By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It was one of the hardest phone calls he ever had to make, a courtesy call all candidates running against incumbents are expected to make. But to phone District Attorney John Vance, his old boss and mentor, a man he'd known and respected for 30 years, and say hey, nothing personal, I just want your job--well, he had every right to dread it.
Reluctant though he was, Bill Hill had worked too hard to turn back. He'd spent the last six months testing the waters--quietly gathering commitments, power, stroke--for a race that could bloody the Republican Party from the inside out. Vance's 12-year tenure as DA had been marred by mismanagement, low staff morale, and a gradual loss of the prestige that had characterized his predecessor, Democrat Henry Wade, a living legend around the courthouse. Yet Vance had told Republican women's clubs and several judges he intended to seek a fourth term in office. A bitter primary battle might weaken the steel grip Republicans held on the courthouse; it might encourage an entire slate of ambitious lawyers to take on competent judges they perceived as vulnerable.
But in early June 1997, when attorney Bill Hill sat in his downtown office in the NationsBank building and finally called Vance, none of this mattered.
"John, I'd like to come talk to you," Hill recalls saying, expecting to be worked into the DA's schedule sometime in the future.
"I'll be in your office in 10 minutes," Vance said, obviously aware something was up.
Vance arrived as he said he would--Hill's office being just a few blocks from the Frank Crowley courthouse. Vance looked healthier than he had in the past, having survived with grace quadruple bypass surgery in 1993. At 65, he remains handsome, a grandfatherly version of Clark Kent with thinly drawn lips, narrowed eyes, and meticulously groomed black hair--features suggesting a cautious, conservative man.
Hill, on the other hand, is garrulous and easygoing. His ice-blue eyes lose their chill the minute he flashes his cockeyed grin. His blond hair has turned ashen with age, but at 56, he can't hide a good-ol'-boy charm that might seem disingenuous if it weren't so "dadgum" disarming.
Hill didn't threaten or challenge Vance; instead, he says, he poured his heart out. For the last several years, he'd had a restless feeling about his life. His kids were out of the house and married. Money wasn't that important to him and his wife. So he started searching for something more significant, more meaningful. "I am leaning toward running for DA," he told Vance. "This may be my last shot."
Hill doesn't recall Vance saying much; the DA isn't known for being chatty. He did leave Hill with the impression that they were still friends, but didn't say whether he still planned to run.
Then, three weeks later, on June 25, in a terse, one-sentence memo to "All District Attorney Employees," Vance left no doubt about his intentions. "For your information, I will not be a candidate for re-election in 1998."
Although the announcement came as a surprise, Vance's popularity had declined enough that many of his fellow party members privately expressed relief. Now that he was no longer a candidate, speculation ran rampant within Republican circles about who else might enter the race. County Criminal Court Judge Henry Wade Jr. certainly had the right name, but needed to move fast if he wanted to jog the memories of those aging voters who'd kept his father in office for 36 years. Criminal District judges Keith Dean and John Creuzot had, on occasion, made rumblings about running, often after bad press portrayed Vance as asleep at the wheel. But no one stepped forward--trampled instead by wealthy Republican check-writers in their rush to anoint Bill Hill the next district attorney of Dallas County.
Even the Democrats refused to come out fighting, figuring why bother: The Democratic Party hadn't won a contested courthouse election since 1992. Peter Lesser, who had taken on Henry Wade when it wasn't fashionable to do so, had lost his hunger for the job. State Senator Royce West, who ran against Vance in 1986, said he wanted to continue his work in the Texas Legislature.
Only on January 5, 1998, the filing deadline, did a Democratic candidate emerge. He was Rick Reed, a prosecutor who was giving up his career to run. A by-the-book bureaucrat, Reed risked his future to fulfill what, at times, seems little more than a Walter Mitty dream. With limited help from Democrats, he has mounted a mom-and-pop campaign--his family literally runs his headquarters. Some contributions have even come in through a cookie jar positioned at the door. Reed does have the endorsement of the Dallas Police Association, but what good is being backed by the blue when your opponent is backed by the blue bloods?
Who is Bill Hill, anyway? A political nobody. A criminal-defense lawyer, of all people. Had Hill masterminded what amounted to a bloodless coup, toppling a sitting district attorney before publicly announcing he was a candidate for the office? Had Vance become such a political liability, his office so poorly run that the Republican powers believed it was time to force his retirement?