in the country as children and defending the state’s controversial sanctuary cities law known as SB4.

A Collin County grand jury indicted Paxton months after he took office in 2015. He faces two charges of felony criminal securities fraud and a third lesser criminal felony charge of failing to register as an investment advisor. Paxton maintains his innocence and argues he is the victim of a political witch hunt. He is expected to face a jury as early as March, although a federal court dismissed similar charges against him early this year.

Relying on indictment

Many expected Paxton would be surrounded by challengers eager to push him out of office after years of him operating under a cloud of controversy and criminal charges. Although several Republicans from his own party toyed with the idea, none stepped up, giving him a free ride to the general election where Republicans have slaughtered Democrats by at least 20 percentage points in recent statewide races.

Nelson plans to lean into Paxton’s legal troubles by highlighting to voters that their state’s stop law enforcement officer faces trial for fraud. The charges stem from Paxton allegedly failing to tell members in his investment group he would make a commission when convincing them to buy stock in a North Texas tech company. He was a member of the Texas House back then, and the charges are not affiliated with his government service.

“It’s an embarrassment to Texans,” Nelson added. “We should be outraged. If he’s defrauding his friends, what’s he doing to the rest of us?”

Paxton’s campaign is confident Texas voters will find Nelson too liberal for their taste.

“Nelson’s last-minute candidacy is going to be rejected by the voters of Texas because his political support of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards is at odds with the mainstream conservative values of Texans,” said Matt Welch, Paxton’s campaign spokesman.

Nelson contends he would in fact be a better fit for the attorney general’s office: He’s a non-politician who clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the United States Supreme Court and Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

‘I need to educate people’

The attorney general’s office in recent years is known for taking controversial cases to the state and United States Supreme Court. The office is also responsible for defending the state and U.S. constitutions in court, representing the state in litigation, approving the issuance of public bonds, protecting against consumer fraud, enforcing child support agreements, issuing grants helping crime victims financially recover, opine on open record requests and issue advisory opinions.

Nelson plans to put his own money into the race, but he won’t have enough to self-fund a race that could easily cost more than a $1 million.

With Nelson ready to throw punches at the attorney general, the race has the potential to get ugly, he said. Is he and his wife willing to put their family through this, they asked themselves.

The answer was yes, he said, adding that real people should be involved in politics.

“This isn’t a kamikaze mission,” said Nelson. “People don’t know me. I need to educate people.”

Article by Andrea Zelinski View on Houston Chronicle

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