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The Trib talks to Craig Watkins

The Trib has a fascinating article about Dallas DA Craig Watkins, who is running for re-election for the first time this year, in which he defends himself against charges that he has not been sufficiently vigorous in prosecuting political malfeasance.

He’s been skewered in The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Observer for taking no public steps to prosecute two Democratic Dallas County constables facing accusations of bribery and kickbacks from their colleagues, and for seeking a restraining order when Republican county commissioners hired their own investigator to look into the charges. (His Republican opponents say he’s protecting the constables, who are fellow Democrats.) His latest power play? Watkins shunned two separate offers from the Texas Attorney General to help investigate the constables.

“If the Dallas DA is vulnerable in November, it’s mainly because he’s mishandled this fiasco surrounding the constables so badly,” says Scott Henson, the former policy director of the Innocence Project of Texas who writes the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast. “Everyone investigating this case knows it’s not credible to believe he’s performing a diligent investigation.”

Watkins has also made headlines over his campaign finance spending habits — paying tens of thousands of dollars to family members or the businesses they operate. And he’s caught heat for an alleged conflict of interest: His wife’s political consulting firm represents judges who preside over the same county courts where his office prosecutes cases. Watkins counters that ethics rules don’t prohibit hiring family members or using family businesses to run campaigns (in fact, it’s a common occurrence). And his wife’s political consulting business has checked out all the way up to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. He staunchly refutes the toughest allegation against him — that he was using campaign funds to pay the utility bills for the family businesses that share his campaign office space. “I have only ever paid my share,” he says.

Watkins won’t confirm or deny whether he’s investigating the constables; it wouldn’t be appropriate, he says. But he notes that he has just two prosecutors in his public integrity unit, both of whom have other cases on their plate. If they happened to be working on the constable case, hypothetically speaking, he says he wouldn’t expect them to be done yet. “Look at the Dallas City Hall corruption investigation. That took years,” he says. “There’s no timetable — we don’t rush an investigation.”

On the one hand, I can’t really blame Watkins for not trusting Greg Abbott to investigate the constables. It’s not like Abbott’s office has a track record of even-handedness and impartiality when it comes to political matters. On the other hand, it’s hard to understand why Watkins hasn’t moved more quickly to take action against the constables, especially given his unwillingness to let the AG get involved. The decision to own that is understandable and defensible, but only if you’re seen as following through. All I can say is I hope he’s got something going under the surface.

The thing I found curious in reading this article is the implication that other Dallas Democratic candidates’ fortunes this fall are tied to Watkins’ re-election. Watkins himself pushes this line of thinking. It’s clear from looking at the county returns in Dallas for this decade that the biggest reason why Democrats have been so successful there of late is because the number of Republican voters in the county has fallen off a cliff. In both 2006 and 2008, there were about 30,000 fewer Republican votes cast in Dallas than there were in 2002 and 2004. Dallas Democrats swept the countywide races in 2006 even though Democratic turnout was down from 2002, thanks to the much steeper dropoff in Republican voting. I’m not aware of any evidence to suggest that this trend has reversed itself. It’s possible that things could blow up enough around Watkins to depress Democratic turnout sufficiently to imperil folks, but given the numbers that would have to be a significant event, and it would also have to be enough to counter other factors. (It’s also possible that these issues will jeopardize Watkins’ own re-election, but not affect anyone else.) With all due respect to Watkins, who ought to make an exciting statewide candidate in the near future, he won’t be the only candidate working to get Democrats out to the polls. I’m a little concerned about his prospects, but not about Dallas Democrats in general.

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