The Last Temptation of Craig Watkins
The only black district attorney in Texas has won fame for breaking barriers and freeing innocent men. But can he overcome his enemies—and his own thin skin?
Watkins should be talking about the new approach to criminal justice that he is trying to usher in, not just in Dallas, but across the state and the country, the programs meant to be smart on crime rather than tough. But, again, he can’t help himself. Now he’s moving on to County Commissioner Ken Mayfield. Almost every problem Watkins has faced since his election, publicly and privately, has somehow involved Mayfield. (When asked about Watkins, Mayfield says he has a problem with the DA “because of a lack of competence and a lack of ethics.”)
“I’m a human being,” Watkins says. “I get upset. I’m like, I’m gonna shoot back one day. You keep shooting at me, I’m gonna shoot back. And it’s gonna be a headshot. My thing is, am I gonna limit myself to playing politics, or am I gonna continue to do what’s in the best interests of the citizens that I represent? So I struggle with that because I’m a human being and I’m like, I’m tired of this. This is a government job. You know, I had a lucrative law firm. I gave it up to do this because I wanted to do something good. I’m thinking, ‘To hell with this.’ And, ‘Hell, I can fight you and really get you. The little things you’re throwing at me are bullshit. But I can really get you.’ And so am I gonna stoop to that level, or am I gonna stay aboveboard and do what’s necessary to make all this right? I struggle with that on a daily basis.”
Over the next several months, I will watch that struggle play out time and again, and I—and Watkins—will eventually learn the answer to that question. Today, though, one year and five months into his administration, that seems like a long way off.
It’s June 17, and Watkins, I’m sure, has called to say he will no longer cooperate with this story.
A week ago, I was scheduled to visit him at his home in DeSoto. Watkins doesn’t have many interests beyond his job and his family—wife Tanya; sons Chad, 10, and Cale, 6; and daughter Taryn, 2. He’s a fan of smooth jazz. He listens to an online feed of the Oasis out of Houston. The only movies he ever sees are whatever the boys want to watch (“Most of it is, you know, silly stuff,” he says). Weekends, he usually has speaking engagements at rotary clubs and bar associations around the county. When he has a rare moment of free time, he might fly down to Galveston (“the cheap little trip I go on”), but mostly he stays at the three-story house with towering white columns his years in private practice paid for, located in the middle of an enclave of black power. (Former NFL star Tim Brown, as well as John King, founder of one of the largest black-owned advertising firms in the nation, are among his neighbors, and Royce West owns property in the area.)
“I sit outside, watch basketball games, smoke some cigars, and barbecue,” Watkins says. “That’s the kind of stuff I do. Sit home and watch my kids run around.”
Catching Watkins off the clock meant a trip to DeSoto. But his public information officer, Jamille Bradfield, called the day before and canceled the visit to Watkins’ home without much explanation.
It was not surprising. A few weeks ago, Fox 4 reporter Paul Adrian broke a story about the DA office’s Christmas party in 2007, which featured door prizes like round-trip tickets for two on American Airlines and spots in a luxury suite at a Dallas Cowboys game. Using commentary from various watchdog groups, Adrian’s piece accused Watkins and his office of trading favors and “selling access.” It raised some legitimate questions, but the only answer Watkins was allowed in his own words was this: “Questions that have been raised about potential violations of any kind are groundless. It is unfortunate, that of all the real news being generated out of the DA’s office … that the media would waste time reporting on our office’s holiday event that occurred five and a half months ago.” They were ill-considered words, showing Watkins’ defensiveness. But they were cherry-picked from a three-page written response. Watkins felt burned.
That’s what he’s saying now on the phone. It feels like a courtesy call, a way to let me down gently. He explains that Adrian’s report has made him reconsider his thoughts on dealing with the media, that he’s been “wounded by the press,” and maybe the problem is that he’s been too open with reporters, too willing to talk. So I’m stunned when he wraps up the conversation by inviting me to meet him at The Bridge at Fair Park. It’s an adult daycare center that his parents, Richard and Paula, opened a year ago. They pick up the elderly and disabled from around the neighborhood, keep them occupied and fed, and take them back home.
An hour later, I arrive at a stucco building with a fenced-in courtyard off MLK Boulevard. In front sits a blue Scion with a magnetic sign on the door promoting T-Shirts Etcetera, the t-shirt manufacturing shop that shares space with The Bridge. The car and the business belong to Watkins’ younger brother Greg. Next door is Fidelity National Title, the company his wife runs out of the building that used to house his law firm and still contains what he calls his “campaign headquarters,” a closet-sized space so overcrowded it’s a parody of a headquarters. Chad and Cale come here after school. If Watkins isn’t at home or his office, he’s probably on this corner of MLK.
(Less than a month from now, both buildings will be involved in another Paul Adrian investigative report, this one contending that Watkins was continuing the private practice of law, a no-no for prosecutors. The basis for this, in large part, was the amount of time Watkins spends here. “But if he’s not involved [in closings], why is the district attorney spending so much time at the title business?” Adrian asked. “Fox 4 monitored the company for the past few weeks and saw him there numerous times, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for hours, and a couple of times for most of the day.” This is why some people hate the media.)
Inside The Bridge, the power has been off for almost an hour, thanks to a storm that blew in this morning, but the business at hand continues. Paula, pretty and stylish even in plastic-wrap gloves, is readying lunch for her charges—lasagna, green beans, and a peach for dessert. Richard, an older version of his eldest son, with the same stature and hooded eyes, moves from room to room, making sure everyone is doing okay in the dark. The blackout has chased Greg from his office, so he has moved a pair of laptops to a table near the open door. The bulk of The Bridge consists of one large open space, with round tables for cards and dominos, a number of worn easy chairs, and a TV. It’s like the common room at a college dorm. This is where Watkins held a viewing party for his 60 Minutes episode.
After a few minutes, the rain stops and the power returns. Richard raises his arms and plays preacher: “Let there be light!” Playing along with the movie script, Watkins walks in with his wife and Bradfield.
“Where all the old folks at?” he asks, laughing.
“There’s one,” Tanya says, pointing at her father-in-law, laughing, too.
After a round of hugs, Watkins grabs a plate of lasagna from his mom and sits down, draping a leg over his chair. Why does Watkins spend so much time here? The past 45 seconds are a pretty good clue.
This is what Watkins wants me to see—not as a hedge because he knows Adrian (or someone else) will eventually try to use this place against him, but because this corner of MLK says more about him than a trip down to his house in DeSoto ever would. As much as any place, this is his home. This is his family. This is where he’s from, where he built his career as a lawyer. And what happened last weekend has given him renewed faith in himself and in what he’s been doing since his office moved to the Frank Crowley Building.
Last weekend, Watkins was in Washington, D.C., as a guest of the American Constitution Society at its national convention. It couldn’t have come at a better time. There he was surrounded by like-minded people, peers who had come of age as lawyers at the same time. More important, he was introduced to the next generation of prosecutors and defense attorneys, law students who were in awe of him and what he’s trying to accomplish. Watkins was taken aback by his reception. He says he had no idea people knew who he was, no understanding of just how far the message he was broadcasting out of Dallas County had spread.
“If you go to places outside of Dallas County, outside of Texas, what we’re doing is revolutionizing the criminal justice system,” he says. “I went there and saw there’s a bigger picture. It’s a lot bigger than me and what I’m dealing with here. It gave me the confidence back to keep going forward and not be afraid of the ugly side of this, because it’s going to happen and I don’t have any control over it. All I can do is just be honest, keep doing my deal, and hopefully we can get responsible people in positions like yours that will report the truth.”
“I come into office under this big microscope, which I understand,” he says. “But all these other folks that had been in this position, you never challenged them.”
It’s time to get outside of Dallas County, to see how The Craig Watkins Show travels. It’s time to go to Houston.
It’s June 20, and the occasion is a campaign fundraiser for C.O. “Brad” Bradford, the former Houston police chief who is attempting to become Texas’ second black district attorney. You’d be forgiven if you took in the scene and decided everyone was here for Watkins instead of Bradford. You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Most of the people are here because of Watkins, even Bradford. “Craig is just about the only one interested in conviction integrity,” he says, breaking away from the elevator speech about his candidacy he gave me as soon as I shook his hand.
For one thing, the location for tonight’s cocktail party—a well-appointed townhouse on a quiet, leafy street—belongs to Dwight Battle. He’s one of Watkins’ closest friends, and has been since he and his family moved from New York to just down the street from Watkins in fifth grade, near the corner of Caracas Drive and Meadow Valley Lane in the Red Bird area of Dallas. They stayed together from Adele Turner Elementary all the way through college at Prairie View A&M University, where they both pledged Kappa Alpha Psi. Back then, Watkins was known as the Gentle Giant.
“He wasn’t one of those individuals that talked a lot or was overly animated,” Battle says. “But he was definitely viewed as a leader, and when he spoke, people listened and took action based on a lot of what he recommended. Everyone in most situations viewed him as a leader and the go-to guy.”
The guest list is studded with other Kappas who were on the same line as Watkins and Battle, old buddies like Reuel Williams and Michael R. Williams. That was a special year, they all say; they are a fraternity within a fraternity. Of the 28 who pledged together, 21 still regularly keep in touch and get together when they can.
Partygoers trickle in, winding their way up the curving staircase into Battle’s living room, which looks like an African art gallery—on every wall, in every corner, there are paintings, drawings, wood sculpture. Tanya Watkins wants me to look at something else: “We stole that color for our house,” she says, pointing not to the art but the walls behind it. They’re in the middle of remodeling their home. Tanya is a Prairie View A&M alum as well. “We were at Prairie View at the same time, but I like to say I’m a lot younger,” she says, laughing. They met at an alumni picnic. She graduated in 1993; he walked three years earlier. She’s from Seattle but has family here, which is how she ended up in Prairie View, which is how she ended up here, the politician’s wife.
Watkins and the other Kappas huddle in the kitchen, letting the party start without them. They speak in shorthand: a name and a “remember the time when” is enough to prompt body-wrenching, eye-welling, counter-slapping laughter. Watkins doesn’t have to be Craig Watkins here. Not in the kitchen.
That time comes soon enough. First up, there is a conference with Bradford’s team as they look ahead to the future.
“Get someone who’s not a part of that office,” he says. “I had to go get someone out of my jurisdiction.” That would be Terri Moore. She ran for DA in Tarrant County and worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office before coming on board Watkins’ staff as his first assistant. Watkins mentions another black district attorney in California, Kamala D. Harris of San Francisco. He spent a week in her office after being elected. “That gave me really good ideas in what to do in Dallas.” He offers the same courtesy to Bradford—should he win. Turning to his own administration, Watkins tells Bradford’s people it is “gonna take two more years,” that they’re “resistant to change.” He does not say these things angrily.
Battle pulls Watkins aside. He’s going to do a short speech at around 7:20. Until then, it’s time to turn on the charm. “Gonna shake some hands and kiss some babies,” Watkins says. “Got any babies in here?”
There are no babies here. But there are plenty of other full-grown people who want his attention. They want a word, a handshake, a moment. Watkins works the living room, scored to a soundtrack of soft piano versions of Aaron Copland, Vanessa Williams, and Bette Midler songs, asking questions, remembering names. What Watkins said about the American Constitution Society convention appears true, at least here. People outside Dallas County do see what’s going on there as a revolution. Of course, this is a fundraiser hosted by a longtime friend for a Democratic challenger who shares many of Watkins’ ideals, and it’s populated by a crowd that is the Cosby Show ideal: professional, attractive, educated, socially conscious, and black. That said, it is worth noting how Watkins handles the praise, deflecting attention from himself to his office, never pulling the pin on all those old grenades he used to throw at his predecessors. It’s the kind of audience that would indulge a bit of self-aggrandizement, that would easily help bear the burden of any chip on his shoulder. Tonight it just doesn’t happen.
He checks in on Tanya, holding court on a corner of the L-shaped sectional. She’s cut out for this—outgoing, confident, independent. She doesn’t need him worrying over her, so he takes a moment for himself before his speech. He slowly paces in a corner of the room, nursing a glass of water. After a few minutes, his path brings him to me. He starts talking about Battle, telling me about their first meeting (“I had to beat him up to show him who ran the block,” he says) and his friend’s route from Red Bird to Prairie View to Wharton Business School to life as a retired investment banker.
He puts his arm around my shoulders, and waves the other one around the room. “Who would have thought?” he says, smiling, taking it all in. “This little kid from New York.” Had he not added the last sentence, he might as well have been talking about himself.
It’s time to talk. After a few jokes at his host’s expense, he goes into a version of the speech he has delivered across the county since his election. He doesn’t use notes and appears completely at ease. “I’m not only concerned with putting people in prison,” he says. “I’m concerned with people being safe.” It’s a wide-ranging speech that touches on everything from education to drugs to the economy. If there is a central theme, it’s that everyone here is just as responsible for justice as he is, or Bradford might be.