- Rochelle Garza tells Insider that her pregnancy helped inspire her bid for Texas attorney general.
- If she wins, the former ACLU lawyer could become the first Latina elected to statewide office in Texas.
- Republicans have held the office for 30 years.
In early November, former civil liberties attorney Rochelle Garza went from vying for an open congressional seat in a safe Democratic district along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas to entering the race for Texas Attorney General, an office that Republicans have held for 30 years.
A political novice, Garza is best known as the former American Civil Liberties Union attorney who successfully sued the Trump administration on behalf of a detained teenager who was seeking an abortion, and for testifying against Justice Brett Kavanagh, who had ruled against her in that case, at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
Weeks earlier, in October, Republican lawmakers in Texas had seemingly upended Garza’s political prospects when they unveiled new redistricting maps that diluted the power of communities of color, which accounted for 95% of the state’s population growth, and increased the number of majority-white Republican districts.
The newly drawn maps made the neighboring seat more competitive, leading the Democrat who represented that district, Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, to run in Garza’s home turf. (In early December, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Texas over the maps, calling them discriminatory.)
In response, Garza decided to aim for an even bigger job.
Garza reached the decision, she told Insider, after discovering she was pregnant.
“It’s so much more personal. I think a lot about what the future holds and what’s at stake for democracy, civil rights, the Constitution,” said Garza. News of the pregnancy, which she and her husband welcomed as a “blessing,” only strengthened Garza’s conviction that abortion is a healthcare issue between a person and their doctor. “I don’t think anyone understands pregnancy unless they have gone through it. That is a lesson learned from all the things that are happening to my body,” said Garza.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (right) at his 2015 swearing-in, alongside outgoing Attorney General Greg Abbott (seated) who is now the Texas governor.
Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images
She describes choice as an issue of respecting a pregnant person’s humanity, adding, “I can’t imagine what some of my clients were going through.”
For decades, the Texas attorney general has been at the forefront of conservative and right-wing policy priorities nationally.
Attorney General Ken Paxton, who’s in his second term, has waged legal battles against vaccine and mask mandates; challenged the 2020 presidential election results, with tactics that included suing other states; and defended Texas’ the states’ recent abortion law, the nation’s most restrictive, which bans abortion after six weeks, before most people know they are pregnant, and allows private citizens to sue anyone who “aids and abets” someone getting the procedure.
Paxton took office in 2015 after Greg Abbott, who became Texas governor. Paxton has faced felony fraud charges for thr past six years, but has not yet faced trial.
Jane Doe and the ‘Garza Notice’
In 2017, Garza represented a 17-year-old immigrant teenager, later known as Jane Doe, who was seeking a legal abortion while in government detention. After officials with U.S. Health and Human Services, which oversees the shelter system, refused to release her to undergo the procedure, Garza sued on the teen’s behalf.
A federal judge ruled in favor of Jane, but the Trump administration appealed. A panel of judges at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the government, but when the case was heard by the full appeals court, Garza’s side prevailed.
Paxton, the Texas attorney general, would later argue to the U.S. Supreme Court that the appeals court had been wrong and that immigrants have no constitutional right to abortion.
One of the judges who had ruled against Garza was Brett Kavanaugh, who argued that at issue was allowing access to “a new right” for unlawful immigrant minors. The following year, Trump nominated Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Garza’s client underwent the procedure. The case also led to the establishment of what is now known the “Garza notice,” a government policy for informing pregnant teens in shelters and detention centers of their rights to abortion services and regulations for abiding by the court ruling in the context of Texas’ restrictive abortion ban.
Rochelle Garza testifying at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee about how she helped an undocumented teenage girl fight for an abortion.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
To Garza, a clear line connects her work with teenage immigrants and the abortion cases the Supreme Court has considered this session.
“The erosion of rights begins with the most marginalized. With the Jane case, she was someone who, clearly, the Trump administration, Ken Paxton, and Brett Kavanaugh, did not think she mattered, and that her rights didn’t matter, but they did,” Garza told Insider. “And that’s what we have to focus on, because if we don’t protect someone like her who is the most vulnerable, what chance is there for the rest of us?”
On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion providers could challenge the Texas law, which is considered the most restrictive in the nation, but left it in effect.
A ‘women’s full pursuit’
A recent Politico article drawn from interviews with dozens of Democratic strategists suggested that abortion rights are unlikely to galvanize the party’s base “unless — and perhaps not even then — Roe is completely overturned.”
Until then, voters are more motivated on issues of employment and healthcare, and wealthy people in states that have blocked abortion access will be able to travel out of state for services. A recent Texas Tribune poll found that 46% of Texas voters disapproved of how “state leaders have handled abortion policy, while 39% approved.
Garza disclosed her pregnancy on the day the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a challenge to Mississippi’s abortion law, which bans abortion services after 15 weeks. Unlike the Texas law, which was written to evade federal review by placing the onus on private citizens, advocates believe the Mississippi case could lead to the court overturning Roe v. Wade.
In a court briefing, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch wrote that the precedent protecting abortion “out-of-date.”
“Innumerable women and mothers have reached the highest echelons of economic and social life independent of the right endorsed in those cases,” Fitch continued. “Sweeping policy advances now promote women’s full pursuit of both career and family.”
Protesters march down Congress Ave outside the Texas state capitol on May 29, 2021, after the governor signed a bill banning most abortions.
Sergio Flores/Getty Images
Garza seemingly embodies Mississippi’s argument. With a supportive husband, she has leveraged her legal practice into a political career. All while pregnant.
But in Garza’s view, individual success does not erase the constitutional right to reproductive care or persistent systemic inequities. For Garza, abortion rights go hand in hand with expanding access to healthcare, child care, and family leave.
Texas has one of the highest rates of uninsured and one of the highest rates of children living in poverty. The maternal mortality rate is above the national average. After a state committee recommended the state expand Medicaid coverage to pregnant people from 60 days to one year, the state legislature extended coverage to six months.
At Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, Garza invoked her client, Jane Doe: “She was alone and completely under the physical control of the federal government and at the mercy of decision-makers that knew nothing of what it was like to be her.”
‘They have the confidence’
Garza hails from one of the poorest counties in Texas, the daughter of two teachers. Her father, the son of farmers, later became a state district judge. Her great-grandmother was a mid-wife and country doctor, informally trained to attend to people living on nearby farms.
At Garza’s ancestral house where red chili plants bloom in the front yard and pomegranates ripen from the vine, Garza’s uncle Jesus Reyes Garza, a Vietnam Veteran, searches for a thread about the women in his family, and says matter-of-factly, “legends.”
Garza’s campaign is built around taking on what she views as the entrenched structural inequities that transfer power into the hands of the few.
Jesus Reyes Garza, the candidate’s uncle.
Verónica G. Cárdenas for Insider
Just one Latina, Lena Guerrero Aguirre, has ever held statewide office in Texas, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials – and she was appointed. Most of the state’s top officials are white, even though white and Latino Texans account for about the same percent of the population.
There are structural impediments to any Latina who seeks office in Texas, and researchers have found that women of color “fare worse” in statewide contests.
In addition to the redistricting maps that come from the Republican-controlled state legislature, politics experts say that Latina Democrats who run for office must also overcome a host of impediments, including from their own party.
“Democratic party leaders may not coalesce around a candidate of color out of fear of alienating white voters,.” she writes, Kira Sanbonmatsu, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics in “Why Not a Woman of Color?: The Candidacies of US Women of Color for Statewide Executive Office.”
Texas Democratic consultant, James Aldrete, places Garza among the small but growing ranks of Latina maverick candidates that also includes Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo, who unseated a veteran incumbent to become the administrator of a county that includes Houston.
“No one encouraged Lina, no one recruited her. She won and she is amazingly talented,” said Aldrete. “If we are going to change things in Texas, it’s going to take courage.”
There are also generational differences at play that can impede Latina voters from coalescing being a Latina candidate.
Sharon A. Navarro, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio, says some of this harkens back to the civil rights era, before Roe vs. Wade, when Latinas were expected to volunteer with grassroots causes while the men ran for political office. “When they meet older generation Latinas they often get asked the question, ‘who is taking care of your children?'” she said. “The younger Latinas are ready. They have that confidence, they have law degrees. They are just the missing support and that structure.”
Rochelle Garza (second from right) talks to voters in Brownsville, Texas during her congressional campaign on Sept. 24, 2021.
Eric Gay/AP Photo
Garza is the only woman and only Latina in a crowded March 1 Democratic primary. She is expected to face off against Galveston mayor, Joe Jaworski, who launched his campaign a year ago, and civil rights attorney Lee Merritt who represented the family of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was murdered by white vigilantes while he was jogging in Georgia.
While right-to-life groups that have sounded the alarm about Garza’s candidacy, Garza is likely the least well-known. This week, Emily’s List, which supports candidates who back abortion rights, endorsed Garza.
Former state supreme court justice Eva Guzman, also a Latina, is running on the Republican ticket. Guzman has billed herself as a tough law enforcement officer whose life history is rooted in an aspirational immigrant story. She is challenging Paxton, alongside candidates that includes George P. Bush, the Latino son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and the nephew of George W. Bush, the former president and Texas governor.
University of Houston researcher Brandon Rottinghaus, author of the report “Six Myths of Texas Latinx Republicans,” says the party has expanded its Latino constituency, in part, by side-stepping issues of inequity, to appeal to aspirational and pro-business sentiment. “Republicans never talked about racial impact of policy or how structural racism exists in many policies that exist,” he said.
Garza says that her pregnancy has made the disparities more evident. She noticed the pregnant women working at the grocery store, the ice cream shop, the fast-food drive thru. In them she thought about issues of access to health care, family leave, and child care that cut across class and race.
“We expect women to bear children, rear children and maintain jobs,” said Garza. “But we don’t expect that job to be Attorney General of Texas and that’s obviously wrong and that’s why we get laws that are harmful to women and that’s what I’m trying to change.”