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Texas' Ken Paxton is only state attorney general in the US who didn’t sign letters condemning Capitol insurrection

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is the only state attorney general in the United States who did not sign on to one of two letters sent this week condemning the violent insurrection of the U.S. Capitol mounted last week by supporters of President Donald Trump.

Paxton has individually condemned the violence on television and social media while falsely claiming the pro-Trump mob that invaded the Capitol was infiltrated by liberal antifa activists. There has been no evidence that antifa activists participated in the Jan. 6 attack that left five people dead and was intended to disrupt the certification of the presidential election results.

Attorneys general from 46 states — in addition to those representing Washington D.C. and three U.S. territories — signed a letter Tuesday sent to Acting U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen condemning the attack. Only Paxton and the Republican attorneys general from Louisiana, Indiana and Montana did not sign the letter.

"The events of January 6 represent a direct, physical challenge to the rule of law and our democratic republic itself," the attorneys general wrote in the letter, sent by the National Association of Attorneys General. "As Americans, and those charged with enforcing the law, we must come together to condemn lawless violence, making clear that such actions will not be allowed to go unchecked."

By Wednesday, those three holdouts sent Rosen their own letter, which Paxton also did not sign.

In addition to condemning the violent mob, the three attorneys general urged their colleagues to "stand together against all political violence," calling out antifa activists.

Asked why he did not sign either letter of condemnation, Paxton said through a spokesperson that he "already addressed this issue multiple times" and pointed to recent tweets and a Fox News interview in which he disavowed the mob and "absolutely" said its violent actors should be prosecuted.

"A certain, small percentage of those people crossed the line, and when you … cross the line, and you start harming other people's property, and you start harming people, you should be held accountable," Paxton said in the Jan. 7 interview with Fox Business.

Paxton signed on to a Jan. 6 statement from the Republican Attorneys General Association condemning the violence, saying "I call on protesters in our state and our nation's Capital to practice their constitutional right in a peaceful manner. I stand for election integrity and the democratic process. I will not tolerate violence and civil disorder."

Paxton's critics said they are not surprised the attorney general, among a number of Republicans and Trump supporters who have falsely claimed the election was stolen by Democrats, did not sign on to the letters. The morning of the attack, Paxton, a co-chair of the Lawyers for Trump coalition, urged Trump supporters to continue fighting President-elect Joe Biden's victory.

"After inciting the violence we saw last week and wasting Texas taxpayer dollars on baseless lawsuits that never see any results, Paxton is an embarrassment to this state and a traitor to this country," said Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party.

Wendy Davis says Trump supporters harassing a Biden bus in Texas should have served as a warning before US Capitol riot

Nine weeks before invaders violently took siege on the U.S. Capitol, President Donald Trump's zealous supporters swarmed a Joe Biden presidential campaign bus driving through Central Texas, waving "Make America Great Again" flags, shouting profanities and ultimately frightening those on board enough that Democrats canceled multiple campaign events that evening.

Former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, who was on the bus, said that law enforcement authorities didn't take that incident seriously enough and now sees it is an example of how Trump supporters have become dangerously emboldened to act lawlessly, fueled by some Republicans who either tacitly or explicitly encouraged the sort of violence that culminated with last week's attack.

"This is a symptom of a broader problem that is not going away. This truly is the birth of a domestic terrorist unit. And I think that the FBI and local law enforcement need to see it this way," said Davis, who spoke publicly about the October incident for the first time on Monday to The Texas Tribune. "It's no surprise that we see things like Wednesday of last week in our nation's Capitol, when people who are behaving aggressively like that are rewarded and praised by their quote-unquote leader for that kind of behavior."

Davis described a sense of déjà vu as she watched on TV last week the people storming the Capitol building who displayed the same aggression, anger and discontent she witnessed just a few months ago when she and three others on the campaign bus were surrounded by a caravan of Trump supporters. She noted that the violence at the Capitol which resulted in five deaths was much more severe.

The bus incident, which resulted in a minor collision between a Biden volunteer driving behind the bus and a Trump supporter, was caught on video and made national headlines just days before the November election. It also garnered praise from Republican leaders.

A day after the incident, Trump tweeted a video of the Trump supporters following the Biden bus saying, "I LOVE TEXAS!" and falsely claimed his supporters were "protecting" the bus.

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio also heaped on praise at a Trump rally in Miami a few days after the incident.

"Did you see it? All the cars on the road, we love what they did," Rubio told Trump supporters.

Davis' campaign had refused to comment at the time as she wrapped up her campaign against U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, which she lost. She said she didn't want to empower the Trump supporters further. Now, she regrets not speaking out, as she views the experience in October as a warning sign.

"I've been in public politics for a long time. This isn't how people who have been on the other side have conducted themselves in the past," she said. "It's risen to a level that is emboldened and embraced, unfortunately, by elected officials, and it's going to continue to rise to these dangerous fever pitches if we don't do something about it."

Davis was interviewed by the FBI a few days after the October incident, she said.

At the time, she said it seems like the federal authorities — who were especially interested in the people involved in the car collision —took the issue seriously, but she has not heard from them since then. She said she was not contacted by any other local law enforcement about the incident. A law enforcement official confirmed the investigation is ongoing.

Davis said the Biden campaign had already decided not to broadcast where the campaign bus was headed on Oct. 30 after social media posts showed Trump supporters were looking to target the campaign as it made its way through Central Texas. She said a Trump supporter found them at the voting location at the AT&T Center in San Antonio and alerted other supporters on social media.

The supporters, driving mostly pickup trucks donning Trump flags, quickly found the bus as it was leaving the city. Davis said the San Antonio police responded to a request for assistance, pushing the trucks back. But once they left San Antonio, the caravan surrounded the bus again. Davis said they called 911 again in San Marcos but they could not get an officer to respond.

"They just kept saying, 'Where are you now? Where are you now,'" Davis said. "We kept giving them landmark after landmark, mile marker after mile marker...Never were we able to get anyone to come out. It was unbelievable."

A spokesperson for the city of San Marcos said in October that they had dispatched officers, but they were unable to get to the scene before the bus left their jurisdiction because of traffic caused by an unrelated accident.

Davis said she and one of the two bus drivers on board shifted into "combat mode" when they realized law enforcement wasn't going to respond. All four on the bus were extremely shaken, especially when the volunteer driving the car collided with the Trump supporter. The driver ultimately made a last minute maneuver and quickly exited I-35 at Riverside Drive just before approaching downtown Austin. But the group found them again as they neared the AFL-CIO building downtown, where Austin police were waiting for them. Everyone got off the bus and decided to cancel the rest of the campaign events that night.

"After all was said and done and then the couple of days following that, it was given a pass, like it was shrugged off like it was really no big deal," Davis said.

Davis slammed Texas Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, for encouraging a climate where people feel emboldened to harass others and break the law.

Abbott issued a short statement last Wednesday that the "violence and mayhem must stop." Asked on Wednesday if he thought Trump contributed to the attack on the Capitol, he said "the people responsible for that violence are the people who did it, and they're the ones who should be punished for it." Patrick did not respond to a request for comment.

Paxton led the charge to overturn election results in four battleground states, filing a lawsuit based on baseless conspiracy theories of widespread voter fraud in the November election. He also attended a pro-Trump rally Wednesday in Washington D.C., encouraging people to continue to fight. He perpetuated false conspiracy theories in the hours after the insurrection that those who broke into the Capitol were not Trump supporters.

Ian Prior, a political spokesperson for Paxton, said the attorney general condemns all political violence.

"However, citizens should absolutely 'keep fighting' for their rights at the ballot box, in the courts and through their First Amendment right to peacefully protest," Prior said.

Looking back, Davis wonders if she, too, did not take the incident seriously enough because no one was physically injured.

"I question my own growing immunity to the egregiousness of the way people have behaved, spurred on by Donald Trump," she said. "We can't let things like that ever become our new normal. And we've got to be absolutely forceful in pushing back against it when it happens."

Disclosure: AT&T has been a financial supporter 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.

Four years ago, Texas Republicans were the most likely to use mail-in voting. Here’s how that flipped in the last election.

Democratic voters in Texas were more likely to cast their ballots by mail than Republican voters in the last election.

Today, that may sound like a forgone conclusion, but that wasn't the case four years ago. Absentee ballots, which only certain groups of Texans are eligible to use, have traditionally been a tool utilized by the GOP, and in 2016, counties reported that higher percentages of Republican voters cast absentee ballots than Democratic voters.

The reason for the swap? It came from the top. Experts and political operatives note that President Donald Trump spent months attacking the credibility of mail-in voting to his Republican base while national and state Democrats launched their largest-ever push to support the method as a safe option to vote in the pandemic.

Other factors at play this election season in Texas included an increase in participation by younger voters who lean Democratic, many of them college students living out of state. Democrats also were more likely to take coronavirus risks and precautions more seriously, leading them to look for ways to stay out of the polls during the pandemic, experts on both sides of the aisle said.

In total, Texans cast 1 million absentee ballots before Election Day, up from less than 500,000 in 2016, according to the Texas secretary of state's office.

Martha Griffin, an Austin science educator who supported Joe Biden, said she voted absentee by claiming a disability caused by a chronic condition doctors said was brought on by COVID-19, which makes her dizzy easily and unable to stand for long periods, among other issues. She was also afraid of being contagious or contracting the virus again after being diagnosed in May.

"When it came time to think about how to vote, I was kind of terrified," said Griffin, 61, who was still suffering symptoms of COVID-19 in November, which qualified her for mail-in balloting.

Texas voters can qualify for mail-in ballots only if they are 65 years or older, have a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period, or are confined in jail. The Texas election code defines disability as a "sickness or physical condition" that prevents a voter from appearing in person without the risk of "injuring the voter's health."

Griffin was among hundreds of thousands of Texans who voted by mail for the first time in 2020.

The state does not keep records on which candidates the absentee voters supported, but most counties do. A higher percentage of votes for Democrats were cast by mail in each of Texas' five largest counties and in smaller, rural conservative counties like McLennan and Atascosa, in border counties like Cameron and in the suburbs outside of Austin and Houston. The trend was seen both in counties that were won by Biden as well as those won by Trump.

  • In Bexar County, 14% of the votes for Democrat Joe Biden were mailed in while only 9% of Trump votes were absentee. The 2016 breakdown was not available.
  • In Bell County, 12% of Biden votes were absentee, while 7% of Trump votes were cast by mail. Four years ago, some 7.1% of Trump voters mailed in their ballots in this rural conservative county south of Waco, while only 6.7% of Clinton ballots were absentee.
  • In Tarrant County, 10% of Biden votes were mailed in, compared with just 6% of Trump votes. In 2016, those numbers were under 6% for both parties.
  • In Cameron County, home to Brownsville, 11% of Biden votes were mailed in, compared with only 6% of Trump votes. Four years ago, mail-in votes made up less than 4% of votes cast for both Trump and Hillary Clinton in that county.
  • In Dallas County, 9% of Biden voters mailed in their ballots, compared with 7% of Trump voters. In 2016, mail-in votes accounted for 7% of Trump votes while only 5% of Clinton votes were mailed in. The county nearly doubled its mail-in vote count between the two elections, from 42,697 in 2016 to 77,588 in 2020.
  • In Travis County, 12% of Biden votes were mailed in, compared with 8.6% of Trump votes. The 2016 breakdown wasn't available, according to the clerk's office.
  • In Harris County, just over 12% of Biden votes were mailed in, while mail-in votes accounted for 9% of Trump votes. In 2016, mail-in votes for Trump and Clinton accounted for nearly 8% for each candidate. The number of mail-in votes jumped from 99,507 in 2016 to 177,043 in 2020.

There are also other indicators that the trend was statewide. In November, about 39% of all ballot-by-mail voters had most recently voted in the Democratic primary, compared to about 26% who had most recently voted in the Republican primary, said GOP consultant and data analyst Derek Ryan, who tracks statewide voting trends. The rest did not vote in the primaries, Ryan said. Just over 2 million people voted in each primary in March.

That's almost a complete flip from 2016, when 41% of people who voted by mail in the general election had voted in the Republican primary, while only 26% had voted in the Democratic primary, Ryan said.

More than 120,000 mail-in voters in November had never voted in a primary or general election before, Ryan said.

Overall, the influx of mail-in votes for Democrats didn't give them a notable advantage, given that the GOP kept their majorities in state offices.

What it means for the future of participation in mail voting in Texas remains to be seen after an outlier year in which the pandemic led to an election unlike any other.

But with the next statewide election two years away, it's difficult to gauge yet how big a role mail-in voting would have in an overall Democratic strategy, said Luke Warford, director of voter expansion for the Texas Democratic Party.

For now, he and other party officials will be analyzing the data to see what drove Democratic voters to their mailboxes and, meanwhile, continue pushing for expanded mail-in balloting in the 2021 legislative session.

Their efforts for the next cycle will also be determined by whether there is still a public health risk in 2022, he said.

"We are driven both by strategy and by morality, by what is right and wrong, and the right thing is that people should not have to choose between their safety and exercising their right to vote," Warford said.

Requests for comment from the Republican Party of Texas were not answered.

Once a Republican tool

In the days when mail-in voting was half as popular, Texas' absentee voters — who are automatically qualified to use mail ballots after the age of 65 — leaned conservative.

"In previous elections, you had the state (Republican) party, you had whoever was at the top of the ticket, sending out ballot-by-mail applications to their [eligible] voters to get them to vote by mail," Ryan said. "There's always been a concerted effort on the part of Republicans to get as many people to vote by mail as they could."

In 2020, however, those efforts were thwarted by both their own party's leaders in Texas and Washington. In a rolling series of tweets and at rallies, President Donald Trump pushed concerns of widespread fraud — which are unsubstantiated — in mail-in ballots.

"Trump told Republicans, 'Don't touch it,'" said Bob Stein, faculty director at the Rice University Center for Civic Leadership, which is studying voting patterns throughout this election cycle. "There was confusion, fear of the Postal Service, and the president made voting by mail like leprosy or something worse. And I thought at the time that it might suppress Republican turnout. It did not. It just simply made it necessary for a lot of Republican voters to figure out another way of voting."

That message was echoed by Texas GOP leaders as well. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick characterized efforts to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic as a "scam by Democrats" that would lead to "the end of America."

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quoted a local prosecutor saying voting by mail "invites fraud."

The tactic seemed to work. Some 38% of Republicans in Harris County who had voted in three of the last four federal elections by mail, voted in-person early or on election day last month, Stein said.

Flood of absentee votes

The increase in absentee ballots overwhelmed elections offices across the state, particularly in rural counties, which struggled to keep up with the workload.

"We did hire some additional staffing for early voting ballot boards to go through all those absentee votes. We just had a lot of late nights," said Rebecka K. LaCourse, elections administrator for conservative rural Colorado County just west of Houston. "It definitely doubled here. I would attribute that to our aging population. I wouldn't say it was entirely the coronavirus."

About 40,000 absentee voters were under the age of 30, a group who doubled their mail-in ballots compared to the last presidential election, said Kristian Lundberg, a researcher at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

About 1.4 million young people in Texas cast their ballots either in person or by mail during early voting, he said.

While it's difficult to know who they voted for, Lundberg said, exit polls in Texas showed that about 60% of young voters supported Biden.

In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll taken shortly after the shutdowns in Texas began last spring, a majority of voters were "extremely" or "very " concerned that the virus would spread in their communities, but the level of concern was higher among Democrats, urban voters and voters of color. Some 27% of Republicans told pollsters that they were "not at all" concerned about community spread, compared with 3% of Democrats.

More than half of Texas voters — 55% — said all Texans should be allowed to vote by mail in the 2020 general election in response to the pandemic. Among Republicans, 59% say they would oppose allowing all Texans to vote that way, while 86% of Democrats favor it. A slight majority of independents, 51%, favor wide-scale voting by mail in Texas.

"The Democrat voters are more likely to have taken COVID seriously and thought that the safest way to vote, from a public health standpoint, was to cast their vote by mail," said Ryan, the GOP data analyst. "Even though in the past elections they were probably in-person voters. And the Republicans are probably a little bit skeptical of the seriousness of COVID and decided that it's fine to vote in person, that we need to get back to normal life as much as possible, and that we can send a message by voting in person and doing it that way."

Disclosure: Rice University and the Texas secretary of state 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.

Trump to visit Texas on Tuesday as his administration rushes to award more border wall contracts

President Trump is preparing to visit the Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday, in the midst of planned impeachment proceedings following a violent week at the U.S. Capitol.

The White House did not provide details on Trump's visit, which was first reported by Brownsville TV station KVEO, but it comes a week after Department of Homeland Security officials touted the "historic" completion of 450 miles of border fencing during his administration.

The Rio Grande Valley is the site of furious legal and construction activity related to the border wall as U.S. Customs and Border Protection races to build new miles of fencing ahead of Inauguration Day.

Earlier this week, CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said the agency aims to award new contracts for 300 miles of new fencing before Jan. 19.

After landing in Harlingen, Trump will take a helicopter to McAllen, KVEO reported.

The trip will mark the second visit to the Rio Grande Valley of Trump's presidency. He previously visited McAllen in 2019 in the midst of a partial government shutdown related to his push for border wall funding.

But even as fencing has gone up at an accelerated pace in other parts of the border, construction in South Texas has bedeviled the Trump administration.

As a result of complex and time consuming eminent domain battles with landowners along the Rio Grande, of the 110 miles the administration planned to build in South Texas, only 15 miles had been finished as of mid-December.

A Texas Tribune/ProPublica investigation last month found that the government's strategy of awarding contracts before acquiring titles to the land in Texas has led to millions of dollars in costs for delays, according to calculations based on statements made by CBP officials in court filings.

Since 2017, the federal government has awarded at least a dozen contracts in South Texas worth more than $2 billion prior to obtaining all the land it needed for the projects.

"I think he's got much bigger issues than coming over and seeing his 14th century solution called 'The Wall,'" U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who represents western Hidalgo County told the Mission newspaper Progress Times. "But, as you know, he started his campaign attacking Mexico and building the wall and all that. And I think he wants to end his term the same way."

Ken Paxton sues after Austin bans late on-site dining for New Year’s weekend amid COVID-19 surge

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Wednesday that he has sued the City of Austin and Travis County, a declaration that came a day after local leaders declared new restrictions for when restaurants and bars can serve customers during New Year's weekend.

Paxton filed a petition for temporary injunction and a temporary restraining order in Travis County District Court targeting orders made by Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown. Citing an increase in COVID-19 cases, they announced that dine-in food and beverage service must be restricted indoors and outdoors from 10:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., starting Thursday and ending at 6 a.m. Sunday. The measure did allow drive-thru, curbside pick-up, take out, or delivery services.

"Mayor Adler and Judge Brown do not have the authority to flout Gov. [Greg] Abbott's executive orders by shutting down businesses in Travis County and our state's capital city," said Paxton in a statement. "The fact that these two local leaders released their orders at night and on the eve of a major holiday shows how much contempt they have for Texans and local businesses."

Announcing the restrictions for Austin at a Wednesday morning news conference, Adler said the order — which carries a maximum $1,000 fine but no jail time — doesn't violate state regulations because it's "just an operational constraint." He added that "the reason that we are doing this is because it focuses on the activity where people are together without wearing masks." Both the mayor and the county judge said they deemed the measure necessary given the increase of cases in the area.

"If the state is not going to act, then communities have to be able to act to protect themselves. Tomorrow, that's going to be the issue that's in front of the court," Adler said on Wednesday evening in a livestream, reacting to the lawsuit. "Even if the court rules tomorrow that everyone has a right under the governor's orders to go out and take your mask off when you are around other people at a restaurant on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, that doesn't mean that you have to do it. We are asking everyone in this community to really think hard about what they are doing, about what they can do to contribute during this peak time."

Abbott had tweeted on Tuesday that Adler doesn't have authority to issue such a local order. "My executive order stops cities like Austin from arbitrarily shutting down businesses," he said. "The city has a responsibility to enforce existing orders, not make new ones."

But the governor had previously remained silent about similar orders in El Paso County that covered the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays. The attorney general's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on why El Paso's orders didn't spark the same reaction.

A spokesperson for the governor said that the already-existing measures have worked in El Paso and the Midland-Odessa region.

"The proven course of action is to enforce the existing protocols. That strategy was effective in slowing the spread over the summer and containing COVID-19, while allowing businesses to safely operate," spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement. "The protocols work, but only if they are enforced. The State of Texas has assisted with that enforcement by deploying additional TABC officials to ensure compliance with the protocols; but local officials have the ongoing duty to enforce occupancy limits under law, as they did before the pandemic hit."

Earlier on Wednesday, Paxton sent a letter to both Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown that said Austin's order was "unlawful and unenforceable" and threatened legal action if they don't "immediately rescind or, at a minimum, modify your orders" so they comply with the state's regulations.

During his press conference, Adler encouraged Austinites to support restaurants through delivery and take out and "tip and overtip, because these people and these businesses are taking a severe and significant financial hit for the greater good, and we as a community can help mitigate that."

Austin and Travis County officials warned that the area has seen a troubling rise in COVID-19 cases and they are worried about hospital capacity. In the last month, the county's positivity rate — the percentage of tests that come back positive for COVID-19 — and ICU bed usage have almost doubled. New daily cases have more than quadrupled in the same period, according to the county's COVID-19 dashboards.

"Today in Texas, COVID-19 represents one in five of every person hospitalized," said Mark Escott, interim health authority and public health medical director for the City of Austin and Travis County. "The policies that we've had have not worked to curb the spread of the disease … Now it's the time to reconsider those decisions so that we can protect Texas."

On Twitter, the Texas Restaurant Association called on Austin businesses to follow Abbott's guidance and said that "a curfew is not allowed."

"Restaurants are deeply invested within their communities, and so they continue to do all they can to prevent the spread of COVID-19, often at tremendous cost," the organization's tweet said. "Closing indoor dining will not prevent holiday celebrations; it will simply move them from highly regulated businesses into completely unregulated spaces at a critical time in our COVID-19 response."

Last month, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego announced a similar curfew for Thanksgiving as COVID-19 cases increased in the border county. And earlier this month, Samaniego issued a similar measure for Christmas and New Year's celebrations.

The county has banned all social activities — including restaurant dine-in services — from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. between Dec. 30 and Jan. 4 but allows take out and drive thru service. After he issued the Thanksgiving order, Samaniego said that he did so after what he said was a "favorable" discussion with Abbott's office and a representative from the Texas Attorney General's office.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned Americans to avoid crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces and recommended that people stay at home for New Year's Eve or celebrate virtually.

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chair, and the Texas Restaurant Association have been financial supporters of the 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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