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Despite District Attorney Craig Watkins getting re-elected in 2010, he had a really bad year.

Maybe Craig Watkins gets really bad advice from his Democratic Party friends. Maybe he just had a bad year. Or maybe he's not the rising star we all had him cracked up to be.
Brian Harkin

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins is supposed to be a star—a big star. Four years ago after he was elected Dallas County's first black prosecutor, Watkins leaped into the national limelight for his role in DNA-evidence exonerations of wrongly convicted prisoners.

So what's the matter with him?

Maybe the exonerations were a free gift, politically. If you're going to make your bones exposing deep-rooted racially tinged injustice, then Dallas may be the political pot at the end of your personal rainbow.

But Watkins also brought his own factor to the fight. He's handsome, well-spoken, with a sincere commitment to justice. People admire him for that. He should be scanning the horizon for at least a statewide post by now. Instead he's got his eyes on his own shoelaces all the time, trying to figure out why they keep tripping him up.

And they do. He's not at all where he should be or where anybody assumed he would be by now. In the election last November when Watkins was running for his second four-year term, everybody assumed he would lead the Democratic ticket in Dallas County.

He was supposed to be SuperDem, pulling all the other little Demmies along beneath his big blue cape. Instead, he barely won. He didn't lead anybody. He was the second-worst vote-getter on the county Democratic ticket.

Democratic county treasurer candidate Joe Wells led the ticket with a 4.04 margin of victory. John Warren, who won for county clerk, was just behind Wells at a 3.8-point winning margin. Gary Fitzsimmons took the district clerk post by 3.22 points. Clay Jenkins, the only non-incumbent among them, won county judge by 2.67 points. Watkins came in dead last at 1.24 points—not enough coattails for dog-catcher.

As prosecutor, Watkins has done a solid job walking a very difficult line—rooting out the bad convictions won by earlier regimes and the culture that produced them, while maintaining solid conviction rates on the good cases of today.

Every time another story emerges of an innocent person who has been jailed for decades on a bad charge, everybody feels the same sickness in the pit of the stomach—Republicans, Democrats, white people, black people, Latinos. We probably could have some lively debates about how it happened in the first place. But we all have seen, time and time again, that it did happen, and we all know that every time it happened a human being suffered an immeasurably cruel injustice. Nobody wants that. Everybody respects Watkins for going after those cases.

But what about the time he launched a criminal investigation into Dallas County Commissioner Maureen Dickey's vegetable and butterfly garden? Dickey accused Watkins of official oppression in early October of last year after the DA's Public Integrity Unit sought to interrogate her about a garden that volunteers were maintaining on the grounds of her road and bridge office.

Apparently the butterflies were on county property, whenever they alighted, and some suggestion was made at the time that county funds might have been improperly used to attract them. It is true that Dickey, a Republican, had been going after Watkins hammer and tong on a number of issues before he launched Butterflygate. There were no indictments, and it was unclear, had there been, who would have been indicted—Dickey or the butterflies.

Yeah. Look. Launching a criminal investigation into a butterfly garden is wacko. It's cuckoo. Somebody in politics needs to be able to imagine how things like this look. If we still had newspaper editorial cartoonists in this town, there would have been a drawing of Watkins leaning out of a speeding squad car with a big net, in hot pursuit of a bunch of mean-looking butterflies in a beat-up 1970s felony car.

Even though we were not treated to that explicit image in the newspaper, you can bet the public got the idea anyway. I think we can take the eight-point lead Watkins should have had over his opponent in the November election and toss two of those points in the toilet right there.

He was already on thin ice even before Butterflygate. A month earlier he had lost his temper in a public shouting match with county commissioners over budget cuts. The commissioners looked bad, but so did Watkins. The point is, he should have come out of that one smelling like a rose, not a skunk.

At a time of Draconian cuts, Watkins had managed to save 21 of 24 threatened positions in his department. He did it by jawboning the commissioners, who are the masters of his and all county government budgets, and by doing some skillful political maneuvering including an adept marshaling of public opinion.

Right up until the hissy fit, I thought he was running circles around the commissioners. He had already won the birthday cake. Those last three positions were like the little sugar frosting daisy on top. So he throws a gigantic public tantrum over the daisy. If we still had newspaper editorial cartoonists in this town, there would have been a drawing of Little Lord Fauntler-Watkins crouched in the corner, frowning and holding his breath while the commissioners laughed at him with cake smeared all over their faces.

 

And, again, I think the public got the picture. I say we knock off another couple points from his lead in the election for that particular escapade. I believe that brings us down to about four percentage points. So what happened to the next three? How'd he get down to one point?

Here we must go to a matter of deeper concern. Let's say we chalk up the butterfly business and the hissy fit to a couple of really bad days. There is a more worrying thing about Watkins that voters must have sensed in the run-up to the election—a thin-skinned sensitivity to criticism coupled with a fairly ruthless hand. Not a good combination, especially when you slap a badge on it. That's where the last three points went.

Since the election more of that side of Watkins has emerged plainly into view. He has come under criticism—mostly from The Dallas Morning News, mostly from Republicans—for firing seven staff members, some of whom were known to be card-carrying members of the Republican Party.

But many of them also were long-time staffers with high success rates at trial and deep expertise in particular areas of criminal law—not people who can automatically be replaced at the snap of a finger.

Especially given that fine line that Watkins needs to walk on the exoneration issue—making sure it's all about justice, never about politics or favoritism—the sacking of the seven does seem ham-fisted.

Elected officials can and do clean house, especially at the beginning of a term in office. But stars don't act that way.

Watkins was nice enough to call me back last week. He told me that when he fired the seven he had no idea they were Republicans or that some of them had worked for his opponent during the campaign. He said he only found out they were Republicans working for his opponent when Dallas County Chairman Jonathan Neerman admitted as much on TV.

I called Neerman. He told me he knew of only three of the seven who were definitely self-avowed card-carrying Republicans. He said he has never publicly identified any of them as having worked for Watkins' opponent.

Hmmm. Let's just let that one pass. I'm more worried about what followed in my chat with Watkins, which was a long song of injury, insult and mortification. It galls him that he, Craig Watkins, is singled out for criticism by his enemies.

"It concerns me," he said, "that someone would take a personnel decision as being political. And it seems that the persons who are claiming it is political happen to be in the party that I'm not in.

"If you look at it comparatively, just down the road in Collin County the DA basically got rid of 30 percent of his staff. I'm just kind of at a loss as to why I'm being called to account for making an employment decision that had nothing to do with politics."

He blames his problems on "those who are critical of Craig Watkins personally and as DA," a list to which he adds The Dallas Morning News. He says he is "the only DA throughout the State of Texas who has to get approval from the major newspaper before he makes a decision. I think there's something wrong with that."

Well. The Morning News probably has been out to get him, ever since he failed to back them up on their big investigative series about naughty constables. I always thought the News needed Watkins to produce some indictments in time for the Pulitzer submission deadline, and he dragged his feet. But, listen: the Morning News was out to get Bill Hill, Watkins' white Republican predecessor, for reasons that would take way too long to explain here.

If the Morning News is out to get the DA for whatever reason, that's a good thing. Most of those horrible false convictions that sent people to the dungeons for decades happened when the Morning News operated like a civilian auxiliary to local law enforcement. That's part of why it happened.

The real point is that if Watkins is to be the star he started out to be, he needs to rise above. Of course his enemies criticize him. That's why they're called enemies. And of course we in the press are a bunch of fault-finding nitpickers always trying to squeeze the guts out of everything he says. That's why we're called the press.

 

He's supposed to be the star. He's supposed to be better than us.

There are several possibilities here. Maybe he's not better—not a star after all. Maybe he gets stupid advice from his fellow Dallas County Dems—a distinct possibility. Or my personal favorite: He had a really bad year, and now he's going to take himself out to the woodshed and come back bright and shining as the sun.


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