The Most Important Race No One (Outside of Dallas)Knows About
by Dax-Devlon Ross
If the Dallas County District Attorney contest hasn’t registered on your radar yet, then it should. In the past month the race between Democratic incumbent Craig Watkins and his Republican challenger Danny Clancy has morphed from perfunctory formality to a hotly-contested school yard brawl replete with all of the finger pointing and name-calling one would expect from a local election. Clancy has repeatedly called Watkins a “celebrity politician” with a taste for the high life. In response to a question about he and his adversary’s fundamental differences at a recent debate, Watkins bluntly said, “I have a backbone, and I have a brain.” Don’t be fooled by the seemingly pedestrian dispute, though. This isn’t your typical local Democrat vs. Republican dog fight. On one level it can’t help but be about race. After all, Clancy is white, Watkins is black and Dallas is still the Deep South. As Lebron James astutely noted this week, “It’s always, you know, a race factor.” These two particular candidates couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. Clancy is as non-threatening as they come–a pudgy, middle-aged family man without any clear political virtues other than the tried and true “experience and integrity” rigmarole. Watkins is a large, dark outspoken black man with a massive chip on his shoulder and unapologetic ax to grind.
But race, I submit, is just a subtext, a side show, a secondary issue. This is one local election that has national policy implications.
Four years ago then 38 year-old Craig Watkins became the state’s first ever African-American District Attorney. He was part of a class of fresh-faced, post-civil rights era politicians that included then Senator Barack Obama, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. Almost as soon as he took office, Watkins established the nation’s first Criminal Integrity Unit in conjunction with the Innocent Project of Texas. In the past four years the unit has overseen more DNA-based exonerations — 20 — than any other county in the nation. He’s become a celebrity, a prominent face in the justice reform movement, and an inspiration to frustrated lawyers and lay people alike. He’s received numerous awards from a range of organizations. He’s been profiled in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on “60 Minutes.” In 2009 Investigation Discovery launched “Dallas DNA,” a weekly show featuring Watkins and his team of ADAs working in the Conviction Integrity Unit.
Additionally, Watkins has leveraged his so -called “celebrity” status to secure more than $8,000,000 in grants to the county. His efforts in Dallas County have also instigated systemic reforms. The Texas Criminal Appeals Court established the Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit a year after Dallas rolled out its integrity unit and this year newly elected Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance launched a comprehensive Conviction Integrity Unit in order to “re-examine closed cases where claims of innocence have been made and to establish standard procedures for new cases to prevent wrongful convictions.” Most importantly, perhaps, the unit’s success has opened the door for the review of non-DNA cases, three of which have resulted in exonerations, the latest of which, made headlines this past week.
This past summer I had the chance to sit down with Watkins for a candid, off-the-record interview about his work. It became clear to me during our conversation that his vision extended well beyond merely freeing those who have been wrongfully convicted. Exonerations are the tip of the iceberg. As I interpret it, his mission is to combat the culture of hyper-incarceration that have disrupted countless families and destroyed millions of lives. While his mission is by no means racially exclusive, he did readily acknowledge his concern about the state of black families and black males.
Michelle Alexander’s research has also yielded the following:
*There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.
*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.
The challenge is convincing Americans whose only contact with courts is through voyeuristic, sensationalized television shows and movies and who honestly believe justice is meted out fairly and equitably that our system is fundamentally fractured at its core. The dismantling of the mindset that acquiesces to and the institutions that support the furtherance of mass imprisonment is delicate work. I equate it to an intricate surgical procedure to remove a degenerative tumor deeply embedded in our national psyche. In order for the tumor to be successfully exorcised, the anesthesia has to be administered appropriately and the surgical team has to work together seamlessly. Any disruptions in the surgical process can result in disaster. Likewise, any disruptions in the justice reform movement opens the door for its critics to cast doubt, which in turn threatens the legitimacy of the movement itself.
Danny Clancy has a fighting chance to unseat D.A. Watkins in part because the Democratic Party has stumbled, in part because Americans have cooled on the idea of post-racial politics and in part because the chip on Watkins’ shoulder can at times block his ability to make decisions that will preserve and extend his important work. Just a few days ago the Dallas GOP launched the CaseAgainstCraig.com. The site is nothing more than a bare bones anti-Craig Watkins clearing house. And while many of the most damning claims being made — “soft on crime,” “hardly working,” “unethical behavior,” and “questionable character” — 1) are being levied by the Fox affiliate in Dallas and 2) steeped in hackneyed racist stereotypes ( ie. shiftless, lazy, and untrustworthy), they are hardly baseless.
These are a few of the more damaging charges:
1. Family members on his campaign payroll.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has paid family members or businesses they own more than $85,000 from his campaign funds, according to Unfair Park’s review of his campaign finance reports.
Is there anything illegal about hiring family members or paying them for services rendered? No. Given the social and political climate in Dallas, is it a good idea? No. It’s one thing if you’re an athlete or entertainer. You can hire whoever you want and the worst that’ll happen is people will call you a fool. Politics is different. Paying your brother’s company $25,000 for campaign sweat shirts and hats offers the opposition easy ammunition. Watkins may very well feel he should be entitled to hire whoever he chooses, especially considering Texas’ history of political nepotism (Bush I and II for starters), but when you’re trying to transform an entrenched and systemic culture of mass imprisonment in the heart of the South, you don’t have ammunition to spare. Martin Luther King donated his Nobel Peace Prize earnings to the charity as did Barack Obama. They understood that they could not take the money and do with it what they wished, not when the world was watching and waiting for them to slip up. Watkins has to understand this as well, as does his family.
2. Conflict of Interest
In July of 2008 Fox’s Dallas affiliate reported that Watkins renewed his escrow officer’s license after taking office. Texas law forbids prosecuting attorneys from engaging in the private practice of law. Watkins contended that his wife continues to run the couple’s title business, however he was seen at the business on several occasions and sometimes remained there all day. Watkins’ critics argued that because his escrow license is dependent upon his law license he is, in fact, engaging in the private practice of law. Moreover, because his wife is not an attorney, her license is also dependent on his. Watkins countered by insisting that “owning a title business and closing real estate deals is not the practice of law, especially since he doesn’t represent anybody. No formal charges were ever brought against the D.A., but the brief scandal the allegation produced was bad enough. Again, an alternative would have been to either shut the business down or sign the business over to a third party.
3. Selling Access to his office
At the close of his first year in office, Watkins threw a birthday party for his staff that included donated elaborate door prizes from several corporations — American Airlines, Blockbuster and Coca-Cola among them — and at least one criminal defense attorney. Again, Fox investigated the situation and alleged that the District Attorney’s solicitation of gifts in exchange for “face to face” interaction with him was tantamount to a public servant asking for or accepting gifts from someone subject to an investigation. Even though none of the corporations listed in the reports was actually “subject to an investigation” at the time, critics suggested that they may be in the future and therefore the gifts could create a conflict of interest. Watkins refused to admit any wrongdoing pursuant to the receipt of the gifts and proceeded to point to an exemption that allows staff members to solicit and receive gifts so long as they are given “because of a relationship independent of the official status of the recipient.” Again, the allegation eventually died down and no formal charges were brought against the D.A., but the stain remained. Rather than have to rely on a specious exemption, Watkins could have avoided the entire scandal by simply throwing a modest shindig.
4. Refusal to prosecute:
No one expects a police chief to be out chasing down criminals or conducting interrogations or school superintendent to be in the classroom teaching lessons, so why would we expect a D.A. who has no previous experience prosecuting felonies but does have a staff of 242 experienced prosecutors (not to mention 72 investigators and 128 support staff) to be in the court room prosecuting cases? By and large, the D.A.’s job is to ensure that his staff has the resources to carry out the mission. And arguably at least, Watkins’ work outside of Dallas benefits the county by highlighting the progress the county is making, supporting other counties in pursuing their own reform policies and generating money for the expansion of his programs, all of which he’s done admirably.
On their own these and other allegations appear nit-picky and racially motivated. However, taken together — and there are more — they begin to paint a less than stellar picture of a man who, on the whole, has done incredibly important work in a very short time. And while Watkins has always readily acknowledged his shortcomings, the concern I have now is that the mounting criticism and pressure to win re-election are conspiring to turn a visionary into yet another politician:
1. Change in Death Penalty Stance
When Watkins took office in 2007 he stated that he was personally opposed to the death penalty on moral and religious grounds. Now he’s had a change of heart.
“I came in with a certain philosophical view. I don’t have that anymore,” Watkins told The Dallas Morning News recently. “From a religious standpoint, I think it’s an archaic way of doing justice. But in this job, I’ve seen people who cannot be rehabilitated.”
Frankly I don’t understand what he’s trying to say. It sounds equivocal, like he’s saying that he doesn’t agree with capital punishment but understands why it exists. But if he’s not implementing his values into his job, what’s he being guided by? What’s also troubling is that he uses the word “philosophical” when in fact he originally opposed capital punishment on moral and religious grounds. I’m willing to accept a change in heart, but when the change occurs in the midst of a heated campaign I have to wonder about its motivations and the sincerity of the candidate.
2. Failure to participate a televised debate
After initially agreeing to participate in the debate with his opponent, Watkins elected not to participate due to a “scheduling conflict.” I don’t know whose decision this was, but it only makes it appear as though the D.A. either has something to hide or is intimidated by his opponent.
3. Questionable indictments
Earlier this week Watkins was questioned about the timing of the Stephen Brodie exoneration. Now he’s being questioned about the timing of the indictments his office handed down to the officers involved in the beating of a motorcyclist that was caught on video:
Key lines from the story:
Usually it takes six to eight months for a grand jury to even hear a case. It’s unusual for indictments to be handed up so quickly.
There are other cases of officers facing serious charges that have yet to go to grand jury, so Watkins — who faces re-election next month — was asked if politics played a role.
“If politics played a part in this, then we wouldn’t pursue cases for the whole year,” he said. “This is an election year, but just because it’s an election year, we can’t stop the justice system.”
Watkins may be being honest and in all fairness, he’s doing the right thing in pursuing the indictments. But it’s hard to argue that at least a hint of political jockeying isn’t taking place, especially when earlier this year it was revealed that Watkins’ office delayed an investigation of two Democratic county constables for two years. The constables allegedly used their positions inappropriately and maybe even illegally but Watkins, whose office had jurisdiction over the matter, dragged his feet on the investigation, leading his critics to wonder if he wasn’t looking out for his political mentor who, happened to be representing one of the constables. Watkins eventually handed the matter over to a special prosecutor.
Ultimately, perception can be more damaging than reality. Every single one of Watkins’ choices in recent weeks may be on the up and up. Believe me, I want to see the man succeed. I want him to continue to do his part to dismantle the culture of extreme punishment plaguing communities of color that we’ve grown so blithely accustomed to. But I want to challenge him to make better choices; to not fall back on the excuse that he’s being treated unfairly because of his race; to live up to the ideals that guided him to this point. As important as D.A. Watkins has been and should continue to be to the criminal justice reform movement, he is not indispensable. No one is. If he’ just going to devolve into another embattled politician who can’t get anything done because he owes too many favors and is more concerned with maintaining power than making the system work, then he may as well step aside now. (Robert Penn Warren already wrote the story of the idealist lawyer turned corrupt politician; we know how it ends.) At least he will have set a course that others can follow, nurture and advance.