The Battle in the Dallas DA Democratic Primary Isn't Quite Over Yet

The Battle in the Dallas DA Democratic Primary Isn't Quite Over Yet
U.S. Elections Project

The Democratic primary race for Dallas County district attorney is turning out to be a battle between liberal forces over who will challenge Republican incumbent Faith Johnson, whom Gov. Greg Abbott appointed after former DA Susan Hawk stepped down for mental health reasons two years ago.

In one corner once stood Dallas County’s first black DA, Craig Watkins, who used reform rhetoric to win the seat in 2006 and 2010. At one time, he was a political wunderkind, a crusader for the innocent, a rock star of criminal justice reform. He was also notoriously thin-skinned, a less-than-perfect driver and made questionable use of his office's civil forfeiture funds. Hawk knocked him out of the spotlight in 2014.

Watkins considered running again in the fall but changed his mind in December. He claimed he’d rather spend time with family; of course, two run-ins with Desoto police in 2016 may have helped with that decision.

Two former state district judges, John Creuzot and Elizabeth Frizell, were left to battle it out. Both Democratic candidates stood for criminal justice reform and sought to fix Dallas County’s broken bail system, which often leaves poorer defendants languishing in jail even though they haven’t been proven guilty of a crime.

They were shoulder to shoulder into the early morning hours Wednesday. The Dallas Morning News declared Creuzot the winner with 50.23 percent of the vote. "We began this campaign with an idea," Creuzot told the Observer. "We've talked to voters, given them our opinions, given them our plans, and it looks like it turned into a great victory."

Not so fast.

Frizell, who received 49.77 percent of the vote, wasn't ready to concede Wednesday afternoon. Creuzot seemed to be the clear favorite for the position. He was known for creating drug courts and a pioneer of diversion programs focused on treating drug abuse and mental illness. He also had the backing of the Democratic Party establishment and the who's who among Dallas Democrats, as D Magazine pointed out a few days ago.

But Frizell had a social justice warrior with a legion of followers and plenty of cash in her corner.

Frizell had gained support from Watkins and grassroots groups like Texas Organizing Project and social justice activist Shaun King and his newly formed Real Justice PAC, which seeks to use Bernie Sanders' style tactics to push criminal justice reform at the local level by supporting the campaigns of reform-minded prosecutors, sheriffs and judges. As the director of the ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice, Udi Ofer, claimed when the ACLU announced its own new campaign:

"We will never truly transform our nation’s criminal justice system and end our addiction to mass incarceration until we hold prosecutors accountable. Prosecutors are the most powerful, unaccountable and least transparent actors in the criminal justice system. [...] Particularly during the era of President Trump and Attorney General Sessions, the nation needs local prosecutors who will stand up to unjust federal initiatives and build a smarter and fairer criminal justice system." 

King claimed the racial makeup of the nation's district attorneys would fit in at “any golf course in America.

"It's troubling when a system that primarily targets people of color has almost exclusively white men, and conservative white men at that, at the helm," he told the Huffington Post in February,

King’s PAC raised $100,000 for Frizell and came to Dallas to support her. "I've seen where both the Democrats in today’s primary stand on the issues," he told his 1.7 million followers on Facebook. "That's why I'm coming out with everything I've got to elect Elizabeth Frizell for Dallas County District Attorney. Let's win and enact real justice for the 2.5 million people in Dallas County."

Neither King nor Frizell responded to requests for comment.

King's PAC found some success in San Antonio, where its chosen candidate, Joe D. Gonzales, beat the Democrat incumbent Nico LaHood for the Bexar County DA position. LaHood was considered notorious by social justice reformers like King because he "used his office to promote anti-vaccination views, float Islamophobic conspiracy theories and threatened to ruin his critics' livelihoods [...] and offered support for SB4, the new state law that imposes criminal penalties on local law enforcement agencies that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities," according to March 7 report by Mother Jones.

"@RealJusticePAC just won our first race of the night as the amazing @gonzales4da just beat out Nico LaHood, the horrible DA of San Antonio," King tweeted Tuesday evening. "This is such a huge deal! Joe stands for true justice reform! GOOD work San Antonio! Very good work!"

It's unclear how influential King's new PAC was. LaHood claimed in a campaign ad that Gonzales had received more than $900,000 from conservatives' favorite liberal boogeyman, George Soros. Either way, LaHood and Gonzales' race was far more brutal battle than the Dallas County race and far more personal since they once owned a building together, according to a March 3 San Antonio Express News report.

In Dallas County, the Democratic race was still too close to call shortly after midnight. Only 665 of the 797 precincts had reported. Creuzot was slightly in the lead with 50.74 percent of the vote. Frizell trailed with 49.26 percent, but she had her opponent in her sights. 

In the end, Frizell simply couldn't pass him. Creuzot seems to have won by 516 votes. But Frizell wasn't ready to throw in the towel. King tweeted Wednesday morning: "The race for Dallas DA is now 50-50. Judge Frizell has not conceded. She won yesterday's vote by 4,767 votes. After early voting & vote by mail numbers, she is down by 516 votes. Provisional, paper ballots, and undervotes must now be counted."

King linked to a post he'd written and posted Wednesday on Medium. "Here's what I know for sure," he wrote. "Every single vote counts. That's not just a saying. This election was winnable. The next ones will be winnable. We need to start our work earlier. We need to work harder. We can win. We won't give up here until every vote is counted, but we are going to start in other cities across the country right away."

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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.