Last week, Dallas Civil Rights Attorney Lee Merritt launched his bid for attorney general of Texas against Republican incumbent Ken Paxton.
The Texas Signal spoke with Merritt about the launch of his campaign, key issues in the Texas legislation, and his background as an educator and community organizer.
His campaign raised more than $150,000 in the first day from small dollar donors.
Merritt said running a grassroots campaign is important because it prioritizes Texans over corporations.
“As long as there’s someone in office who receives so much money from corporate sponsors and special interest groups then those issues that impact private citizens will always be swayed in favor of corporations,” Merritt said.
Merritt said being the people’s lawyer means addressing all issues that affect everyday Texans.
In February, Texans experienced one of the worst winter storms in state’s history which killed over 200 citizens and left thousands without power for days. Gov. Greg Abbott pushed the responsibility of fixing the grid on the Electric Reliability Council (ERCOT) and didn’t include any legislation addressing the grid in the July special session.
Earlier this summer, ERCOT urged consumers to turn down their AC to conserve energy which leaves many Texans in limbo until the system fails again.
As AG Merritt said fixing the power grid will be one of his top priorities.
“We are on an independent power grid that is a conglomeration of a bunch of individual private donors who have been poorly supervised, they have been poorly regulated and as a result we saw things like the winter storm,” he said. “And unfortunately we are bracing ourselves for a tragedy as it relates to the summer season from now through September.”
Merritt also said he has two solutions to fix the grid: reevaluate our privatized system and manage the unit.
“ERCOT and the affiliate distributors need to be better supervised, better regulated and held accountable when they fail,” he said.
Merritt counseled on high profile police brutality cases like Botham Jean, Marvin Scott III, and George Floyd. According to Merritt, his relationships with conservative prosecutors and the Department of Public Safety gives him an advantage in addressing issues of police reform.
“We see a retention rate among officers dropping where people are leaving the profession,” he said. “Our police officers are dealing with mental health crises themselves. Suicide rates are up among law enforcement officers, depression is up because they are being forced to do a job they never signed up for.”
Merritt said the American Disability Act requires law enforcement to make reasonable accommodations for people with mental health crises, but Texas leadership has failed to uphold that law.
“The rate of involuntary committals and people in mental health crisis relying on law enforcement to help them navigate that situation has quadrupled,” Merritt said.“We send officers who have been trained to do one job which is combat crime and interact with people who are sick, so it’s no surprise that they treat those people as if they are committing a crime.”
In addition to police reform, Merrit said protecting Texas voters is also a priority and praised Texas Democrats for going to D.C. to break quorum on the Republcian voter suppression bill, HB 3.
“We’re having a more difficult time ensuring that everyone who wants to vote can vote as opposed to keeping people who are trying to defraud the system out of the voting process,” he said. “The solution does not meet the problem because the problem is not actually a legitimate problem, it’s a political talking point.”
In terms of immigration, Merritt said it’s time leadership reflects the values of Texans. Statistics show Texans are not in favor of building a border wall along the Texas-Mexico border even though Abbott and Paxton have both made this Trump policy a priority.
Merritt said as AG he promises to protect immigrants in Texas by investing into the system.
“We have a lack of resources being provided for people to go through a legitimate asylum seeking process and that is a betrayal to American values,” he said. “We are a immigration nation. We are powered by our immigrants and instead of throwing up walls and complications, we’re going to deal with each individual case and provide them the resources they need to make their case for entering into the country.”
In addition to voting rights and immigrants rights, women’s rights were also targeted in the 2021 legislative session. In May, Abbott signed HB 8, commonly known as the heartbeat bill, which would essentially ban abortion after six weeks.
Right now, abortion fund groups across the country are suing Texas for the bill which is set to take effect Sep. 1.
Merritt said it’s the AG’s responsibility to uphold federal mandates on a woman’s right to choose and when elected plans to challenge the law in court.
“The Texas legislator and the Texas governor can’t provide less protections for women than the federal government does,” he said.
Additionally, Merritt said being the people’s lawyer also means guaranteeing all Texans have access to affordable health care.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled against Paxton and 18 other states’ challenge of the Affordable Care Act in a vote 7-2. Merritt said instead of the state using resources to dismantle the ACA, the attorney general should be helping Texans.
“I will continue to protect what the top court in this country has continued to say,” he said. “We’re going to stop trying to take billions of Texans off of their healthcare and instead we’re going to look for additional ways to get more Texans covered by insurance.”
Merritt also said legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana has to be a priority for Texas.
“We can’t continue to have these kinds of tragedies for a plant that has been criminalized for the convenience of lawmakers who are looking for ways to disenfranchise and incarcerate Black and brown communities,” he said.
Merritt is known nationally for his work in criminal cases, but started as an educator in the Dallas Independent School District. He also organized in the community on issues regarding poverty and affordable housing.
“My passion is serving communities and I believe the basis of any community is making sure that our children are educated and our classrooms are safe learning spaces,” he said. “One out of ten children in America are educated in Texas so we see education as the new civil rights frontier.”
Merritt is the second Democrat to announce his run for AG and said this run is special for him.
“I’m a proud homeowner in Texas,” he said. “Texas is my permanent home and where I’m raising my family so it’s personal for me.”