Accidental Victors

Wait...we voted for who?

"The issues didn't matter; it's Washington that mattered," she says. "If I did nothing for four years, the outcome would have ended up the same."

Perhaps benefiting from the soft bigotry of low expectations, Foster is more impressive up close and personal. Still, it's not clear where exactly he differs, policy-wise, from his vanquished predecessor. A former reserve constable who has hauled people to jail, Foster talks about improving the staffing of the Dallas County jail, an initiative Keliher fought for successfully in 2005. Foster also has been suspicious of Sheriff Lupe Valdez's qualifications for the job, an argument Keliher made after the sheriff failed her first attempt to pass a mandatory state law enforcement test last spring.

In 2004, Foster lost to Valdez in the Democratic primary for sheriff, and for a while the two had a frosty relationship. Foster insists that he and the sheriff now get along fine, but he acknowledges he had concerns about whether Valdez, a former federal agent with scant local law enforcement experience, had the right stuff for the job.

We ran this photo with an August 31 story about the county Democratic slate. Looks like we were far.
We ran this photo with an August 31 story about the county Democratic slate. Looks like we were far.

"The only thing I was upset about, and I told her this, is that you're not a Texas peace officer, and you really need to get that under your belt before you enter the race," he says about Valdez's former lack of state certification. "I predicted that would be a problem."

Like his predecessor, Foster has also criticized the county's emergency readiness, particularly after a state audit expressed a lack of confidence in Dallas' ability to respond to a natural disaster or terrorist strike. That same audit criticized how the county spent federal Homeland Security dollars on a bug-ridden criminal database, which is a point Keliher has made to her colleagues for years.

If Foster hasn't staked out different positions from his predecessor, he does claim that he can help bring along the commissioners court to his way of thinking, something that typically eluded Keliher. "I've always had the ability to bring people together, and she didn't," he says. "You'll find that I can work with any elected official."

That includes Republicans such as North Dallas' county commissioner, Maurine Dickey, whom Keliher didn't seem to respect. "Maurine Dickey told me that it's amazing we had to have a Democrat come here for us to work together," he says.

Of course, if the commissioners court "works together" like it did before Keliher arrived, largely by underfunding county government and making ill-considered administrative decisions, harmony won't be a good thing. The key for Foster is if he can keep the peace on the commissioners court while still pushing for smart, efficient, modern government. For now, all we can do is wait to see if Foster can find purpose from his accidental victory.

The same goes for District Attorney-elect Craig Watkins. Like Foster, Watkins also seems to pale in comparison with the Republican candidate he defeated, star prosecutor Toby Shook. The felony bureau chief of the District Attorney's Office, Shook has successfully prosecuted some of the most notorious murderers in recent Dallas history. Watkins, meanwhile, eked out a living defending small-time criminals and working as a bail bondsman who had trouble paying his bills. The new district attorney of Dallas has battled the IRS and has been taken to court by several business owners who have claimed he owes them money.

Ironically, Watkins was even sued by the Dallas County District Attorney's Office after he failed to pay for receiving a monthly list of inmates in county custody. Watkins agreed to a settlement, which he didn't immediately pay until Bob Schnell, the chief of the Civil Division for the District Attorney's Office, sent him a letter.

"We will ask the court to abstract the judgment and proceed to have a writ of execution issued," it read.

Watkins is now Schnell's boss. Awkward.

But there is at least one important element in the criminal justice system avidly supporting Watkins: the long-neglected community of defense attorneys. To them, outgoing District Attorney Bill Hill has maintained the office's ethos of getting convictions at all costs, which has had the unhappy result of imprisoning the occasional innocent. They say that Watkins' lack of prosecutorial experience isn't an issue so long as he brings on top-shelf attorneys to institute key reforms. Besides, it's not like Hill himself came to office with Shook's credentials.

"Bill Hill has been out of the DA's office for about a million years," says defense attorney Deandra Grant. "He wasn't exactly Clarence Darrow."

Calling the job a "figurehead position," Grant says that Dallas should give Watkins the benefit of the doubt.

"I think we need to take a wait-and-see attitude on Craig," she says. "He may do a great job, but he's going to have to hire good people in the management positions."

During the campaign and immediately after, Watkins talked about the series of inmates released recently after they were wrongly convicted by the District Attorney's Office, indicating that he may be more reform-minded than his Republican opponent. Of chief concern to local lawyers is whether Watkins will follow up on his promise to institute a true open-file policy, which allows defense attorneys to have access to parts of the prosecution's criminal case, including police reports and witness statements. Tarrant County, which isn't exactly known as a liberal's vision of Xanadu, has such a policy, which both sides say speeds up the prosecution of cases. It's also a key safeguard in preventing the conviction of innocent people by allowing the defense counsel to—here's a revelation—mount an adequate defense.

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