By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Despite its stunning view of downtown Dallas, the patio outside the bar at the Belmont Hotel in Oak Cliff is lifeless. That may be because it's a Tuesday night, but had Jim Foster's political fortunes been different, there could just as easily be music blaring, drinks flowing, and politicos and supporters packed shoulder-to-shoulder as the 66-year-old Foster accepted his second Democratic nomination for county judge.
Instead, Foster's March 2 primary election watch party consists of a small group of friends who realize that his only hope of keeping his job is forcing a runoff with challenger Clay Jenkins. Foster has managed to grab only 21 percent of the early vote, placing him a distant third to Jenkins' 51 percent and former Dallas City Council member Larry Duncan's 28 percent. The mood is somber as votes trickle in, but Foster says he's optimistic that a strong showing in the northern precincts will close the gap between him and Duncan and place him in a runoff with Jenkins.
Of course, anyone who's followed Foster's career as county judge would hardly expect him to be much of a political prognosticator. Seemingly from the day he took office in January 2007, Foster has been treated in the media like Dallas County's version of Chauncey Gardiner, Peter Sellers' character in Being There, a dull-witted gardener tossed accidentally into the political limelight. Foster, according to that version of his story, lucked into office on a Democratic tide and quickly sank over his head.
Lately, however, there's been another take circulating about Foster: That he's really an intelligent, courageous leader who stepped up to battle corruption even if that meant cutting himself off from his own party. The people most keen to spin that version of Foster's story are two of his Republican cohorts on the commissioners court, Ken Mayfield and Maurine Dickey.
"Sometimes there are people who are unlikely that show up at a particular window of time when they're there to do a job," Dickey says cryptically, "and it turned out to be, in the long view, a serendipitous thing for Dallas County because I don't think anybody would have done the job that needed to be done."
Unfortunately for Foster, neither Mayfield's nor Dickey's praise proved helpful in an election among Democrats. Still, the nagging question remains: Is Foster really the doofus commonly portrayed over the past three years, or did he manage to do some good in office?
The answer: maybe both.
But before the postmortem begins, decency requires the patient to be declared dead. Time of death is just after 10 on election night, as the wave of support from the north that Foster expected never found its way ashore. When the final votes are tallied, Jenkins falls just 114 votes shy of the 50 percent required to win outright, necessitating an April 13 runoff with Duncan. Foster offers no concession speech.
The party's over, and the judge prepares to head home. But before he goes, he pauses for a chat with the Dallas Observer and commits a typical Foster-ism. His loss, he says, was caused by voter fraud. At least half of the mail-in ballots were fraudulent, he claims with precision if not substantiation, and that "was enough to affect the outcome of the race." He refuses to name those behind the fraud but says he'll be handing that information to the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office, stressing that the perpetrators should be put behind bars. "Eventually, some of them will be," he boldly predicts. "You can go to the bank on that one."
Well, hold that trip to the bank. Turns out the final election results show that even if Foster had received all of the mail-in votes cast for both Jenkins and Duncan, it wouldn't have made any difference in the race. When presented with this fact two days later, Foster pauses and then awkwardly explains that his statement was made before all the votes were counted. He restates his concerns about voter fraud while admitting that it couldn't have factored in his third-place finish.
Suddenly, he's attributing his downfall to standing up for what's right and making decisions based on the best interests of the citizens instead of "what someone else wants."
"This county is rife with corruption," Foster says. "Unfortunately, and I'm sad to say, almost all of it is within the Democratic Party. I wish I didn't have to say that, but it's true."
It's a shotgun blast of a claim, the sort that's typical of the man who led a controversial, gaffe-prone investigation into the alleged corrupt behavior of two county constables, usurping the district attorney and muddying a potential criminal case with politics.
Foster may be heading out the door, but that case will likely be his legacy for good or ill.
Foster became involved in local Democratic politics in the late '70s while working as a plant manager for Johnson & Johnson, and his first experience was nearly enough to drive him away. He joined the Democratic Progressive Voters League, an organization formed in 1936 to advocate for the rights of blacks that evolved into a group focused on promoting minority candidates—like Foster, who's gay—for elected office.