Tuesday, April 23, 2024 Apr 23, 2024
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The Two Sides of Craig Watkins

The district attorney will win re-election. If he can stay out of his own way.
Photography by Manny Rodriguez

The day I saw district attorney Craig Watkins speak from his heart about wanting to be a symbol of justice in Dallas County was a turning point for me in his re-election bid. We were meeting with a Dallas Morning News reporter at the Oak Lawn Cafe Brazil, and Watkins was telling her how he’d come to terms with asking for the death penalty in horrific murder cases, even though he’d long decried the punishment on religious grounds. He spoke quietly, carefully. He talked about how he’d come to realize that it was more important to do right by a family seeking justice than right by his own deeply held beliefs.

I swelled with pride. He’d been honest and compassionate, ignoring the potential political fallout. (He would eventually be labeled a flip-flopper, media code for “slow news day.”) I was elated that he came off as a serious, thoughtful steward of the public trust. As his campaign’s communications director, I had been frustrated by the bickering lawyers in his inner circle and the campaign’s internal strife, all of which he and I discussed after the reporter had left. “We’re the same age,” Watkins told me. “We don’t want to put up with petty crap. I get it. Let’s work together, so I can continue doing what’s right.”

That was the Craig Watkins I’d signed up to defend: a man worth fighting for, the guy who killed it on The Colbert Report, the D Magazine cover subject whose work with The Innocence Project was turning Dallas County into a more inclusive, fair place. District Attorney Craig. Good Craig.

Flash forward several months. Good Craig had scored a huge victory with his enemies, the Dallas County Commissioners Court. The commissioners had recommended firing more than 20 people in the DA’s office to balance the budget, and Watkins, citing public safety concerns, had gotten them to reduce that number to three. Enormous win for the county. Big feather in Watkins’ cap. All he had to do was be gracious in accepting the compromise during a public hearing.

Instead, he spent that morning’s meeting screaming at Commissioner Maurine Dickey. To understand just how dumb this was, politically speaking, you need to know that our polling showed that the vote Watkins most needed to seal the election was that of white North Dallas women over 50. For those of you who aren’t political masterminds: each local network leading its newscast with video of our candidate, a 6-foot-5 black man, yelling at a 50-plus-year-old North Dallas white woman did not help the campaign.

This is why, about a month before the election, I quit. I said I was leaving because the campaign needed to spend its resources on fieldwork and commercials. I lied. I quit because I didn’t see enough Good Craig. I instead saw way too much of the man who didn’t listen to advisers, the man who fought with nemeses real and perceived, the man who played mind games with staffers, who couldn’t shake his paranoia, who mentally updated his enemies list every time he felt slighted. Politician Craig Watkins. Bad Craig.

None of that mattered, of course. He won re-election, albeit narrowly. This is the marvelous thing about the dichotomous Craig Watkins: no matter how often Bad Craig shoots himself in the foot, Good Craig strolls along just fine. It was true again in the recent prosecutorial-misconduct case that morphed into a contempt-of-court case, where Bad Craig made all manner of horrible decisions, beginning with not showing up for a hearing to defend himself against charges that he’d prosecuted one rich person to curry favor with another, who happened to be a donor. His missteps provided weeks of embarrassing news coverage. But Good Craig was eventually proven right about the legal loophole he’d claimed would acquit him, and he wound up wearing a sly grin on the front page of the Morning News.

But it’s not just that Watkins has nine political lives. We’ve seen examples of that in politicians before. Watkins fascinates his supporters and his enemies with the wide chasm between Good Craig and Bad Craig. The idea behind Good Craig—the brand that is District Attorney Craig Watkins—is a powerful, enriching force. It is justice personified. A young boy scared of the police because of his skin color grows up to lead a team of prosecutors and detectives who imprison the guilty and free the innocent. That heroic narrative defines Watkins for many, and it’s why our campaign polls showed that he had higher support in southern Dallas than even John Wiley Price.

Bad Craig, however—whew. He’s a handful. Bad Craig will test the theory this election that Watkins can’t be beaten. That’s what Bad Craig does. He looks at a situation that can’t possibly be screwed up any more than it is, and he says, “Wanna bet?”

There are many examples of this behavior. Some of the best ones I cannot, in good conscience, share. But there are plenty of public examples of Bad Craig’s exploits: firing good prosecutors after the last election just because they supported Republican candidates, personal attacks on his opponents, having his law license suspended for not paying his dues, running a county car (that he shouldn’t have been driving) into the side of his house, buying a $3,000 tuxedo with campaign funds (which I can and did justify, but I knew I sounded ridiculous doing it).

Watkins’ campaign staff took to calling him Kanye (as in West) and his wife Amber Rose (after the singer’s outspoken girlfriend at the time). They didn’t call him this to his face, of course, and I didn’t do so at all. Something about my being white made that joke feel off-limits to me. But it was an appropriate nickname: wildly talented, conflicted, unable to leave well-enough alone. Good and Bad Craig was all these things.

I know he still is, in fact. The people who will be advising him in his upcoming re-election bid acknowledge that their job is to highlight the crusading do-gooder who is Good Craig and somehow lock self-destructive Bad Craig in a dungeon. For the good of Dallas County, I wish they could do this forever. They hope to do it at least until the election is over.

Good luck with that. I remember our plan very well: Good Craig will emerge only to hold a news conference after a high-profile criminal has been sentenced. He will discuss law and order and locking up bad guys. Our white female fiftysomething North Dallas voter will feel safe. Swing vote secured.

You tell yourself the plan will work. You tell yourself it will work even when your phone rings at 6 am and a poor staffer informs you that Bad Craig has gotten loose and was last seen the night before screaming at Morning News political reporter Gromer Jeffers Jr. You tell yourself it will all be okay. You tell yourself that because you know that Good Craig has always overcome Bad Craig when it counts, at the polls. You tell yourself that because you want to believe that a charming, talented, good-intentioned politician won’t be corrupted by his evil twin. You tell yourself that because you want to believe in truth and justice and everything Good Craig stands for. You tell yourself that because what choice do you have?

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