Two of Texas’ leading Democratic candidates for attorney general sparred Thursday at a debate hosted by the AFL-CIO of Texas, but they were in complete agreement on one thing: current attorney general Ken Paxton must be defeated in the November general election.

Civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt and former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski debated why they would be the ideal Democratic candidate to defeat Paxton, who is seeking his third term as Texas’ top lawyer . Candidate Rochelle Garza, a lawyer and immigrant rights advocate, was scheduled to attend, but was hospitalized the day before. The AFL-CIO should endorse a candidate based on performance; the group endorsed candidates in several other races on Friday but did not announce its endorsement in the AG race.

“Texas is run by corrupt officials who can’t see past their primary race,” Jaworski said. “It’s embarrassing to suffer their daily contempt for voters. They embarrass Texas on the world stage. You can’t trust the Texas GOP anymore.

It makes sense that Jaworski and Merritt would target Paxton, and not just because he’s the starter. Paxton has been charged with securities fraud since taking office in 2015 and is currently fighting to conceal records of his communications regarding the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising in Washington, D.C. Both candidates said they have strong experience in the eradication of corruption.

Jaworski is a trial attorney in Galveston whose law firm specializes in mediating personal injury claims. His claim to fame is his grandfather Leon Jaworski, who worked to prosecute former President Richard Nixon in the Watergate case. During the debate, Jaworski vowed to respect his grandfather’s legacy of holding crooked politicians to account.

Merritt is a nationally known civil rights attorney who has represented the families of black men murdered by police, including Ahmaud Arbery, Botham Jean and George Floyd. Merritt also advocates for the right to vote in Texas and abroad.

“I’m a fighter who has repeatedly stood up to Republican bullies and won,” Merritt said. “Given the historic attack on people’s rights by Republicans in Texas, I am ready for a time like this to continue the fight as your Attorney General.”

Paxton was not the only focus of the debate, however. Jaworski interviewed Merritt’s in good faith, pointing out that Merritt is not licensed to practice law in Texas state court (Merritt, however, has a law office in Dallas and is licensed to practice in federal court). Jaworski, on the other hand, noted that he had been licensed in Texas for 31 years. Merritt said he resisted joining the Texas state bar because of the propensity of conservatives to weaponize him against progressive black lawyers. He said he retains the right to join the Texas bar if he wins the election.

“When I started this job in Texas, I knew they would probably come after my law degree that I had fought so hard to get,” Merritt said. “I suspected they might come after my freedom, and if history is any indicator, this fight could very well cost me my life. I got up and fought anyway.

Regardless of who wins the Democratic primary in the AG race, it will be difficult to defeat Paxton. Holder has $7.5 million in his campaign war chest and said he raised $2.8 million in the second half of last year. Merritt and Jaworski each raised just under half a million dollars during the same period, while Garza raised $120,000 after entering the race in November.

Former President Donald Trump endorsed Paxton and helped Paxton’s campaign raise funds. Paxton was among several state attorneys general who filed a lawsuit to overturn the 2022 election results.

“Paxton is Trump’s adviser,” Jaworski said. “If you want to stop Trump in 2024, you have to stop Paxton in 2022.”

Instead of relying on outsized campaign contributions, Merritt said he plans to capitalize on the state’s growing number of young voters. He said he hopes his national reputation as a civil rights champion will inspire voters in his favor.

“This is an opportunity for me to point out to some of the communities in our state that have often felt unrepresented by our slate of candidates…to show that we have the energy and drive to attract voters who have generally stayed back home, especially in off-election areas of the year,” Merritt said.

Paxton faces three other main challengers for the Republican nomination: Texas Lands Commissioner George P. Bush, unforgettable East Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, and former U.S. Court Justice Supreme of the State, Eva Guzman. Like Democratic hopefuls, Paxton’s main opponents on the right have also made his many legal woes a campaign issue.

Jaworski and Merritt also promised to enact stronger protections for workers during the debate: Merrit said he would advocate for living wages and strong unions by hiring progressive Solicitors General while Jaworski said he would fight against excessive prices of public services and would focus on consumer protection in the field of health. care and property insurance.

“Texas is the ninth largest economy in the world, but it seems like all the benefits go to businesses and very little goes to workers,” Merritt said. “It’s because we doubt we have an active attorney general who is willing to use this office as a tool to support workers.”