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Ken Paxton’s impeachment hints at shaky support in Collin County, his longtime base of power


Ken Paxton’s impeachment hints at shaky support in Collin County, his longtime base of power

Jun 05, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Alejandra Martinez
Ken Paxton’s impeachment hints at shaky support in Collin County, his longtime base of power
Ken Paxton supporters chat after the now-suspended attorney general spoke to a crowd at a campaign party in McKinney on March 1, 2022. (Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune)

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When the Texas House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton in the waning days of a regular legislative session, some Texans were shocked that the 121 “yes” votes included every representative from Collin County, where voters and local leaders have long rallied behind the now-suspended official’s vocal brand of conservatism.

The booming, largely suburban county north of Dallas has been Paxton’s base of power as he climbed the state’s political ranks, from his first race for the Texas House to becoming the state’s top lawyer. And while changing demographics and some erosion in Republican voting power there have coincided with allegations and scandals that piled up for Paxton, Collin County has still swung for him election after election.

But a unanimous vote to impeach Paxton by the five Republican representatives from Collin County — Frederick Frazier of McKinney, Jeff Leach of Plano, Matt Shaheen of Plano, Justin Holland of Rockwall and Candy Noble of Lucas — exposed a statewide rift within the GOP that’s apparently also been playing out in Paxton’s backyard.

“It has been true that Paxton had the support of Collin County, but that support has been decreasing over the years, and when the crunch came, it was simply no longer there,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University who lives in Collin County.

A Texas attorney general has never been impeached. For years, though, a laundry list of accusations against Paxton has grown. He’s been under criminal indictment for the vast majority of his tenure in statewide office. The allegations detailed in 20 articles of impeachment accuse him of abusing the powers of his office and firing staff members who reported his alleged misconduct .

In a joint statement after the historic House impeachment vote, the Collin County legislative delegation noted Paxton’s established political credentials but also stood by their decision to impeach and suspend one of their own.

“This was an incredibly difficult vote as, for most of us, Ken has been a long time friend,” they said. “And without question, Ken has been an aggressive and effective warrior defending Texans against federal overreach. Because of that, this was a vote we wish we didn’t have to make and a vote we did not take lightly.”

Paxton, who lives in McKinney with his wife, Republican state Sen. Angela Paxton, couldn’t be reached for comment. The next step in his impeachment is a trial before the state Senate — with his wife as a potential juror. The Senate hasn’t set a date for those proceedings, but they will occur before Aug. 28, according to a resolution that senators recently adopted.

Ken Paxton has deep roots in Collin County, a largely affluent suburban area north of Dallas. A longtime Republican stronghold, the county has played a significant role in his rise to political power and the legal battles that have hung over his tenure as attorney general.

Abraham George, chair of the Collin County Republican Party, said that in Collin County, Ken Paxton is “considered one of us … family.”

He said the depth of Collin County’s support for Ken Paxton is partly due to his decades of heavy involvement in county and local politics. George said one example is Ken Paxton’s willingness to show up to campaign events and recruit volunteers to help local candidates with their campaigns.

The Paxtons are a “great example of being part of the community where they are accessible to everyone, anytime,” George said. “He’s not a stranger.”

He said Angela Paxton’s political motto — “listen, learn and lead” — is emblematic of how the couple has built a strong relationship with the county’s voters over years. The allegations against Ken Paxton include accusations that a political donor secured a job for a woman with whom the attorney general was having an extramarital affair.

Back home, the Paxtons have been devoted members of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, a well-known megachurch. They have also attended services at Grapevine’s First Baptist Church, which many prominent North Texas conservative leaders attend, and where Paxton has spoken about his Christian beliefs and how they guide his politics.

The former chair of the Collin County Democratic Party, Mike Rawlins, said the county GOP has helped to insulate Ken Paxton from the fallout of his various scandals.

“The Republican leadership in [Collin] County, from the county courthouse, the judges, the commissioners, state representatives, senators and district attorney, have been a close-knit, closed little fraternity,” he said. “They tend to watch out for each other.”

Jillson, the SMU professor, said as long as Ken Paxton has majority support within the Republican primary electorate, he will continue to win elections. But Jillson noted that the suspended attorney general has struggled to keep support as questions “swirled” around his political and business dealings.

“At some point, the questions about your style, your conduct, your ethical sense, accumulate and become perhaps a drag on your Republican Party and your state,” Jillson said. “And that’s where Ken Paxton is today, with other Republicans recalculating the costs and benefits of standing with him.”

Paxton’s origins in Collin County

Ken Paxton was born in North Dakota and moved a lot throughout his childhood because of his father’s military duties. He studied psychology and business at Baylor University and then law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

He met Angela Allen at Baylor, where she studied math. They got married in 1986 and had four children. Today Ken and Angela live in McKinney.

The Paxtons moved to Collin County after college, and he began working as in-house counsel and attorney for J.C. Penney and a corporate law firm. He launched his political career in 2002, when he won a Texas House seat. That same year, he opened his own law firm in McKinney.

In 2004, when Ken Paxton ran for reelection in the House, The Dallas Morning News called him a “consensus builder” advocating for issues like public education spending and light rail and transportation in the suburbs.

After nearly a decade in the House, Ken Paxton first picked up steam statewide when he ran for speaker of the House ahead of the 2011 legislative session, advocating for reduced property taxes, fighting “the federal government’s invasion on the rights of Texans” and health care "free from governmental intrusion and mandates” — issues that have resonated with his conservative base in Collin County.

Paxton ran against fellow Republicans Warren Chisum of Pampa and Joe Straus of San Antonio, who ultimately retained the speaker’s gavel for a second term. The race unfolded as the Tea Party movement gained popularity among Texas voters following Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory, and Paxton became a fierce advocate for the conservative political movement.

“Even though we lost this race, I am encouraged to say that we have not lost the fight, that our conservative message is important and that this is just the beginning,” Paxton said during a press conference when he dropped out of the speaker’s race before the final vote.

Paxton represented a single district that included McKinney, but like many GOP elected officials around the country, he talked as if he were on the national stage, hammering issues like securing the border, pro-life legislation and tax cuts.

“Ken has ran on many national issues that matter to Texans, like border security … law enforcement issues, to prosecute election integrity," said George, the Collin County GOP chair. “He’s ran on many of the issues that matter to people in our society.”

That strategy helped him lay the foundation that would one day make him a leader among conservatives across Texas, said Jillson, the SMU professor.

In 2012, Paxton ran unopposed in the primary election for a seat in the Texas Senate and easily beat Democrat Jack Ternan and Ed Kless of the Libertarian Party with 62% of the vote.

While serving in the Senate, he announced his run for attorney general in 2013, calling himself a “proven conservative” and promising a crowd at the Plano Event Center that he would continue the crusade against the federal government that former attorney general and now-Gov. Greg Abbott began. He defeated two prominent Republican leaders in the primary, Texas Railroad Commission Chair Barry Smitherman and state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

Before the 2014 general election, the Tribune obtained documents that showed Paxton had allegedly violated the Texas Securities Act by not registering with the State Securities Board while he was being paid to solicit clients for a North Texas financial services firm and for failing to disclose his financial interests and solicitor work in the firm in his financial statements.

Soon after, the Texas State Securities Board reprimanded Paxton and fined him $1,000.

That same year, The Dallas Morning News reported a long history of controversial business deals by Paxton, many with ties to the Collin County political scene. He was criticized by watchdogs and political opponents for allegedly crossing ethical lines in his private businesses and failing to disclose all of his dealings on personal financial statements that elected officials must file.

Despite his mounting legal troubles, Paxton beat Democrat Sam Houston with over 950,000 votes and was sworn in as attorney general in January 2015.

That summer, a Collin County grand jury indicted Paxton on two counts of felony securities fraud related to private business deals in 2011. The indictment accused him of receiving 100,000 shares from Servergy Inc., a McKinney tech startup, without disclosing to the state that the company was paying him to promote its stock. Paxton has denied those allegations and criticized the prosecution as politically motivated.

The case has been pending for nearly eight years. There have been many twists and turns, including a still-unresolved dispute over how much to pay the special prosecutors handling the case. Another reason for the delay in a trial is a long-running dispute over where Paxton should be tried.

“As far as the jury goes, he’s wanted to be tried in his home county where people know him,” Jillson said. “I think that’s probably wise, but he should also be aware that the county has changed a lot since the days when he was coming up.”

Collin County is changing

Founded in 1846, shortly after Texas became a state, Collin County was named after Collin McKinney, one of the county’s first settlers and a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. It was a tight-knit, faith-based agricultural community where people grew wheat, corn and later cotton.

Today, there’s little trace of cotton gins in the county — the last one, which was in Prosper, closed around 2010. And the county has exploded into a suburban powerhouse: The population hit more than 1 million in 2020 as Plano, Frisco and McKinney boomed while Toyota opened its North American headquarters there and insurance company Liberty Mutual moved into a towering high-rise office.

Since the 1970s, the county has voted Republican in the majority of presidential, state and local races.

But in recent years, the changing population has made Collin County a political battleground.

Since Paxton won his first election in Collin County, it’s been transformed through an influx of younger, more diverse residents, growing by more than 36% from 2000 to 2020, according to census data. The county’s Hispanic, Black and Asian populations have collectively grown from 15% in 2000 to 26% in 2020, while the white population has shrunk from 76% to 50% over the same period.

Paxton’s support has decreased in Collin County over his past three elections for attorney general. In 2014, he won with 66% of the county’s vote. In 2018, that decreased to about 53%, and in his last election in 2022, 52% of Collin County voters cast their ballots for him, according to secretary of state records.

In presidential races, GOP nominee Mitt Romney won the county with 65% of the vote in 2012. In 2016, 56% of voters casted their ballots for Donald Trump. Two years later, in one of the closest U.S. Senate races in Texas in decades, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz won the county with just 6% of the vote over Democrat Beto O’Rourke.

“It’s no surprise — it’s growing, it’s becoming more diverse, we have a highly educated population,” said Sharon Hirsch, a Democrat who lost a bid to unseat Shaheen, who represents Plano, by less than a thousand votes in 2020. “They’re focused on basic issues like great schools and safe communities and health care. They’re not focused on the fringe-right issues, and that’s where our representation is right now, and I think it’s fixin’ to change,” she said.

After Democrats began performing better in Collin County, spurring political talk that it was turning purple, Texas lawmakers redrew the political boundaries in 2021 to protect Republican incumbents as part of a statewide redistricting effort.

A year later, Collin County voters sent its first Democratic representative to the state House in decades. Mihaela Plesa, whose district covers parts of Plano, Allen and Frisco, said the diversifying county is creating a shift in politics that may explain the erosion in Paxton’s victory margins.

“Collin County may be less in support of Paxton and those conservative views,” Plesa said.

Plesa said May’s deadly shooting at an Allen shopping mall has shattered many residents’ sense of safety and she’s seen more people in her historically red county calling for gun reform.

After Paxton’s impeachment, his supporters rallied in front of the county courthouse holding signs that read “I stand with Paxton” and waving American flags.

Maria Garcia, president of the Hispanic Republican Club of North Texas, is a longtime Paxton supporter who has worked on his campaigns for attorney general.

Garcia said in an email that the allegations against him have not been proven in court and House members are “thwarting the will of the voters with a politically motivated impeachment. Conservative Latinos believe in democracy. And that is why they voted for AG Ken Paxton.”

“He stands for the truth,” she said.

Republican Mayor George Fuller of McKinney, whose citywide elections are nonpartisan, didn’t want to comment on Paxton’s impeachment but said local elections are a testament to how “out of touch” the Collin County Republican Party has become.

“The Collin GOP, as evidenced in every recent local and school election, has proven to be out of touch with mainstream voters and the majority of the party,” Fuller said. “My hope is that new leadership there will have the courage to lead outside the loud, extreme, minority voice and, rather, be a voice that better represents the community and its values.”

Raul Trey Lopez contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Baylor University and Southern Methodist University 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.

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