The Race Not Run
It was one of the hardest phone calls he ever had to make, a courtesy call all candidates running against incumbents are expected to make. But to phone District Attorney John Vance, his old boss and mentor, a man he'd known and respected for 30 years, and say hey, nothing personal, I just want your job--well, he had every right to dread it.
Reluctant though he was, Bill Hill had worked too hard to turn back. He'd spent the last six months testing the waters--quietly gathering commitments, power, stroke--for a race that could bloody the Republican Party from the inside out. Vance's 12-year tenure as DA had been marred by mismanagement, low staff morale, and a gradual loss of the prestige that had characterized his predecessor, Democrat Henry Wade, a living legend around the courthouse. Yet Vance had told Republican women's clubs and several judges he intended to seek a fourth term in office. A bitter primary battle might weaken the steel grip Republicans held on the courthouse; it might encourage an entire slate of ambitious lawyers to take on competent judges they perceived as vulnerable.
But in early June 1997, when attorney Bill Hill sat in his downtown office in the NationsBank building and finally called Vance, none of this mattered.
"John, I'd like to come talk to you," Hill recalls saying, expecting to be worked into the DA's schedule sometime in the future.
"I'll be in your office in 10 minutes," Vance said, obviously aware something was up.
Vance arrived as he said he would--Hill's office being just a few blocks from the Frank Crowley courthouse. Vance looked healthier than he had in the past, having survived with grace quadruple bypass surgery in 1993. At 65, he remains handsome, a grandfatherly version of Clark Kent with thinly drawn lips, narrowed eyes, and meticulously groomed black hair--features suggesting a cautious, conservative man.
Hill, on the other hand, is garrulous and easygoing. His ice-blue eyes lose their chill the minute he flashes his cockeyed grin. His blond hair has turned ashen with age, but at 56, he can't hide a good-ol'-boy charm that might seem disingenuous if it weren't so "dadgum" disarming.
Hill didn't threaten or challenge Vance; instead, he says, he poured his heart out. For the last several years, he'd had a restless feeling about his life. His kids were out of the house and married. Money wasn't that important to him and his wife. So he started searching for something more significant, more meaningful. "I am leaning toward running for DA," he told Vance. "This may be my last shot."
Hill doesn't recall Vance saying much; the DA isn't known for being chatty. He did leave Hill with the impression that they were still friends, but didn't say whether he still planned to run.
Then, three weeks later, on June 25, in a terse, one-sentence memo to "All District Attorney Employees," Vance left no doubt about his intentions. "For your information, I will not be a candidate for re-election in 1998."
Although the announcement came as a surprise, Vance's popularity had declined enough that many of his fellow party members privately expressed relief. Now that he was no longer a candidate, speculation ran rampant within Republican circles about who else might enter the race. County Criminal Court Judge Henry Wade Jr. certainly had the right name, but needed to move fast if he wanted to jog the memories of those aging voters who'd kept his father in office for 36 years. Criminal District judges Keith Dean and John Creuzot had, on occasion, made rumblings about running, often after bad press portrayed Vance as asleep at the wheel. But no one stepped forward--trampled instead by wealthy Republican check-writers in their rush to anoint Bill Hill the next district attorney of Dallas County.
Even the Democrats refused to come out fighting, figuring why bother: The Democratic Party hadn't won a contested courthouse election since 1992. Peter Lesser, who had taken on Henry Wade when it wasn't fashionable to do so, had lost his hunger for the job. State Senator Royce West, who ran against Vance in 1986, said he wanted to continue his work in the Texas Legislature.
Only on January 5, 1998, the filing deadline, did a Democratic candidate emerge. He was Rick Reed, a prosecutor who was giving up his career to run. A by-the-book bureaucrat, Reed risked his future to fulfill what, at times, seems little more than a Walter Mitty dream. With limited help from Democrats, he has mounted a mom-and-pop campaign--his family literally runs his headquarters. Some contributions have even come in through a cookie jar positioned at the door. Reed does have the endorsement of the Dallas Police Association, but what good is being backed by the blue when your opponent is backed by the blue bloods?
Who is Bill Hill, anyway? A political nobody. A criminal-defense lawyer, of all people. Had Hill masterminded what amounted to a bloodless coup, toppling a sitting district attorney before publicly announcing he was a candidate for the office? Had Vance become such a political liability, his office so poorly run that the Republican powers believed it was time to force his retirement?
Hill claims he wants to restore the office to its glory days under Henry Wade, who, for more than three decades, ran the courthouse as though he owned it. Wade was an immensely powerful, larger-than-life, cuff-'em and stuff-'em prosecutor--and by comparison alone, Vance may have been doomed to disappoint. "You don't want to be the guy who succeeds Henry Wade," Peter Lesser says. "You want to be the guy who succeeds his successor."
Before he retired in 1986, cigar-chewin', tobacco-spittin' Henry Wade was a yellow-dog Democrat in a courthouse made up entirely of yellow-dog Democrats. Of the 900 lawyers who were on his staff over the years, many have their own their favorite stories about "The Chief."
Wade attained legendary status when he prosecuted Jack Ruby for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Ruby had been represented by flashy San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli, whom Wade, during the trial, repeatedly called "Mr. Belly." When Belli objected to the misnomer, Wade apologized. "Just to show there are no hard feelings," he said, "I want to take Mr. Bell-eye to lunch and feed him some spaghett-eye."
The jury in the Ruby case deliberated less than two hours before returning the death penalty, although an appellate court later reversed the ruling, determining that a trial in Dallas was too prejudicial to Ruby. Even so, Wade counted the jury's verdict as one of his 30 successful death-penalty prosecutions and claimed he never lost a case he tried personally.
Wade came across as a country lawyer, chewing his words as well as his cigars. But he was a pragmatist who possessed tremendous political savvy. He claimed his door was always open to anyone who wanted to see him: attorneys, victims, people interested in the outcome of a criminal case. "Wade had amazing people skills," says one courthouse veteran. "He could give you the impression he was helping you, even if he wasn't." He would get the file from the prosecutor handling it, go over it with the interested party, then tell his prosecutors to do whatever they thought was right. But if you had Wade's ear, if you were part of the courthouse family, or if you were Buddy Minyard or W.O. Bankston or even Darrell Royal, your feelings about a case might carry more weight. Whether this was favoritism--or Wade just making people think they were favorites--it was a holdover from the small-town mentality Dallas hadn't quite shaken off.
By 1979, eight of the 10 felony judges had been former Henry Wade prosecutors; a majority of the misdemeanor judges had served under him as well. When the legislature created a new district bench or a vacancy needing filling, no one in Dallas County could get the judgeship from the governor unless he had the blessing of Wade. "He didn't have the power to appoint someone to the district bench," says one criminal judge. "But he did have the right to veto anyone he didn't like."
Wade also knew how to stay in office, surviving 10 elections, many without opposition. Rarely was he criticized in the press, which often paid homage to him. He had the firm backing of the Citizens Charter Association, the business oligarchy that ran this town and selected its candidates. It didn't hurt that his state-of-the-art hot-check department became the business community's unofficial collection agency.
It also didn't hurt that he was perceived as incorruptible--he prosecuted his own brother for driving while intoxicated--and that he ran one of the top prosecutor shops in the nation. Wade surrounded himself with clever, able assistants: Bill Alexander, James Allen, John Vance, Doug Mulder, John Sparling, Steve Tokely.
Wade loved training young prosecutors to be tough and independent and entrepreneurial. "Lawyers are supposed to make decisions, and he let his lawyers be lawyers," says former Wade prosecutor Reed Prospere. "He hired the best ones for the job and then trusted them to do it."
But Wade also bred his prosecutors to be competitive, not just with the defense bar but with each other. Prosecutors were promoted not on seniority but on the number of jury trials they tried. The office boasted a conviction rate of more than 90 percent, one of the highest in the nation. Wade's office grabbed national press when prosecutors persuaded law-and-order Dallas juries to hand down life sentences for paltry amounts of marijuana. It became a kind of game among prosecutors as to who could get the longest sentence against a defendant: 1,000 years? 2,000 years? Wade himself set a national record when he convinced a jury in 1973 to sentence Franklin and Woodrow Ransonette to 5,005 years for the kidnapping of Amanda Dealey, daughter-in-law of then-Dallas Morning News publisher Joe Dealey.
Appellate courts repeatedly condemned Dallas prosecutors, finding their actions unethical, their arguments inflammatory, their focus more on getting convictions than on doing justice. Prime-time blunders such as Randall Dale Adams, Joyce Ann Brown, and Lenell Geter all happened under Wade's watch. But he offered no apologies, instructing his disciples that convictions make the front page, whereas reversals get buried somewhere in the back.
At age 72, Wade decided not to seek another four-year term. But rather than appoint his own successor, he let two of his former top assistants slug it out in the '86 Republican primary.
John Sparling was perceived as the overzealous candidate, the former assistant DA who'd drafted Wade's notorious jury-selection memo that encouraged rookie prosecutors to exclude blacks, Jews, and women from jury service because they were presumed soft on punishment. John Vance seemed the more reasonable candidate. He was a thoughtful, impartial jurist--12 years as a criminal trial judge, five years as an appellate judge--who many believed never really wanted the job in the first place, but agreed to seek it because of a promise he made to a dying friend, Judge James K. Allen. Vance beat his opponent in a bitter race that may have turned against Sparling when Republican women's clubs began gossiping about unseemly allegations in his divorce.
Of course, Vance was no Henry Wade, nor did he want to be. Yet others constantly measured him against Wade and found him wanting. Although Vance wasn't a politician, the courthouse was growing increasingly political as judges became Republican in both name and philosophy.
Vance was more ideological than Wade, but was also less accessible and had far less personal magnetism. (Vance did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.) He possessed a judge's sense of fair play and wanted to avoid the excesses of his predecessor. Yet he knew his predicament: If he changed things too drastically, it would be perceived as a criticism of Wade. If things didn't change at all, he'd be dismissed as a caretaker, a lame duck, a "do-nothing DA."
Immediately after his election, the "Judge"--as he was called by his staff--went on a morality crusade, playing to the right wing of the Republican Party by cracking down on pornography and prostitution cases. His critics believed this was a serious misallocation of dwindling law-enforcement resources, which could be better spent curbing violence, particularly in the late '80s and early '90s, when random street crime seemed to be soaring out of control.
He rankled the defense bar by backing off his campaign pledge to liberalize discovery practices by opening the prosecutor's file for defense perusal. Losing the support of the enemy was of no political moment, but losing the support of his own troops would prove nothing short of a disaster.
That this should occur as a result of abusive practices endemic to Wade's office made it even more difficult for Vance to accept. In March 1989, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the capital murder conviction of Randall Dale Adams, who had been on death row for 12 years. The high court held that Wade's top prosecutor, Doug Mulder, had suppressed evidence and sponsored perjured testimony in obtaining the conviction. Vance wrongly decided to retry Adams, and even worse, assigned the case to Winfield Scott, one of the same go-for-the-throat prosecutors who had mistried the case in the first place.
When Scott took over, he acted as if the reputation of the entire Wade era were on trial. He seemed out of control, sounding caustic, playing poorly to a national press, which heard him accuse the trial judge of being biased, the appeals court of being too liberal. Vance was outraged: He dismissed the case and forced Scott to resign, accusing him of being a "gunslinger" and of "running amok." Scott told the press that he was a scapegoat and that Vance was no Henry Wade. "Wade would never have let things get in this mess," he told The Dallas Morning News. "The whole legal community knows it."
Sentiment began to grow among the prosecutors' staff that Vance would not back them on the hard calls. Wholesale firings became more common as some assistants came to believe that everyone was expendable. That notion was reinforced when Vance delayed giving them raises, instead using budgeted funds to equalize pay for those who had seniority in sections other than the trial division. Lawyers would get promoted from misdemeanor to felony court--their responsibilities increasing--but without a commensurate increase in pay. Where Wade had built his reputation on the backs of an elite corps of trial lawyers, most of whom had left the office and gone into successful private practice, Vance seemed more inclined to treat everyone equally.
Unless, of course, you were a victim.
In Wade's day, a victim had no political muscle, no movement to call his own. A victim was the "complaining witness" in a criminal case, with the real damaged party being the State. But Vance had to contend with Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and other victims' advocacy groups, and he pledged to give every victim his day in court.
"I need to talk to the victim" became the mantra of paranoid prosecutors fearful they might get fired if victims became outraged with the way their cases were being handled and went to Vance--or worse, the press--to complain. Unlike Wade, rather than exercise prosecutorial discretion and screen out "dog" cases before they ever got to the grand jury, Vance developed a reputation for indicting everyone, cluttering dockets with trash cases that upset judges because they never seemed to go away.
That's because few people had the authority to make them go away. While Wade inspired his loyal troops to breathe fire and slay dragons, Vance kept his prosecutors on a short leash, fettering their discretion with policies and rules, shackling their entrepreneurial spirit with an added layer of hierarchy--called "superchiefs"--and bureaucratic red tape: no dismissals without approval from a superchief; no deferred adjudication (a type of probation that does not result in a final conviction) without permission from the immediate chief; no plea bargains of less than 25 years for anyone charged with a first-degree felony who has two prior trips to the pen, without the approval of First Assistant Norm Kinne or Vance himself.
"But you have a better chance of getting an audience with the Pope than getting in touch with some of [Vance's] section chiefs," one former Wade prosecutor says.
In the interest of victims' rights, Vance created a child-abuse division and a family-violence division--leading the state in protecting battered spouses and molested children. In the interest of justice, he agreed to reverse the errors of Henry Wade--requesting pardons, new trials, and dismissals of those who'd been wrongly convicted years ago. At the same time, he maintained the aura of incorruptibility that had been the hallmark of his predecessor. "Vance has never gotten the credit he deserves," says criminal-defense attorney Barry Sorrells. "He has a low-profile style, but runs an honest shop. It's squeaky-clean."
Vance, however, took huge public relations hits on many of the high-profile cases his office tried: His prosecutors came across as racist and relentless when they pursued County Commissioner John Wiley Price for his sometimes criminal brand of civil disobedience. They looked bumbling and foolish when they failed to convict former minister Walker Railey for the attempted murder of his wife. One Railey prosecutor told the jury that Walker acted with premeditation when he tried to strangle Peggy Railey; the other argued that he acted spontaneously. The absence of Wade's elite corps of trial lawyers was painfully apparent in these and other defeats.
During his second term, when his health failed him, Vance was forced to relinquish authority to his subordinates. But when his health returned, he failed to get that authority back. His first assistant, Norm Kinne, was a brilliant trial lawyer with little inclination for management. Nevertheless, the task of running one of the largest law offices in the city--200 attorneys--fell upon his shoulders. Superchief Mike Gillett had a knack for aggravating just about everyone with whom he came into contact, but despite the entreaties of many within the bench and bar, Vance allowed him to accumulate only more power as time went on.
There was a growing perception in Republican circles that Vance was absent without leave, that the DA's office was in free fall. "People in the business community began to realize that Vance was tying the system up with too many unprovable cases," says one courthouse insider. "They saw it as a waste of taxpayer dollars." Others longed for the good old days of Henry Wade, citing low morale and poor performance among Vance's rank and file.
Vance seldom worked the Republican Women's Club circuit--the worker bees of the party--the way a good Republican should, and he fell into disfavor with queen bee Martha Weisend, a power player in courthouse politics. At an October 1996 fundraiser for state District Judge Tom Price, she told Republican Party Chairman Bob Driegert that it was time for a change in the DA's office--and she was determined to make it happen. She was already looking for someone to run against John Vance.
Candidate Bill Hill was standing in the doorway of a modest home on University Drive, doing a meet-and-greet with members of the Westlake Republican Women's Club--48 activists ready to help their party any way they could, manning phone banks, planting yard signs, chatting up friends--48 devotees to a Republican way of life. "There are over 20 women's clubs in Dallas," says one Republican insider. "If you ignore them, then come primary time you can be sure they will ignore you."
Despite the close quarters, Hill charmed the crowd with his country gentleman's ways, smiling his half-smile, looking dapper in a brown houndstooth-check suit.
One of the clubbers, Mary Jane Wilson, whispered, "Anybody who ever runs for public office--we see them trotting through here."
After the pledge of allegiance to a tiny flag sitting in a glass vase by the fireplace, Hill began his stump speech. "I do appreciate ya'll having me here. I was here 'bout a year ago," he said in his hard, deep-throated Texas twang. "But I wasn't even a candidate yet. Though I do feel I have been training for this job my whole life."
Which isn't far from the truth. Hill was raised in Garland when only 5,000 people lived there and coming to Dallas meant packing a bag. Garland gave him a blue-collar sensibility--as he's quick to point out--and the opportunity to run track. During his senior year at Garland High, he had the fastest time in the nation in the 220-yard dash. "I just enjoyed winning," Hill says.
Scholarship offers came from every college in the Southwest Conference, and Hill wisely chose SMU. Not only did he run on the relay team that broke several Southwest Conference records, he also ran with the right crowd. To his well-heeled frat brothers at Phi Delta Theta, Hill was laid-back, unassuming, country-fried. Hill counted as friends Gil Clements, Governor Bill Clements' son; Ray Hunt, the future owner of Hunt Oil Company; and Tom Luce, who has become Ross Perot Jr.'s point man on the arena deal. One of his best friends was Charles Younger, a pre-med student from Midland, who would introduce him to George W. Bush in the '70s while Bush was making a name for himself in the oil business in Midland. Over the years, their friendship grew as Hill and Bush would golf and fish together and attend Rangers games.
Whether by luck or design, Hill trafficked with people who would someday become the new business elite in the city.
Although track left little time for academics, Hill and SMU teammate Mickey Wade managed to sneak off to the courthouse and watch Mickey's Uncle Henry try Jack Ruby for the murder of Oswald. That's when Hill decided to become a trial lawyer. "I'd finally found a place where I could channel my competitive energies after track," he says.
In 1964, Hill married his college sweetheart and went to SMU law school on a full scholarship (he had to coach the freshman track team in return). In 1967, as he approached graduation, he and classmate Steve Tokely would camp out at Wade's door, just the way they were instructed to do, so Wade could gauge how passionate they were about working for him.
Wade loved jocks, had played football at the University of Texas, and immediately took a liking to Hill. "It was probably because I was the only one in the office who knew how to play golf," Hill says. Wade would teach him how to read people on the jury, how to develop a rapport with them. "A lot of what goes on in a jury room doesn't have a dadgum thing to do with your case," Hill says.
John Vance was Wade's first assistant and became another Hill mentor. "He was very methodical and taught me step-by-step how to prepare a complicated case," Hill says.
After five years and eight death-penalty convictions, Hill figured it was time to provide better for his wife and three kids. Already settled in University Park, he switched sides and became a criminal-defense attorney. From his SMU connections, he quickly developed the kind of premium practice most criminal lawyers only dream about. Referrals from major downtown law firms provided him with 90 percent of his business; his clients were mostly white-collar criminals who knew they would have to pay and pay big; others were the sons and daughters of Park Cities types who got busted for street crimes and drugs, such as Vance Miller Jr. (DWI) and Walter Lewis Perryman (murder and kidnapping).
In the early '80s, no one could imagine that the savings and loan industry was in such a shambles, nor could they imagine what a boon it would be for criminal lawyers. Hill was perfectly positioned for the onslaught: Downtown law firms referred him bank presidents and CEOs. His credibility with two U.S. attorneys, Michael Carnes and Jim Rolfe--who would later share office space with him when they entered private practice--helped him stop many prosecutions before they began. "I did my best work without anyone knowing it," Hill says. "A lot of my business clients didn't want to read their name in the paper, so they didn't want to read my name in the paper. That's why nobody knows my name."
Yet when Hill had to strap on his trial boots, he had more success than most. He represented Dallas businessman Charles J. Wilson in 1994, and a federal jury handed Hill one of only two acquittals in Texas during the entire S&L debacle.
As he built his reputation, he also extended his web of connections. "I make no apologies for my friends," says Hill. "You live in a community for 40 years, you get to meet a lot of people." Whether it was volunteerism at the Salesmanship Club, boosterism at SMU's Mustang Club, or Presbyterianism at his Park Cities church, Bill Hill acquitted himself well.
But for him, over the last several years, something was missing--something meaningful and spiritual and real. He spoke with his pastor about it, who gave him a book titled Halftime: Changing Your Game Plan from Success to Significance, and it crystallized his feelings. "You reach a point in your life when you ask, Is there anything else? I started looking around to see what else was possible."
He says the best years of his 30-year legal career were the five he spent as a prosecutor. "Anyone who worked for Wade back then wondered what it would be like to sit in his chair." So in February 1997, he began to "test the waters" for a run against Vance.
There are those who believe the district attorney's job is merely resume padding for Hill; that what he really wants is a Congressional seat, or an inside-the-Beltway position in the Bush administration, if and when. Hill laughs at these suggestions, acting as though he lacks the political cunning even to think that far ahead. As he talks about the DA's race, he does at times seem boyishly naive. "If someone told me to go talk to somebody, why, I'd be at their doorstep the next day," he says. But he went after his goal so decisively, even veteran politicos were surprised by his savvy.
"The power base of the Republican Party is very diffuse," says Republican Party Chairman Bob Driegert. "But somehow Bill managed to hit all the bases."
Hill already had untapped clout in the business community. His membership in the Salesmanship Club, his lifelong civic boosterism, and his friendships with Ray Hunt, John Scovell, and others gave him entree to big-time Republican money.
The downtown legal community was also his for the picking: From his practice, he had groomed business and personal relationships at nearly every major law firm downtown: Hughes & Luce, Thompson & Knight, Akin Gump. Since his days at SMU, he had known Michael Boone and George Bramlett of Haynes & Boone. They offered to provide him with an arrangement so he could wage his campaign and not go broke in the process. Hill would become "of counsel" to the firm, turning over his caseload and getting compensated for practicing very little law.
Hill's political clout came from his close association with Gov. Bush, who encouraged him to run from the beginning. "If word gets out that this is the governor's friend, the rumor itself is intimidating enough," says one Republican political activist. "Just as effective as the governor actually making calls on Hill's behalf." Hill began to line up support with some of Bush's closest allies, getting early advice from Jim Francis, a member of Bush's kitchen cabinet, as well as George Bayoud, an old-line Republican who worked in Governor Clements' administration, and Martha Weisend, a board member of the Dallas County Council of Republican Women.
That Weisend was on her own hunt for someone to challenge Vance, Hill says, was just coincidence--though a meaningful one. She was a player who could bring to the table Republican field workers and check-writers alike. She also had the ear of Pete Schenkel, an executive with Scheppps Dairy who, together with Weisend, often involved himself in courthouse politics and law-enforcement issues. Hill met with Schenkel, who'd been a longtime Vance backer, and asked for his support. "I was working real hard on him," Hill says. "I thought I was definitely in the ballpark, but he hadn't made up his mind."
Schenkel says he only agreed to back Hill after Vance ruled out running again, but for him to say otherwise would make it appear that he was part of Weisend's attempt to overthrow Vance. Yet other Republican activists say it was Schenkel's support that broke Vance's back and made Hill's candidacy a fait accompli.
Even the right wing of the Republican Party seemed mollified with Hill. They didn't know much about him, but found solace in his active church affiliation.
Next came the showdown with Vance, which Hill felt bad about, but rationalized. "I thought that Vance was tired and didn't really want to run."
Or perhaps Vance was simply outflanked, cut off from power, support, and money. Why fight a bitter war within your own party and risk going out a loser when you can leave your office with dignity? "It was a textbook way to do it," says one Republican insider. "A very subtle yet powerful bloodless coup."
If Vance harbored any resentment, it crept out only once--in a sarcastic comment he made to a Morning News reporter: "I think it's time to let someone else have all that fun."
With the waters tested, the floodgates now opened as any reluctance to support Hill's candidacy vanished. Both Henry Wade and Vance, playing elder statesmen, agreed to become his honorary campaign chairmen. His finance and campaign committee looked like a who's who of Republican politics. Money poured in, and a bandwagon mentality took hold. People couldn't wait to align themselves with Bill Hill: Republicans as well as Democrats, Bush people, Clements people, businessmen, lawyers--$10,000 from Gerald Ford (a prominent Democrat and SMU giver whom Hill knew in law school), $5,000 from Ray Hunt; $2,500 from Tom Hicks. By mid-October 1998, Hill's campaign had raised nearly $370,000 in contributions, though Hill swore he never asked anyone "for a dime."
The chance of a primary fight was over before it began. Judges Henry Wade Jr., Keith Dean, John Creuzot, and former prosecutors Jim Burnham, Dan Hagood, and Knox Fitzpatrick all decided to back out even before entering the ring. "It was a textbook campaign on how to line up Republican support and get elected to office," Bob Driegert says.
The election, of course, was still many months away. But as Hill told the Westlake Republican Women's Club in September, "Some folks already think I'm district attorney. But I do have an opponent. Some folks just think I don't."
The meeting seemed more spontaneous than it should have been, a cluster of cars suddenly appearing in a library parking lot--mostly pickups. This handful of grass-rooters on a too hot September morning was about to scour a Mesquite neighborhood for votes for a candidate they hardly knew. They were the party faithful--and in Republican-rich Dallas County, it's not surprising there were only seven of them. While they waited for Rick Reed, their candidate for district attorney, they exploited a small opportunity to further their cause.
"The best way to kill a politician in this city is to ignore them," explained a party stalwart sporting a leather vest and walrus mustache. "There ain't nothing more depressin' than working in a campaign without money. It's like declaring war and having nobody show up."
Phil Fisher, a foot soldier of more Democratic campaigns than he cared to remember ("this ain't my first rodeo"), looked over the day's battle plan, a list targeting the swing voters of precinct No. 1317--those non-lever-pulling Mesquite independents more likely to vote for a person than a party. "A family that lives in a neighborhood like this and votes Republican," remarked Fisher from the shadows of his gimme cap, "is just a Democrat that ain't been talked to in 15 years."
Rick Reed drove up in his red Geo SUV. Erin, his 10-year-old daughter, had come along to do her part. At 43, Reed is a long fellow, made lankier by his thick, rubber-soled sandals. His high brow, angular features, and serious demeanor bear a passing resemblance to George Bush Sr. He is nothing if not earnest. He was already sweating.
Fisher collared Reed quickly. "I talked with the guys at the UAW hall," he told him. "We dropped off about 20 of your signs. You don't even have to train those guys. They'll just pick them up and go."
Labor, minorities, Democratic clubs based on geography rather than gender--these were the groups whose rank and file might do some of the legwork for Reed. "Well, just give me a precinct and let me go," one of them said.
Fisher drove Reed and his daughter to Cascade Street, a working-class neighborhood, remarkable only for the number of cars parked in each driveway. Reed had to work fast, knocking on each door three times, then moving on if no one answered. Some people were reluctant to open up, but Erin's presence softened their resistance.
At a house with a broken tricycle hanging from a mailbox, the door opened, and Reed delivered his spiel. "Hi. I'm Rick Reed. I am campaigning for district attorney."
A dog barked angrily, and Reed backed his daughter away. "I don't think she would hurt you," the woman said. "She only has one tooth."
Reed forgot to laugh.
"I have the endorsement of the Dallas Police Association and nine other county police and firefighting organizations," he said, handing her his campaign literature. The key is to turn every conversation into a yard sign; Reed seemed awkward about closing the deal. "Would you mind if we put my sign in your yard?"
"No," shrugged the woman. "Put it wherever you want."
At each house, Reed was quick to point out his police endorsements. He's the real "law and order" candidate, he said, a 12-year career prosecutor under Vance, backed by the blue.
It bothers him that he can't get those tough-on-crime Republicans to understand that their candidate has made a killing representing criminals. "Bill Hill hasn't prosecuted a case since Richard Nixon was president," he says.
Reed fast-walked from one house to the next, leaving Erin about 10 paces behind.
He recalled that when he was a boy, living in Oak Cliff, he walked the neighborhoods with his father, a two-term liberal Democrat in the Texas House. Dick Reed, a machinist with Texas Instruments, was one of the first candidates to take on the Citizens Charter Association, the conservative business oligarchy that ran Dallas. "They were fighting for the elite vote," the elder Reed says. "I was fighting for the common vote." But victory did not come easily.
In 1968, Dick lost the Democratic primary to the CCA-backed candidate and demanded a recount. After obtaining a court order, he discovered that he'd been cheated out of 500 votes, the difference in the election. The public outcry was so great, he ultimately won the legislative seat.
But when he wanted to file charges against the Democratic party chairman and others for voter fraud, Henry Wade said the case was too hard to prove. "Wade was real magnanimous," Dick Reed says. "He said, 'Boy, they treated you bad,' and he was going to make it up to me. Then he called a few of his friends and raised some money for my campaign." The grand jury issued a report condemning the conduct, he says, but returned no indictments. "That was Wade's way of getting off the hook--not indicting someone who was too privileged to get indicted."
Dick Reed again butted heads with the establishment when he gave up his legislative seat to run against Roy Orr for county commissioner in 1972. It was a close race until days before the election, when a leaflet containing a picture of Reed with black activist Al Lipscomb was mailed to voters. The unattributed flier claimed Dick Reed was in favor of forced busing, open housing, and free lunch programs. He lost the election, failing to get into a runoff by a narrow margin.
Although Rick was just a teenager at the time, his father's races devastated him. He wanted nothing to do with politics, seeing the system as crooked. Perhaps that's why he was attracted to the law. Getting a taste of injustice at a young age may have fueled his passion to represent the underdog, the innocent, the lost cause.
But law school at the University of Houston proved a disappointment: The idea that a good lawyer should be able to argue either side of a case ran afoul of his idealism. He quit after his first year and went to work as a law clerk for the Dallas firm of Passman, Jones. Slowly, after a few years, he got back his fire for law, and finished up at SMU in 1985.
His dream was to hang a shingle and start his own practice. But it was too unrealistic, too hard to sell yourself, too unprofitable. Even though he thought prosecutors were the "bad guys," he convinced himself to go to work in the district attorney's office--first for Henry Wade and then John Vance. "In the beginning, I felt like a spy," Reed says. "It took me about a year to switch allegiances."
He was a good company man, climbing the ladder from entry-level misdemeanor prosecutor to felony chief; then on to chief of all the misdemeanor courts; and finally making chief of the white-collar crime division. Reed was more from the John Vance than from the Henry Wade school of prosecuting. He was methodical, unadorned, worked hard not to make a mistake. He prosecuted more than 3,750 criminal cases, tried more than 275 jury trials, and gained a stellar reputation as an ethical lawyer. He married Lynne, a registered nurse, had three children, bought a home in Cedar Hill, and lived a good life. Why he decided to risk it all for a race that courthouse observers say he hasn't a chance in hell of winning--and that's with a strong Democratic turnout--was a mystery, even to his own family. "It never occurred to me he would be a candidate for anything," his father says.
Perhaps it's the son taking on the father's battles. "It bothered me that I was going to take marching orders from some silver-spoon candidate who had been anointed for the job," Reed says. "This is not an office that belongs to the wealthy. It shouldn't matter how much you have contributed to a campaign to decide how much justice you get."
Reed hated the idea that some outsider--some criminal-defense attorney, of all people--was about to become his next boss. Deciding whether to enter the race--the way he labored over it--put a strain on his marriage: He had no cushy deal with a downtown law firm that would pay his salary while he ran. He would have to quit his job, forgo more than $100,000 in income, live off his wife's salary. "We owned some land in Ellis County, and I had no idea how we were going to make the mortgage payment," he says.
Reed realized the political reality of running as a Democrat: Dallas County is 51 to 60 percent Republican, depending on who is asked. Yet he believed he could appeal to independent voters by portraying himself as "the prosecutors' candidate."
"The next time around, Hill would be the incumbent," Reed says. "My opportunity was now."
In September 1997, Reed made his own courtesy call to Vance, telling his boss that he intended to run for district attorney as a Democrat. Vance said that Reed would have to resign once he announced his candidacy, so he waited until the January filing deadline so he could draw a few more paychecks.
In April 1998, his campaign received its biggest boost when Reed secured the endorsement of the Dallas Police Association, which offered to let him use their PAC room as his campaign headquarters. It's nothing fancy--the renovated second floor of a two-story downtown office building--but it's serviceable and free.
Although Reed had hoped to raise $100,000 to finance his campaign, he never saw that kind of money. As of October 12, he'd received just over $27,000 in campaign contributions. Big-ticket Democrats wanted no part of him. Many have aligned themselves with Hill, making him appear the consensus candidate. Even some of Reed's closest friends at the DA's office have disappointed him: His old felony chief, Dan Hagood, insisted that Reed remove his name from campaign literature.
Instead, Reed is running an old-fashioned, populist campaign: pressing flesh, kissing babies, going to every parade for every group that ever celebrated anything in this county. "We're not trying to buy this election," says Dick Reed, his son's unofficial campaign manager. "We're trying to earn it."
"I fully expect to win," Rick Reed says.
Last month, after only an hour of neighborhood door-knocking, Reed was in full drench, the back of his pants soaked with the sweat pouring down his shirt. On Willowbrook Street, he approached a man in a black T-shirt who was working in his garage. The garage looked like a burglary waiting to happen, stuffed with tools and car parts. The man began to recite all the crimes in his neighborhood: a lady down the street had been assaulted, a man up the block was robbed, those apartments down the way were loaded with drug dealers.
Reed acted sympathetic, but stuck to business. "I'm sorry for all that. Can I put up a yard sign?"
"Sure, but the deal is, you gotta help this neighborhood."
"The DA doesn't get involved in law enforcement. I can only send a message to other criminals by being a tough prosecutor."
"That's good enough for me. Stick it anywhere you like."
Reed was amazed at his success--eight yard signs on Willowbrook alone. If the election were held on this street, Rick Reed would be the next DA.
But in a county as large as Dallas, how many doors can he knock on? How many streets can he canvass?
Phil Fisher provides today's answer: "Three streets down, 600 to go."
That Bill Hill is a Republican, cut in the mold of Democrat Henry Wade, and Rick Reed a Democrat, cut in the mold of Republican John Vance, demonstrates how irrelevant partisan politics should be in courthouse races. Only they're not. Hill maintains strong front-runner status because he is on the ballot as a Republican in a Republican county. His ability to raise big money and support stems from that political fact of life.
Reed calls this the anointing of Bill Hill--and it may well be. His challenge is to convince voters somehow to reject the candidate the "business oligarchy," in his father's words, has selected for us.
The truth is that two decent men, both political unknowns, are vying to become heir to the legacy of Wade and Vance--the only DAs Dallas has known in 48 years. Yet at times they don't even seem to be running in the same race. Hill has mostly relied on billboards, radio spots, and Republican women to get out his message. Reed has relied mostly on his family and himself.
Although they have yet to debate, if given a forum to do so, their platforms would sound strikingly similar, hitting upon all the hot-button law-and-order themes that play so well with voters: placing a strong emphasis on curbing juvenile crime; tougher drug enforcement coupled with more drug treatment; making the district attorney's office run more efficiently; demanding rigorous prosecution of sex crimes, violent crimes, hate crimes.
The fundamental difference between them would be reduced to personalities: Do we want a Wade-like DA in Bill Hill? Pragmatic, accessible--a lawyer who has known both sides of the docket and can lead by example rather than default, a political man who risks feeling obligated to the business establishment who elected him.
Or do we want a Vance-like DA in Rick Reed? A justice-for-all, by-the-book straight-shooter, who lacks the inspiration to rally his own party, much less his own staff.
Come November 3, the choice is ours. Or is it
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Houston vs Dallas: How Super Bowl Performers Stack Up
Thu., Feb. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Feb. 12, 8:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 2:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 7:00pm
- A Texas Doctor Again Puts on His Hat as Virus Hunter
- Why the Crackdown on K2 Among Downtown's Homeless Won't Work