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Local Government

Craig Watkins Wants Another Shot

He was the Dallas district attorney for eight years. He was a hero. Then a string of scandals cost him the office. Still—dismiss him at your own risk.
André Carrilho

In this month’s column, I speculate whether former District Attorney Craig Watkins has a shot at winning the office, should he run again. I wanted to provide a brief update to put the column in context. 

I say in the piece that Watkins didn’t return my calls, but he finally did so a day or two after the magazine went to press. He says he understands the questions political observers have about his ability to stay focused on issues and not rail against enemies real and imagined. “I made a lot of mistakes, I admit that,” he says. “But, look, I was 35 when I first ran for office [in 2002; he won in 2006]. I’m 50 now. I’ve matured.”

He says he’s not sure if he will run — “I’ll decide in November” — but that if he won the Democratic nomination, he wouldn’t make the sort of personal attacks against current D.A. Faith Johnson that marred his past campaigns. “I would run on the issues.”

A few quick notes about that: 

— I think he will run. 

— Watkins is still beloved in southern Dallas. He would have a very real shot at winning the Democratic nomination if he ran. 

— If he were to go heads up against Johnson, you can bet the campaign (although not Johnson) would work hard to draw Watkins offsides by reminding everyone of his very public struggles with ethics and temperament. 

That’s just one reason I’m worried that a return to the spotlight wouldn’t be the best thing for Watkins. The column is after the jump.

Craig Watkins: Dismiss At Your Own Risk

A presence haunted the room. It was early September, and the student union at Paul Quinn College was filled with southern Dallas political cognoscenti, church leaders, and influencers. Paul Quinn president Michael Sorrell, often mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate, posed for pictures in a dress shirt and tie under his purple Paul Quinn baseball jersey. They were all there to listen to three announced candidates for Dallas district attorney: current DA Faith Johnson and former state district judges John Creuzot and Elizabeth Frizell.

The ghost in the room, the person whose name shall not be spoken, was former Dallas DA Craig Watkins. Three days earlier, the event’s moderator, Dallas Morning News political columnist Gromer Jeffers, had broken citywide the worst-kept secret in southern Dallas. Watkins was planning to run again.

Although it was a topic of discussion among the assembled—one longtime Dallas political consultant texted me during the event to discuss Watkins’ political reentry—the panel discussion itself stayed largely on policy point. Republican Johnson, who likely won’t have a primary opponent come March, touted her calming influence on a department rocked by the scandal-ridden tenures of Democrat Watkins (2007 to 2015) and Republican Susan Hawk, who stepped down last year. Democrats Frizell and Creuzot left Johnson alone for the most part, mildly chiding each other.

“They’ll be respectful of each other through the primaries,” says one campaign operative who knows southern Dallas well. “The Paul Quinn debate showed this could be a very good race for folks who like candidates to discuss policy and not get in the mud. But everyone knows that will change if Craig gets back in the race. Trust me, I’ve got my popcorn.”

I believe this is correct. Correction: I fear this is correct. Because Watkins, according to those close to him, is 90 percent certain he wants to make another run at the top law-enforcement office. By the time you read this, he may have declared. Why he wants to run again is obvious. Since losing to Hawk, Watkins has struggled to maintain even a semblance of his previous stature (not to mention his previous income). Whether he should run again is debatable. Political consultants with whom I spoke could each see a path for a Watkins victory in the Democratic primary, and one even laid out a pretty plausible scenario where he wins the seat in November. But as someone who once worked for and looked up to Watkins, and who saw up close how fame affected him, I dearly hope he doesn’t run.

Four years ago, I detailed some of Watkins’ character flaws and how they’ve led him to shoot himself in the foot. I wrote about Good Craig and Bad Craig. Good Craig was “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.” Bad Craig was “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.”

It was this latter Watkins who turned what should have been a comfortable victory over Republican Danny Clancy in 2010 into an extraordinarily narrow victory (50.64 percent). It was this Watkins who gaffed and stumbled his way to a loss against Hawk, becoming the first Democrat to lose a county-wide race in Dallas in 10 years.
Make no mistake. Hubris led to his downfall. Every bad decision you’ve read about that Watkins made—buying a $3,000 tuxedo with campaign funds, firing prosecutors who attended a GOP event, using county “forfeiture funds” to settle a 2013 accident he caused on the Dallas North Tollway—was compounded by a terrible decision you didn’t read about. Ego was always at the root.

There are too many stories to list that exemplify this fatal flaw of Watkins’. I’ll share one that’s telling but harmless. He would call me, his campaign communications guy, late at night. He was often pretty drinky by that time. (I was going through a divorce and was almost always pretty drinky, too. We were quite a pair.) My job was to swat down his bad ideas. Like the time he said, “Let’s put up a billboard with Danny Clancy’s picture that just says, ‘RACIST!’ ” One night, Watkins told me that I was going to help him make his next career move. He wanted to get his own TV show, like Judge Judy. It would be a huge national hit, he said, and he wanted me to make Judge Craig happen.

As with most of his bad ideas, he’d forgotten that one by dawn. But to me it revealed Watkins’ raison d’être. He loved being a celebrity DA—not just being DA. He tells friends he has learned a lot since 2014. Evidence to the contrary comes in the form of two DeSoto police videos from last year, one recorded during a domestic disturbance call to his house, the other showing Watkins drunk and walking alongside a road in the middle of the night. In any case, I wonder if being humbled can teach you passion for a job you held for eight years.

“I don’t know if Craig would do this if he was set financially or had another political path,” says a confidant. “But this is what he knows. He knows he can win a DA’s race. He’s done it with long odds before.”

That successful history shouldn’t be discounted. Watkins’ high profile, based largely on the Conviction Integrity Unit he established, which worked with the Innocence Project to free wrongfully convicted prisoners, gives him a name-recognition advantage against Democrats in the race. “Craig is still loved by a lot of folks here,” says the southern Dallas political consultant. “That whole ‘He’s fighting for us’ was a good brand in 2010, and it’s a great brand now.”

My counter: even if Watkins could win the Democratic primary, he has already been beaten by a white Republican female. Southern Dallas is not going to march to the polls just to defeat a church-going black Republican female in Faith Johnson, especially not since she has restored a sense of normalcy to the office.

Everyone I asked agrees that Johnson has eliminated the chaos at the Frank Crowley Courts Building. Some attribute it to the fact that Johnson listens to prosecutors’ concerns and runs a professional shop. But others say she only looks good in comparison to those who’ve come before her. “She’s nice. But there’s not much there,” says someone who has worked with both Watkins and Johnson. “She’s a caretaker.”

But this person, a Democrat, disputes that Johnson provides a huge obstacle for Watkins. “Think about what that Democratic turnout is going to be like in November because of Trump,” she says. “Whoever comes out of that Democratic primary is going to be damn tough to beat.”

For that candidate to be Watkins, he’ll have to prove he can raise money, which no one thinks he can do. He was out-raised by Hawk, revealing just how much the party establishment abandoned him. Community support doesn’t pay the bills. In late July, Watkins set up a GoFundMe page on which he asked people to support his personal “conviction integrity” efforts and “represent individuals convicted of crimes that they claim they are innocent of.” His fundraising goal was $2 million. He received three donations totaling $85.

Even if I’m wrong and a mom and pop campaign would work for Watkins, I think his ego would be tough to keep in check once he got in front of TV cameras. I’ve seen it too often. He may be loved, but can he refrain from attacking his opponents? The first time he sees a mailer detailing his past transgressions, you’ll see Watkins on television, railing against those imagined demons instead of owning up to his own.

If I’m wrong, if he has changed, Watkins has a long-shot path. If he could say, “I let the trappings of the office get to me, but now I’m a changed man, one who will give others the second chance I’m seeking,” that could work. In fact, I hope he has changed. I just worry that the spotlight isn’t the best place for Craig Watkins to seek redemption.