By Zach Despart, The Texas Tribune
“Rep. Andrew Murr took on Ken Paxton and lost. He has no regrets.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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JUNCTION — In late May, state Rep. Andrew Murr, a rank-and-file Republican who has spent his political career dodging the limelight, had a difficult choice to make.
Was he really about to go up against Attorney General Ken Paxton, one of the most powerful officials in the state, a close ally of former President Donald Trump and a member of his own party who had just won reelection by a double-digit margin?
As it turned out, he was.
As chair of the House General Investigating Committee, Murr would recommend that the GOP-led chamber impeach Paxton on charges of bribery and corruption.
He knew that attempting to remove a statewide official for the first time in nearly a century would throw the final days of the legislative session into chaos. It would force Republican lawmakers to take a public stance on Paxton’s alleged malfeasance, and would likely enrage the attorney general’s base of far-right voters.
And it would threaten Murr’s standing in his party, especially if Paxton was not removed from office.
But for Murr, the answer was clear. The probe into Paxton that he had overseen in secret for three months had produced overwhelming evidence, he believed, that the attorney general had repeatedly abused his office through a symbiotic relationship with a wealthy friend and donor.
“You can couch it in terms of a political decision, but at some point, one has to say there is no political decision when you’re deciding what to do is morally right,” Murr said during an interview at his Junction law office, 120 miles west of the Capitol. “Sitting on that information would be wrong, and we would be tolerating corruption in the highest offices in the government.”
The House agreed, voting overwhelmingly on May 27 to impeach Paxton after Murr delivered a damning repudiation of the attorney general. In the Senate trial in September, Murr continued on as the face of Republican opposition to Paxton. He was the only House manager to speak at both the opening and closing arguments of the nine-day event, where he implored senators to convict Paxton, whom he said had betrayed Texans.
To supporters, Murr had accomplished the unthinkable: He took a rare stand for ethics in the Capitol over partisan loyalties — and he convinced other Republicans to follow him. To Paxton allies, he was the ringleader of a traitorous band of liberal Republicans intent on destroying a man based on rumor and hearsay.
Senators, who served as jurors, agreed with the latter camp, acquitting Paxton on 16 charges while dismissing the rest as Murr and the other House managers sat in stunned silence.
Now Paxton, emboldened and restored to office, is out for revenge. He announced Friday he would actively campaign to support Republican primary challengers to Murr and others who voted to impeach him. And on Monday, Paxton called on the House managers to be criminally charged for releasing trial evidence that included the address of a home he owns in Austin.
The blowback has reached parts of Murr’s district. It may cost him his seat.
“It really seems like he has betrayed us,” Pecos County Republican Party Chair William Garrison said of Murr, whom he hopes loses his primary in March. “He’s saying Ken Paxton has done all these things, and yet he’s provided no concrete evidence.”
Murr, for his part, largely chalks the acquittal up to the political pressure enveloping the trial and the unique relationship Paxton had with the jury.
“In every other jury … the jurors are not supposed to know the parties involved,” he said of the senators who voted to acquit. “Instead we had a jury that predominantly served with [Paxton], they served with his spouse [Sen. Angela Paxton]; they personally knew him well.”
Murr, who intends to seek reelection, expressed no regret for his role in the impeachment and stands by his committee’s conclusion that Paxton is too corrupt to remain in power.
“I don’t balance what’s right on a scale with my political future,” Murr said. He repeated a Sam Houston quote he also delivered during the trial: “Do right, and risk the consequences.”
A rural district
House District 53 comprises a large swath of Central and West Texas, running along Interstate 10 from the Hill Country past the Pecos River to Fort Stockton. It is one of the few truly rural House districts in Texas; its largest city, Kerrville, boasts 24,000 residents. Rocky hills of the Edwards Plateau, unsuitable for farming, give way to desert shrubland. Ranching and hunting dominate life here; the head of a mule deer buck Murr killed hangs above his desk.
Murr, who is married with four children, has spent most of his life here. An eighth-generation Texan, he grew up on his family’s ranch in Kimble County, an isolated existence miles from other humans.
Murr’s father, Hardy, drowned while trying to save a ranch hand in 1990. Murr was 13; his sister was 9. He was granted a hardship driver’s license so he could haul feed and do other work on the ranch.
Murr said his father’s death pushed him to overcompensate by participating in as many extracurriculars as he could. He played lineman on the football team (a feat considering his thin frame), competed in track and tennis, and acted in plays.
He studied agricultural development at Texas A&M University and before returning to neighboring Mason County. But he knew the hardscrabble life of a rancher would mean constant worry about making ends meet, so he decided to attend law school at Texas Tech University. After a few years in corporate law in Dallas, he hung his shingle in Junction, the Kimble County seat.
Politics, too, was in the family history. Murr’s grandfather, Coke Stevenson, served as House speaker, lieutenant governor and governor in the mid-1900s. He famously lost the hotly contested 1948 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate to Lyndon Johnson.
Other relatives of Murr have also served as county judge. So it was of little surprise to Kimble County residents when Murr became county judge, though the circumstances may have been unusual. Murr in 2008 was elected county attorney, but before Inauguration Day the county judge resigned, so commissioners appointed Murr to fill the vacancy.
In small counties like Kimble, the county judge handles minor crimes as well as the executive and legislative functions of governing. Murr said the role reinforced the need to hold people accountable, regardless of personal relationships.
A constituent “could be standing in front of you for a criminal offense, but you’re still going to see them in the grocery story next week,” Murr said. “You need to treat them just the same.”
When the representative for House District 53 announced his retirement in 2014, Murr said local Republican elected officials encouraged him to run. He beat two other candidates in the Republican primary, which is tantamount to winning the general election in the deep-red district.
Entering the House in 2015, the same year as now-Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, Murr said he has focused on issues affecting rural Texans. He said this has included lowering property taxes as well as protecting landowners from lawsuits if hunters or laborers get hurt on their property.
Community leaders said Murr is amiable and unflinchingly honest, quick to return calls even if he is unable to help with a particular problem.
“He’s gonna tell you how it is,” said Mikki Hand, the executive director of Frontera Healthcare, which runs four clinics in the district. “Sometimes it’s frustrating because it’s not the answer I wanted, but he just gives you the reality of it.”
Sam Hunnicutt, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, where Murr is a parishioner, said the lawmaker is attuned to the needs of rural Texans.
“These counties out here, their lifeblood is ranching … and the hunting industry keeps a lot of people afloat,” Hunnicutt said. “Andy ranches; he understands the people because he does what they do.”
They also said he has a quirky sense of humor. Several referenced his “Murrstache,” the elegantly styled mustache that adorns his face.
Murr set the record straight on that front. He grew it to celebrate the birth of his daughter in 2020. Originally he attempted a full beard, but on account of its patchiness, he retained only the mustache, which he has not shaved since and now regularly waxes.
The year he debuted the Murrstache at the Capitol, 2021, he also earned his first chairmanship as head of the House Corrections Committee. That session, he authored a bail reform bill that won bipartisan support in the chamber.
Murr has generally proven to be a loyal Republican foot soldier in the House. An analysis of votes in the regular 2023 legislative session placed him near the center of the ideological spectrum of the House GOP. He is, however, among the rural Republicans who have opposed school vouchers in previous years — as he intends to do again during the current special session.
But despite the role he finds himself in, Murr is rarely the instigator of drama or an attention seeker. With just one daily newspaper in his district, he said he seldom grants interviews. Unlike most of his peers, he does not use social media — though his mustache has a fan account on X with more than 550 followers. Murr has largely kept a low profile, even as he rose through the ranks of the House Republican caucus.
The regular 2023 legislative session changed all that.
A session in the spotlight
The House General Investigating Committee is not a coveted assignment for representatives.
It is tasked with policing fellow House members and enforcing ethics rules, a thankless job in a body where success as a legislator depends heavily on forging relationships with colleagues.
The investigative committee, on paper, has broad powers to investigate state officials and agencies, though historically the House has rarely exercised that authority. The last high-profile assignment the committee took on, at least publicly, was its 2019 probe into then-Speaker Dennis Bonnen.
Phelan tapped Murr to chair the committee this year, a decision Murr believed was based on the speaker’s faith in his ability to handle sensitive matters confidentially. As a country lawyer in a community of 4,400 people, Murr said his success depends in part on his clients’ faith that he will discreetly handle their wills, divorces and criminal cases.
Murr said he thought the bipartisan committee would be a pedestrian assignment that would allow him to spend more time on his legislative priorities. Instead, the committee under his leadership did the highest-profile work of the session, completing two major investigations that launched Murr into a national spotlight.
The first was the ousting of Rep. Bryan Slaton, whom the committee investigated based on a complaint. The panel concluded that he abused his position by having sex with a 19-year-old aide after getting her drunk. Speaking on the House floor, Murr said expulsion was a “level of punishment we don’t take lightly,” but was warranted given the severity of the misconduct. The House unanimously expelled Slaton on May 9, the first removal of a member since 1927.
The expulsion of a member would send shockwaves through the Capitol. But it would pale in comparison to what would come just a few weeks later.
The Paxton investigation had started in secret in March, but would not become public until the final week of May.
Paxton in February had asked the House to pay for a $3.3 million settlement he had negotiated with four former employees, who had alleged they had been wrongfully fired after they reported the attorney general to the FBI in 2020. They alleged in their lawsuit that Paxton was guilty of corruption and bribery that stemmed from his relationship with friend and Austin real estate investor Nate Paul.
What troubled Murr and other members was that Paxton refused to appear before the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee at the request of Chair Jeff Leach, R-Plano, and answer questions about the settlement. House members wondered, in essence, if Paxton was asking them to participate in a cover-up by paying the settlement, which would have eliminated the need for a public trial with the whistleblowers.
Since Paxton refused to cooperate, Murr said, the investigative committee opened a probe into Paxton, which it publicly called “Matter A.”
Secrecy was a necessity, Murr said, noting that police don’t announce the targets of ongoing investigations. He said even in private, witnesses were reluctant to talk because they feared retaliation from Paxton.
Murr’s announcement on May 23 that Paxton was the subject of Matter A set off an explosive feud between the House speaker and the attorney general. Paxton urged Phelan to resign, alleging he had presided over the House while drunk.
The next day, the attorney general criticized the work of the committee, saying its members had been appointed by the “liberal Speaker Dade Phelan.” Murr, meanwhile, said he was so alarmed by the allegations against Paxton that “it curls my mustache.”
Murr said Phelan did not request the Paxton investigation, and he did not inform the speaker of its existence. The first time they discussed the topic, Murr said, was after the committee recommended impeachment on May 25.
“He just asked how impeachment unfolds and what’s required in the constitution,” Murr recalled. “I explained that to him and he said, ‘OK, thanks for sharing.’”
The House voted 121-23 to impeach Paxton, with more than 70% of Republicans in support — including Phelan, who as speaker rarely votes.
While Phelan has taken the brunt of the right-wing heat over the impeachment trial, it was Murr who put his political livelihood on the line with impassioned public speeches to convince fellow lawmakers to take action.
“(Paxton) has no regard for the principles of honor and integrity,” Murr told senators in his closing argument at the trial. “He has betrayed us and the people of Texas, and if he is given the opportunity he will continue to abuse the power given to him.”
But just two of 19 Republican senators supported conviction on any of the articles. The dual outcomes exposed a deep divide within the Republican party and the influence of Paxton’s ultraconservative wing.
Throughout the summer, the attorney general’s allies had denigrated the House impeachment and pressured senators to acquit. The conservative group Texas Scorecard in August released a documentary claiming that Democrats actually control the House through pliant Republicans, and identified Murr as one of 12 Republicans that needs to be defeated.
Paxton’s acquittal emboldened those voices.
“Today the campaign to completely rid Texas of RINOs begins,” former Republican Rep. Jonathan Stickland, who is the head of the conservative Defend Texas Liberty PAC, said on social media platform X minutes after the verdicts.
Mixed reactions back home
The reaction from county Republican Party leaders in District 53 is mixed.
Paul Zohlen, the Kerr County party chair, said he does not agree with Murr on every issue but thinks he had no choice but to proceed with impeachment based on the evidence the investigative committee produced. Nonetheless, Zohlen predicted Murr faces a difficult reelection next year.
“I think there are individuals whose minds are made up, and regardless of what information you give them they are not going to change their position,” Zohlen said.
Zohlen said his party’s executive committee, over his objection, already proposed censuring Murr for his role in impeachment. The Medina and Bandera county Republican parties have already taken this step.
“We pay [lawmakers’] salaries. They work for us,” said Butch Striegl, the Bandera County chair. “Representative Murr seems to have forgotten that.”
Wes Virdell, a gun rights lobbyist whom Murr trounced in the 2022 Republican primary, has filed to run again. A supporter of Paxton, Virdell criticized the impeachment as a “witch trial.” He has vowed to “replace Murr with a real conservative.”
Paxton endorsed Virdell on Friday.
Former Mason County Judge Jerry Bearden predicted an ugly primary fight between Murr and Virdell, who represent increasingly polarized factions of the Republican Party. But outside the hyper-political environment in Austin, where polling showed few Texans paid close attention to the impeachment, Bearden said Murr deeply understands the needs of his constituents and has proven himself to be a collegial legislator.
“Most of these counties are just rural people trying to make a living,” Bearden said. “Andrew Murr is a statesman, he’s not a politician.”
Despite Paxton’s acquittal and threats from the far-right to end his political career, Murr is unfazed. He said he’s ready to get back to work at the Capitol for this year’s third special session.
And he shrugged off criticism that he is a RINO, a pejorative he believes is not about ideology but rather an official’s loyalty to fellow Republicans, no matter their faults.
“I’m not supposed to be loyal to someone who took an oath and … that’s abusing their office, breaking the law and taking advantage of the public’s trust,” Murr said. “How is your party going to survive in the state of Texas in the long term if we tolerate that from our own?”
Disclosure: Texas A&M University and Texas Tech 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.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/10/12/andrew-murr-texas-house-ken-paxton/.
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