Attorney Lee Merritt joins race for Texas attorney general

DALLAS — Dallas civil rights attorney Lee Merritt, who has represented the families of Black people killed by police, joined a crowded 2022 race for Texas attorney general Tuesday against embattled Republican incumbent Ken Paxton.

Merritt, who will run as a Democrat, is the latest challenger who sees Paxton as vulnerable in the wake of an FBI investigation of allegations of bribery leveled by his former top aides. Paxton has pleaded not guilty in a separate, ongoing securities fraud case.

Merritt, who said in March that he was planning to pursue the job of Texas’ top law enforcement officer, will have at least one other Democratic primary challenger, former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski. On the Republican side, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman are also running to unseat Paxton.

Merritt’s campaign kickoff came a day after Texas statehouse Democrats left the state in an attempt to block the GOP’s sweeping elections overhaul that would make it harder to vote in Texas. The legislation would outlaw 24-hour polling places, ban drop boxes for mail ballots and empower partisan poll watchers. Republicans say the measures are needed to fight fraud. Democrats counter that fraud is very rare and the legislation targets their supporters.

“Texas Republicans have launched an all-out assault on voter rights and civil liberties,” Merritt said in a statement.

Merritt has forged a national profile as an advocate for people killed in interactions with law enforcement, including Botham Jean, a Dallas man fatally shot by an off-duty police officer in his own apartment, and Atatiana Jefferson, a Fort Worth woman who died after an officer shot her through a window in her home.

“The decision to run for AG was a decision about going further up the proverbial river and in looking more toward the source of some of the problems I’ve had to deal with as a civil rights attorney, and as a Texan,” Merritt told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

A Democrat hasn’t won statewide office in Texas in over 25 years, but Merritt said he’s seeing a desire for change in even rural areas across the state. He said he made the decision to run around the time of a deadly winter blackout in Texas that left millions without power.

Paxton also faces an investigation by the Texas bar association into whether his failed efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election based on bogus claims of fraud amounted to professional misconduct.