By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I'm not supporting Rose Renfroe or Ken Mayfield in the general election," he says. "Neither of them is qualified. Let me restate that. Rose is clearly not qualified and is dishonest to boot."
This is your Dallas County Democratic Party, always ready to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In 2004, voters elected three Democratic judges countywide, ending the GOP stranglehold on the judiciary, while propelling Democrat Lupe Valdez into the sheriff's office. But whatever momentum the party built may come to a crashing halt thanks to a series of bumbling candidates whose thin credentials seem to suggest that the Dallas County Democratic Party (and its constituents) are not quite ready for prime time.
"I think they're absolutely desperate and grasping at anyone who has the inclination to put their name on the ballot and see what happens," says Mike Walz, the executive director of the Dallas County Republican Party. "They're just throwing anything up and seeing what sticks."
Renfroe illustrates Walz's put-down so effortlessly, she might as well be a Republican Trojan horse. On March 7, the day of the primary, Renfroe's campaign sent out a recorded message assailing a decision Chase made as a part-time administrative judge for the city of Dallas. In a complicated proceeding, Chase reinstated a Dallas police officer who had been fired for having an improper relationship with a minor. After the young girl recanted her allegations, Chase concluded the charges against the officer were frivolous.
The merits of Chase's decision are certainly fair game in a political primary. Elections are tests of judgment after all. But Renfroe's campaign basically said that putting Chase in office would be like casting your 14-year-old daughter in a Roman Polanski movie.
"We can not allow this man who condones pedophiles to serve in our community," said the recorded message Renfroe's campaign sent out on the day of the primary. "This could happen if we don't get out and vote. I urge you to join me today in electing Rose Renfroe, Democratic County Commissioner, to protect our community and our children."
Renfroe says she had nothing to do with the election day phone calls. "I didn't record the message, I didn't write the message and I didn't hear the message," Renfroe says. "Maybe the little girl's mother authorized it."
That's hardly the only cheap stunt in Renfroe's race against Chase. The blond, blue-eyed Renfroe managed to include her supposed nickname on the ballot, "Rosita," claiming that was a pet name her late husband had for her. (At least he didn't call her "Snookums.") To Chase, however, it was a clumsy but effective ploy to win Hispanic votes in Oak Cliff neighborhoods, which comprise the heart of District 4. Renfroe wound up winning by 38 votes.
Before she became Rosita, Renfroe served as a Dallas City Council member in the 1970s where she made a name for herself as an anti-busing advocate, speaking at rallies and crusading for a constitutional amendment against forced busing. As a Dallas County commissioner, Renfroe wouldn't preside over those types of issues, but it's worth noting that she hasn't exactly had a Paul to Damascus moment on whether busing was a necessary means to achieve integration.
"It was an experiment that didn't work," she says. "I think everybody who was involved in it thinks that it did not work."
Kirk McPike, the vice president of communications for the Dallas County Young Democrats, which endorsed Chase over Renfroe in the primary, didn't bite when asked if Renfroe's views on busing were in line with Democratic values. "We're supportive of our local ticket," is all he said when asked about whether Renfroe had the right stuff for the job.
Of course, Renfroe might as well be Eleanor Roosevelt compared with the Democratic candidate for district attorney. Craig Watkins, who crushed his two challengers in the March 7 primary, has had to overcome a mountain of legal problems. That's an odd position for someone who aspires to become the top attorney in the county. Last February, The Dallas Morning News reported that Watkins failed to pay taxes, resulting in $100,000 in liens. Small business owners took him to court to compel him to pay outstanding bills while city attorneys placed a lien on his property after he defaulted on a $20,000 loan from the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund.
Then there's this bit of irony: In July, this paper reported ("Craig's List," July 20) how Watkins had been sued over a breach of contract by the office he now hopes to lead. Watkins had agreed to pay the district attorney's office for a daily report of inmates booked into the jail, but shortly after he entered into the contract he stopped paying his fee. In July 2004, Watkins agreed to pay the prosecutor's office $7,675, and in exchange the suit against him was dropped. Watkins, however, failed to promptly pay back the full amount of the agreed settlement, and the district attorney's office threatened to seize his assets.
Oddly, Democratic voters selected Renfroe and Watkins over candidates who were, by just about any standard, more qualified. Scott Chase once served as the corporate counsel for a network of 70 hospitals. During his campaign, he talked about issues facing Parkland hospital along with the grim state of health care at the county jail. If he made one mistake, it was that he underestimated his opponent, who nearly beat Mayfield in 2002.
"The fact is, we didn't take her seriously," Chase admits. "She had a bad reputation. She's not qualified. In our debates it was very clear she didn't know anything about the issues. She essentially used her name recognition and her nickname to win."
In the Democratic primary for district attorney, candidate Larry Jarrett would have been a strong choice to take on Republican Toby Shook. A dynamic speaker, Jarrett served in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, retiring as a captain. He also worked as a felony prosecutor in the district attorney's office before serving as an assistant U.S. attorney. In contrast, Watkins has no extensive prosecutorial experience.
Democratic attorney Peter Lesser, who ran against Watkins in 2002, says that the primary for district attorney wasn't exactly about qualifications.
"When Watkins ran against me, his campaign was I went to this elementary school, this middle school, this high school," he says. "That was basically his campaign against Jarrett."
Former Democratic Congressman John Bryant says that Republicans tend to be more centralized in their approach to party politics. As a result, they usually coalesce around a more viable candidate.
"There is a great deal more money for Republican candidates and those who contribute communicate well with each other and try to focus their contributions on the candidate who is most viable," says Bryant, who endorsed both Chase and Jarrett.
The Dallas County Democrats do have some things in their favor, if not the candidates themselves. First, of course, is that both locally and nationwide, the Republican Party is reeling. Locally, Republicans such as Ken Mayfield are taking shots at Governor Rick Perry, while President George W. Bush, well, what is there to say? Perhaps more to the point for local Democrats is that demographic trends show that Dallas is becoming more Hispanic, more ethnic and less white. For your average Republican, that news is about as demoralizing as finding out that Dillard's is no longer carrying pleated khakis.
"The Republicans are working hard to convince themselves that demography is not destiny but, in fact, things are moving toward the Democrats, and the Republicans are going to have to work very hard and use their ground game to hold back the tide," says SMU political scientist Cal Jillson.
Still, despite having to fend off an influx of Democratic constituencies in Dallas County, the Republican Party is likely to retain control of 80 percent of the commissioners court after November's elections. (John Wiley Price is the county's only Democratic commissioner; the other three and the county judge are Republicans.) The Democrats couldn't find anyone to run against Mike Cantrell, even though he is partially responsible for the county's calamitous new computer system, while Renfroe will struggle to pull Chase's supporters into her camp in her grudge match against Mayfield. Finally, the Democrats don't exactly have a top-shelf candidate to run against Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher, even though she slipped past Harryette Ehrhardt by fewer than 4 percentage points in their 2002 contest. The Democratic candidate this time around is Jim Foster, who has run for constable, sheriff and now county judge. He is self-employed and runs an alarm business.
Finally, no talk of the Democratic Party's credibility gap is complete without a mention of Judge Sally Montgomery, who was a bright spot for the party when she won election to a county court at law seat in 2002. Since rising to the bench, Montgomery has been named the worst civil judge in the state by the Texas Observer, while the members of the Dallas Bar Association gave her only a 33 percent approval rating in their judicial evaluation poll--by far the lowest among her peers. Adding insult to insults, Montgomery is now being sued by her former court reporter, Cayce Coskey, who alleges the judge withheld critical information from the defense counsel in a wrongful death suit.
While conceding that his party could have fielded a sharper slate of candidates this November, Lesser says that the "long-term outlook for the Democratic Party in Dallas County is very good." But Jillson, the political scientist, says that the Dems can't solely depend on demographic trends alone to seal their destiny.
"For the Dallas County Democratic Party to be successful, they'll have to gain a certain amount of credibility among moderate and independent voters," he says. "If voters think that is not the case--if people who are not ready for prime time actually get elected--voters may think twice the next time around."
Then again, the party could always come up with more nicknames.