Tuesday, September 08, 2009
Catfight between Dallas DA, Commissioners presages 2010 elections
Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins will draw a Republican opponent in 2010, the Dallas News reports, with the news coming at a time when the state's first African American DA is under more serious fire than ever in his brief political career.
It's hard to imagine those two facts are unrelated, but there's also an extent to which Watkins brought some of the extra misery onto himself. Lately, the DA has been engaged in a bitter pissing match with the County Commissioners Court over his budget that's escalating like a schoolyard spat between 11-year olds with all their so-called friends gathered in a circle egging them on.
Whoever's advising Craig Watkins in his budget wars with the Commissioners Court is supplying him poor counsel. He's been holding "town hall meetings" on the topic, publicly inviting county commissioners like John Wiley Price who he knows won't attend, then castigating their decisions in their absence. Other elected officials have been complying with budget cuts.
Bottom line: You've got to pick your fights. Watkins doesn't get to set the county budget and his rowdy politicization of the dispute was a bad strategy, attempting to back his opposition into a corner by turning the public against them. His tactics gave commissioners the same two choices everyone has when they face a bully: Comply or fight back. Their response was as predictable as it was avoidable and childish.
In what was either an act of retaliation or fiscal prudence (depending on who you ask), the commissioners court quit paying for forensic tests requested by the District Attorney, pushing the costs back to local police departments that worked up the cases. This will save the county a trivial sum but cost more overall by delaying justice for defendants and victim alike, clogging the courts and the jail. If police departments have no budget to pay for testing, evidence must be sent to a Department of Public Safety lab, which will do it for free but which already have months-long waiting lists.
Then commissioners stuck their thumb in Watkins' eye last week by going around his office to investigate misconduct allegations (supposedly illegal employment practices) by Dallas constables, openly questioning his integrity in ways that feel a lot like campaign attacks. And it can't be a coincidence that fully three-quarters of proposed job cuts in Dallas County's budget are in the DA's Office.
Most recently they've threatened to eliminate Watkins' role providing legal counsel for the county, suggesting they could save money by hiring an outside firm. It's absurd to think for one moment hiring outside counsel is cheaper than using lawyers already on staff with the county: This is purely a political swipe at the DA - a cat's paw aiming to let him know he'll be further bloodied in ways he doesn't like if he doesn't shut up about the budget cuts and do what they want on the investigation of the constables.
As an example of governance, of course, the whole situation is a disgrace. As political theater, though, pass the popcorn and sit back: This drama's going to heat up mightily before commissioners' budget vote next week, perhaps even repeating itself next year right before the November 2010 elections when Watkins will be on the ballot. After that, one way or another, the whole imbroglio should die down.