Night of the Living Dead

Mark Graham
Craig Watkins is the new Dallas County District Attorney. You think you're shocked, imagine how Toby Shook feels.

People are walking around like zombies at Dallas County courthouses today as incumbent judges who looked invincible last week began contemplating the prospect of looking for new jobs in the wake of the Democrats' sweep. Those Republican judges have seen the future, and it is scarier than a date with Ted Haggard.

Attorney Larry Mitchell beat Henry Wade Jr., a name that for years dominated Dallas County politics through his father, the legendary district attorney. Mitchell watched election results come in at a huge party in the Adams Mark hotel thrown by the local Democratic party. "They ran through the count every so often," Mitchell says. With about 1,000 people in attendance, the roar got raucous as the last candidates got the push over into a majority of votes cast for that seat.

Local Democrats say even they were surprised at the tsunami: "This year our thinking was that the Republicans were very well organized," says Mitchell, who lost an election to a Republican four years ago. "And they spent money. Hank Wade had signs all over the place. We knew they had some good information and polling. Then we saw signs going up [for opponents] that didn't say Republican." That indicated the GOP machine knew it was going to be tight.

But money didn't matter. Mitchell says he spent $200 on his race--for bumper stickers. He got 51.5 percent of the vote.

"I didn't work as hard as some people," Mitchell admits. "You just can't beat demographics. It caused the change in the '80s from Democratic to Republican." And it shows that getting the stamp of approval from the establishment means little. The Dallas Morning News' judicial endorsements, most for Republicans, made no difference. Even a last-minute campaign stop by President George Bush on Monday night didn't help. When the Commander-in-Chief can't carry his own county, something fundamental has changed.

"I expected to see a few pickups," says Paul Coggins, a trial lawyer and former United States Attorney for the Northern District. "Five to six judgeships would have been good. I don't think the most optimistic Democrats ever anticipated a sweep. They would have fielded candidates in those uncontested races."

Expect some hard feelings. The Republicans sent out a flyer calling the Democrats running for judgeships "the worst ever" presented in Texas history. Judges who played partisan by appointing friends to defend indigents may find themselves shut out of such lucrative assignments.

The election means not only new folks in black robes. Current court coordinators and court reporters, hired by judges, are trembling with fear as they contemplate their county retirement plans. "I've been fielding lots of phone calls for jobs," Mitchell says.

The biggest change, of course, is going to be in the Dallas County District Attorney's office. Toby Shook, who has a long history as a prosecutor, was trounced by the inexperienced Craig Watkins. The District Attorney's Office has 200 attorneys. "It's one thing to win the election," says Coggins, who ran the U.S. Attorney's office for eight years. "It's another to run the office. It's like running the largest law firm in town. But Craig will be fine if he gets a strong first assistant."

That could be someone like Larry Jarrett, who lost to Watkins in the primary. Jarrett has served in the District Attorney's Office and in the office of the U.S. Attorney. "He's an ex-Marine," says Coggins. "You tell him to take the hill and he'll take the hill. He could be COO to Watkins' CEO." --Glenna Whitley

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Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons