Dallas County

Now That She's Gone, What Must It Have Been Like Being Susan Hawk?

In retrospect and now that her sad saga is at an end, Susan Hawk, the Dallas County district attorney who resigned last week for mental health reasons, looks more and more like a puppet in a political marionette show.

In the first act in 2014, Hawk played the part of a real political candidate for a while, but then she disappeared offstage in mid-campaign. Her campaign consultant popped out from the wings and assured the audience that Hawk had left the stage merely for an unscheduled costume change, taking time off in the middle of her campaign for rest and recuperation. Only much later, after she got elected, did we learn that Hawk had been in drug rehab during that time.

In later scenes, after the election, she was strangely absent from the show a lot, but her handlers told us she was only enjoying sunning herself at the beach or some such thing. When she had been offstage too long and people in the cheap seats began to get antsy, they dragged her back out onstage, popped her up and down at a press conference a few times to show that she could still dance, sort of, and then put her back in the puppet box.

And now that she has resigned, we are seeing the most macabre scene in the whole bad show. Ever since Hawk’s handlers realized her strings couldn’t be untangled again, most of the political puppeteers have been engaged in angry recriminations over which one of them got screwed the most by her demise.

Most of the time their arguments about her are so arcane I truly can’t even figure out what they are trying to say. I even wonder who really has the mental health problems.

Last week after she resigned, County Judge Clay Jenkins, who had defended her while she was still in office, said no one who had helped Hawk cover up her illness should be considered as a gubernatorial appointment to replace her.

Interesting rule. No persons who previously have helped cover up the mental health problems of other persons may serve as district attorney of this county. OK, sure, put it on a sign on the courthouse door. But is that even a real issue?

Gromer Jeffers, the politics editor of The Dallas Morning News, said that, with Hawk’s resignation, her “duping of Dallas County's Democratic voters is complete.”

Really? Hawk was a Republican originally, but she switched to the Democratic Party to run for judge. Then she switched back to the Republican Party to get elected DA in 2014.

Jeffers said Hawk duped Democrats because she delayed her resignation until after the deadline for putting her replacement to voters in the November election, cheating Democrats of a chance to replace her at the polls. He said it was cheating because maybe a lot of Democrats voted for her in ’14 even though she was a Republican.

Wow. There’s a ball of string to untangle. Let’s try that one out as a sign for the courthouse door. No Republicans who are former Democrats but were Republicans originally and who may have been elected as Republicans but with cross-over Democratic support may resign from office after the deadline beyond which Democrats cannot replace them at the polls. Uh … with Democrats?

Yeah, that’s it. That’s the moral thread all right.

Let’s go all the way back to the D Magazine piece a year ago in which freelance writer Jamie Thompson told how Hawk, then in office less than a year, woke up one night thinking about swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills to kill herself. Apparently realizing she was in the midst of a dangerous psychological crisis, Hawk did something I would not have done — drove to the home of her political consultant instead of a doctor or an emergency room.

Hawk’s consultant, Mary Woodlief, was “scared for her friend,” Thompson wrote. “The week before, she had spent three days at Hawk’s house, sitting beside her bed, worried about what Hawk might do if she were left alone. But Woodlief also knew that a sudden resignation would likely create more problems than it solved. More secrets. Ugly headlines. Another public crisis.”

A public crisis? Is that sort of like a publicity crisis? The woman is on the verge of suicide. If she quits – if she leaves office and quits politics to seek help for serious mental illness or addiction — would she really be worried about ugly headlines? Wouldn’t she be worried about her mental illness and/or addiction, about hanging on to reality, hanging on to life itself?
Woodlief, on the other hand, definitely could be worried about ugly headlines, because Woodlief ran Hawk’s successful election campaign, and Hawk’s victory was Woodlief’s first big win at the polls in a long time.

Some of the ways in which Hawk was a prisoner of her political status were not exactly anyone else’s fault, once she chose to run for DA and once she got elected. In a sworn affidavit last January, Bill Wirskye, one of Hawk’s closest allies until a falling out, painted her not so much as depressed but more likely messed up on drugs:

“When Ms. Hawk would enter my office and sit directly in the morning sun coming in through a window, her pupils were not responsive to the light,” he wrote. “Her mood and demeanor were becoming almost exclusively agitated and manic. Her ability to grasp simple issues and concepts was diminishing. Ms. Hawk would fail to remember important recent events and important items of relevant information.”

The Wirskye affidavit was evidence in an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by someone else to get Hawk removed from office. The judge looked at masses of similar evidence and testimony from people who had worked with Hawk and told the court she seemed weird. The judge shot down the removal attempt, however, because he said the most important people in the equation were the voters.

The voters put Hawk into office. The judge didn’t think it was his purview to override those ballots, even if Hawk may have been a bit askew.

But what if we took Hawk out of the political puppet show entirely, as she has done for herself now, and looked at her only as a person, not as a political officeholder? 

Probably the first thing we would do if this were not political and had no law enforcement undertone is forget entirely about question of depression versus addiction in Hawk’s case. Who cares?

Especially when drugs involved are prescription, I’m not even sure how much difference there is now. Treatment of mental health conditions today is almost universally pharmaceutical and therefore always has everything to do with levels and dependency. The difference between a mental problem and a drug problem is sort of definitional, unless you’re shooting heroin.

What we might all agree on right away instead is that Hawk has been suffering, suffering, suffering from some really tough problems. Could be prescription drugs, could be an underlying mental susceptibility or both. She has been sufficiently fragile to require very expensive inpatient care for much of the previous year.

Last month I made a request under the Texas Public Information law for all paychecks written to Hawk in the last six months, because I wanted to know if the county continued to pay her during repeated absences of many months duration. The county provided me with one pay stub for two weeks pay in the second half of July.

A county official wrote me again to make sure I understood that those two weeks were the only ones for which Hawk was paid in the previous six months. The paycheck is shown here, and you will notice that parts of it have been blacked out or redacted.

Those are the parts that would have told me whether the county was continuing to pay Hawk’s medical insurance while she was not being paid regular salary. I’m still working on that one, but I would assume they did keep her insurance in effect, or she would not have been able to afford months and months of inpatient care.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t begrudge her that. She was still the DA if she was on leave – and this part is still unclear as well – and would have been on medical leave. I would hope my own employer would keep my own insurance in effect while I was in the hospital at least until the damned insurance company found some fiendish way to wriggle out of it.

Something about seeing that check stub stripped away the politics and the publicity for me. Hawk was somewhere in an institution battling for her health, fighting for her life in fact. She was not getting paid, what had looked like a brilliant political career was up in smoke and now her whole life, what was left of it, was under a cloud of uncertainty. It’s not like she was having fun. That’s a lot to fight back from.

Look, I wrote lots of tough stuff about Hawk during this saga. A person who steps into the ring and lays claim to political power in our society surrenders a certain claim to personal sympathy. The role is the role. The puppet show is the puppet show. If the voters put you into the show, sometimes you can’t get out even if you’re bats.

And you never have the right to lie to the voters. There is never a case when lying to the voters about your own frailties is kosher. I’m going to throw it in your face. Everybody else in the media will throw it in your face. The voters will throw it in your face. We should put that one on the courthouse door, as well: All Dallas County district attorneys who lie about being nuts will have it thrown in their faces.

But now that it’s over and now that we can see her as a mere human being, like one of us, it is remarkable, is it not, the extent to which they danced her around like a puppet and continue to do so.

You have to wonder: When you’re engaged in that kind of terribly difficult struggle, what does it do to you to have them appear in your room and tell you it’s show time again?
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze