Judging by Dallas, GOP Cares More About Office Than Competence

Here’s a shoutout from Dallas to national Republicans, asking if you think your grand old party is capable of keeping a person with serious mental problems in office just to prevent a Democrat from getting the job.

If you live here in Dallas, it’s an important local question. If you don’t, it’s an important national question. If nothing else, the similarities in the local scene here and the national dilemma at the moment provide an eerie and nervous-making parallel.

Here in Dallas, a woman named Susan Hawk who has suffered from drug addiction and mental illness since first running for her current public office in 2014 — much of it covered up by hired media consultants — recently concluded yet another in a series of long institutional stays and has returned, supposedly, to reassume her duties as the district attorney of Dallas County.

If she manages to hold on to her job for one more week and a few days, then voters will be cheated of a chance to choose her replacement in the November elections. In that event, our Republican governor will appoint a replacement.

Dallas is a county that used to be very red but has been blue for more than a decade. Hawk, who is telegenic and smart when healthy, ran against a lackluster Democratic incumbent suspected of cronyism and incompetence. When elected in 2014, she became the first Republican elevated to countywide public office in Dallas in ten years.

So you see the temptation there, right? Her election was a dearly yearned-for return to prominence for county Republicans, a vindication, a chance to set the record straight on which party knows best how to get things done.

Sadly, Republicans here chose the wrong champion for their restoration. In 2014 when she disappeared from the campaign trail to go to drug rehab, her paid surrogates lied for her and said she was clearing her head and giving herself some space — nonsense no one should have believed, but we did, because no one thought, “Oh, I bet she’s in drug rehab.”

Well, no one except the people who knew her best. Judging by the comments they made later, their only uncertainty was whether it was for drugs or booze.

Now, looking back, one must acknowledge the degree to which perceptions of her were shaped by cultural biases about people with mental and addiction problems. Surely this sharp, affluent-looking, young (white) professional couldn’t be a junkie or a nutcase.

In fact, she played those expectations entirely reprehensibly herself, suggesting with broad wink-wink comments that her (black) opponent probably was a drunk. And, to be fair to an unfair person, I have to admit based on some recently aired very unfortunate police video tape of the former DA — the one she defeated — she may have had a point.

But, come on. Don’t we assume she did some kind of group therapy at the rehab place where she took time off from the campaign trail? I’m trying to imagine one of the 12 steps to recovery being: “If anyone suspects you of being high, quick, accuse somebody else in the room of being higher.”

I guess it’s possible. I don’t know if there’s a recovery program specifically for Republicans. (Sorry. I don’t mean that. My Grandma Alice from Wichita was a Republican and a fine and temperate human being.)

But since her election Hawk has popped in and out of institutions, making a grand tour of the nation’s more expensive treatment facilities, always for treatment of depression, her surrogates have claimed. Every absence has been cloaked with deceptive statements by her handlers larded with cloying claims of courage and allusions to “transparency,” by which they must mean invisibility.

Hawk is just now returned from a three-month institutional round-robin. When she got back, someone penned the following statement for her:

“While I have made it a priority to be completely transparent about my fight with this disease, my mental health team and I felt it was important to minimize my exposure to the media while I undergo treatment and refrain from announcing or even setting an official return date.”

Yes, and I omitted that one from my Susan Hawk 12-Step™ recovery program: “Never tell the media ahead of time when you’ll be back from a mental institution.”

As for transparency, I began about a week ago trying to get someone, anyone, in county government to tell me how much Hawk has been paid during her long months of hiatus for mental health reasons. I asked Messina Madson, the person who is supposed to be running the District Attorney’s Office in Hawk’s absence. She never responded.

I asked Pauline Medrano, the county treasurer. She referred my question to Philip Varghese in the auditor’s office. He never replied.

I asked Ryan Brown, the county budget officer, who sent me a response showing that he had forwarded my request to the county payroll office with a message, “Please provide Mr. Schutze the requested information.” They did not.

The Dallas Morning News has been reporting that unnamed persons in the DA’s office are telling the News, “She will decide issues of payment after her return,” which, of course, makes no sense whatsoever.

What is she going to decide, whether to give it back? Has she been cashing checks or not? If so, how much? Why does she decide whether that question should be answered and how? Maybe this is the third in the special Susan Hawk 12-Step™ program: “If you can help it, never give an honest answer to an honest question.”

Either she has been getting paid or not. On one of her earlier AWOLs, she did decide to temporarily forego her pay, a sacrifice about which her staff and her surrogates made a great deal of noise at the time. So my guess would be that the more recent checks have been getting issued and cashed regularly.  

I also surmise that someone connected with her, either on her county staff or among the paid handlers, has been able to put a strong kibosh on any information about her paychecks going out to any nosy reporters, including yours truly, or any taxpayers at all, like you. I suppose we can take comfort from the fact county officials are willing to set aside partisan differences and join together when it comes to something important, like stonewalling to protect one of their own.

Of course, paychecks are the least of it when thinking about Hawk and county money. The amount of time she has been spending in high-dollar institutions has been costing somebody — some very unlucky insurance company or the county or Hawk herself — a great deal of money over the last two years, possibly in the seven figures range. Who? If us, how much?

Given the penchant of Hawk and the people around her for secrecy and dissembling, I think it’s fair to mention here that there’s a great deal of skepticism in local political circles about the claimed nature of her problem, always described as severe depression. Something about the pace with which she pops in and out of treatment has persuaded a good many people I know that her problem is still the original one that took her off the campaign trail in the first place — dope.

In fact so many people are so persuaded that she’s still an addict that if she wants to be persuasively transparent at this point, as opposed to being invisible, she’ll have to cut some doctor loose to answer public questions about the nature of her illness. Otherwise, people who know addiction and know the way addicts behave will look at all of the weird obfuscations, the lying and the illogical rationalizations and will say to themselves, “Yup, junkie.”

Which is unfair, of course, but that's what happens when you follow up lies with secrecy — people get suspicious.

There’s an argument some people make that she doesn’t have to be free, walking around or able to make decisions on her own in order to be the DA. Her day-to-day duties can be dispatched handsomely, they say, by her first assistant, Madson, the one who ducks questions about paychecks.

That’s just a stupid argument. We elect the DA for a reason. The county commissioners do not hire a lawyer to do the job. We elect that person. Election is the means by which the public invests a sacred and personal trust in an officeholder. Election is the ultimate source of public authority in our democracy.

Even if a hired apparatchik can carry out the mundane noncontroversial duties of office, those small daily duties are not the test of the office. The test comes when a case comes through loaded with political dynamite, freighted with influence, power and money. That’s when the officeholder earns his or her keep. That’s when the public wants its woman or man sitting at the desk calling the shots, not off somewhere in rehab or treatment.

Hawk’s constitutional term of office is four years, ending in 2018. I don’t know anybody who thinks Hawk truly intends to stick it out that long or is capable of doing so. But if Hawk resigns on or before August 26, her successor will be chosen by the voters in November.

If she sticks it out until after that date, the state’s Republican governor will choose her successor. The conclusion I now find inescapable, looking at the entire course of her term in office, is that Republicans have been keeping her on ice from the very beginning to preserve their grip on the office, in spite of knowing that she is severely and deeply not competent.

Behind all the platitudes – the courage to face her demons, and what if she had cancer? – has been the certain knowledge that the person occupying what may well be the county’s most powerful office is not mentally competent to be there. And yet they have kept her there — propped up, locked up, doped up, whatever – in order to hold on to the office.

Now I want you to turn away. Look away from Dallas. Lift your gaze to the horizon. Don’t think about the Dallas County DA’s Office. Think about the Oval Office. You tell me. What’s the difference?