We Knew Craig Watkins Was In Trouble, but Last Night Was Ugly

As in any good tragedy, Craig Watkins' tumble from his perch as Dallas County district attorney was preceded by hubris and stupidity. After badly underperforming compared with the rest of his party in his 2010 re-election win against Republican Danny Clancy, Watkins did everything possible to ensure another close race in 2014. He got one, and now, come January he'll be out of a job.

Whether it was the car wreck that Watkins secretly settled using forfeiture funds, the contempt charge saga, a bizarre debate performance or an ill-advised attempt to become the de facto boss of the Dallas County Democratic Party, Watkins consistently found new ways to shoot himself in the foot, and never raised enough money to spend his way out of it.

Tuesday, despite an awful performance across Texas and the rest of the United States, Democrats did very well in Dallas County. Wendy Davis lost the race for governor by more than 20 points, but she won by 11 in Dallas County. David Alameel, the guy most people have never heard of running against John Cornyn, won Dallas County by 3 points. Clay Jenkins -- who took on Ron Natinsky in the other major countywide race for county judge -- won, like Davis, by 11 points.

All Watkins needed to do to hang onto his seat was not run off a huge number of Democrats. He couldn't do it.

If you just look at the raw vote, the race between Watkins and his challenger Susan Hawk looks, and is, close. Hawk won by about 3,300 votes. If you look just a little deeper, Watkins performance is embarrassing.

Nearly 74 percent of the 196,023 votes cast for Watkins came from straight-ticket voters, the yellow dog Democrats who wouldn't have voted for Hawk if Watkins said he was going to buy five new cars a week with forfeiture funds. Only 59 percent of Hawk's voters punched the rest of the Republican ticket. Hawk won split-ticket voters by almost 30,000 votes. Democrats, perhaps because Hawk used to be one, were clearly comfortable crossing party lines for Hawk.

Wade Emmert, the chairman Dallas County Republican Party, thinks voters were, basically, just done with Watkins.

"I don't think there was one specific thing. I think Republicans were motivated, they were motivated in Dallas County just like they were across the state of Texas and nationally, opposing Obama's policies," he said. "So they were motivated to get out and vote. But, two, I think it was, Watkins did have self-inflicted wounds, with his FBI investigation, his misuse, several times, of asset forfeiture funds and his power grab with the [Democratic] county chair race and the judicial races."

Watkins previous two opponents -- both current defense attorneys and former assistants of ex-Dallas District Attorney Bill Hill -- both say better times are ahead at the Dallas County Courthouse.

"I can tell you that just about everybody I've run into is elated," said Clancy. "There are some who work in the [District Attorney's] office that are a little bit nervous about the change, but change is sometimes a very good thing and I think in this case, it certainly is."

Clancy said that the shine has worn off the soon-to-be former district attorney.

"In the beginning, when he took office, he was making headlines for all the right reasons and in the end he was making headlines for all the wrong reasons."

Toby Shook, Watkins' 2006 opponent, looks for the courthouse to be happier place.

"There was a lot of tension all the time," he said of Watkins confrontational style. "You're not going to see that anymore at all down there. It needs to be a team atmosphere, and I think you'll see a good working relationship with the defense bar, the judges and the prosecutors."

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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young

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