April 17, 2008
Early overview of the DA race

I'm going to start my Early Overview series with a look at the DA race, as that has arguably been the highest-profile county race so far. There are several things about this race that set it apart from the others, beginning with a something that is technically no longer a factor but is still there coloring the issues: Former DA Chuck Rosenthal. Four months ago, this would have been a very different race. It would have been a referendum on the flawed and divisive but still formidable incumbent - everything from his personality to his judgment, politics, service record, and philosophy of criminal justice would have been examined, debated, attacked, and defended.

Needless to say, that isn't going to happen now. Rosenthal is gone, and his protege lost a bitter runoff for the chance to replace him, so much of those issues are off the table. Both Democrat C.O. Bradford and Republican Pat Lykos have positioned themselves as candidates of change, there to clean up and redirect the DA's office in Rosenthal's wake. I can't help but feel, however, that while it's still fresh in everyone's mind now, a lot of that will fade by November as the interim DA does some of that work and the two contenders focus on each other rather than on recent history. One way or the other, the guard has been changed, and it's no longer a question of whether or not to stay the course but how far to deviate from it.

Having said that, this is nonetheless fertile ground for Bradford to drive the discussion. His list of priorities for the office are undoubtedly different that Lykos', and represent stark changes from the Rosenthal/Johnny Holmes era. Bradford is echoing themes first sounded by Dallas County DA Craig Watkins, and even with Lykos rather than Kelly Siegler as his opponent, this is his opportunity to make the case that simply replacing the person at the head of the DA's office isn't enough to get it back to the task of truly serving justice. It's going to take a change in what the office and the person in charge stand for, and he most clearly represents that. The more he can keep the conversation on that topic, the better I think he'll do.

Bradford has also taken advantage of the fact that Lykos has no more prosecutorial experience than he does to talk about their differences in managerial experience; only he has been in charge of a large public bureaucracy. That might have caught Lykos a bit off guard on Runoff Night because one can certainly claim that this experience of Bradford's isn't much of a positive for him. Yesterday's Chron editorial spelled it out in a piece discussing the settlement of the lawsuits stemming from the K-Mart street racing raid:

The HPD captain in charge of the raids, Mark Aguirre, was fired and later acquitted of official oppression charges. Disciplinary action was taken against dozens of other officers and staff members. The police chief at the time, C.O. Bradford, claimed he was unaware of the details of the planned sweep before it happened. Aguirre claimed Bradford had been informed of the plan and chose to scapegoat his subordinates.


While Bradford likely will avoid having to testify at trial about the Kmart fiasco, it should and likely will be an issue in his November contest with former Judge Pat Lykos for Harris County district attorney.

As the crime lab scandal also happened on his watch, Bradford must explain what responsibility he bears for these costly blunders and why he didn't prevent them.

While I believe that it's at least a little unfair to say that the crime lab scandal happened on Bradford's watch, there's no doubt that this is the public perception of it, and it's the biggest piece of baggage Bradford is carrying. The anecdotal evidence I have from people who normally vote Democratic is that this is their main problem with Bradford. The more time he has to spend responding to Lykos about this, the less well he'll do. Bradford has outlined what he wants to do with the crime lab, which is good, but he has not yet addressed the issue of how it got to be that way, and that's something he cannot put off forever. How he handles that will be crucial, and will set the tone of that debate going forward. He has to get it right.

Lykos' main problem appears to be that she pissed a lot of regular Republican voters off with her attacks on Siegler and the DA's office as a whole. In particular, many of Siegler's colleagues don't like her and are at least now looking favorably at Bradford. Should Bradford be able to secure endorsements from folks like that, it would not only reinforce his claim about his managerial experience versus that of Lykos, it would also to some extent defuse some of the negatives regarding his experience; if the current prosecutors think he's okay, how bad could he be? (Along similar lines, a show of support from HPD officers who served under him would be helpful; conversely, the lack of such support would undermine him.) Basically, Lykos has a division within her party that will need some healing, not an unusual state of affairs after a nasty primary and runoff. I always have hopes that such rifts will fester all the way through November, but in my experience they usually don't. At some point, tribalism kicks in, and most of the disaffected come back because their guy is still better than the other guy. The dynamic for Lykos is a bit different here because the grudge is more personal for the ADAs, but in the end it's not something that I expect to be a big factor.

I see fundraising as being an advantage for Lykos, at least at this point. It can't hurt to have folks like Robert Eckels working the phones for you. The early word I heard about Bradford's efforts on this front was that they were not going very well. Mind you, this was from months ago, and I don't have any more recent intelligence on that, so take it for what it's worth. A lot of Democratic campaigns have had difficulties raising money locally; this is partly due to the Presidential race, partly due to the sheer number of candidates trying to raise money, and partly due to the fact that after more than a decade out of power, the cash machine is a bit rusty. In theory, this should be a million-dollar campaign for both candidates, but I don't think that will happen. Both candidates have a fairly clear message about themselves, and both will have plenty of ammunition for attacks if - when - they choose to go that way. Getting their message and their attacks out will be critical, so if one of them winds up with a significant edge in campaign cash, that person will carry that edge to the polls.

In the end, this is a campaign that can be about real issues, or it can be about negative ads and mudslinging, or it can be about both. Unlike some campaigns, the negative stuff can also be substantial, as each candidate has issues about themselves they will need to address. If one of them can press their attacks without raising their own negatives in the process - always a risk with such campaigns - he or she will succeed.

That's about all I can think of to say right now. Please tell me what you think, and what you think I've overlooked or gotten wrong. Next up, the County Judge race.



Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 17, 2008 to Election 2008
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