The mailer reads: "Danny Clancy. Wrong side of the verdict. Wrong side of the law. Wrong for Dallas County D.A."Clancy is a former prosecutor and judge while Watkins' own, personal experience as a prosecutor and a working trial attorney (as opposed to an administrator and bail bondsman) pales in comparison, so such allegations ring false from the get-go. But the tactic of blaming a defense lawyer for the crimes of their clients goes beyond disingenuity to approach the level of bad faith. If Watkins truly believes what's in that mailer, then his understanding of the justice system and the constitutionally mandated right to counsel appear intolerably weak and ill-informed. If, on the other hand, as I suspect (because I respect Watkins too much as a person to believe he actually holds such ill-informed, dangerous and delusional views), this was simply a cynical campaign ploy, then there's no other way to characterize this mailer or Celeste's statements except as the words of a demagogue.
The campaign mailer also shows a picture of Reyes above the words: "He raped a young woman and set her on fire. Danny Clancy as [sic] 'proud to represent him.'"
Watkins, a Democrat, is planning to refer to the Reyes case when the candidates meet Thursday for the first of two major debates. The forum is scheduled for noon at the Belo Mansion.
Eric Celeste, a spokesman for Watkins, says the Reyes case will be used to compare and contrast the candidates for the remaining weeks of the campaign.
"Craig Watkins is a district attorney who has been smart on fighting crime," Celeste said. "Clancy has proven he is just a sleazy defense lawyer."
For many years I worked as a professional campaign consultant performing opposition research and rapid-response for a total of 69 campaigns and I've seen similar attacks backfire more often than they succeed. In Watkins case, the attack is likely to weaken support among his base and turn off independents who might have otherwise been impressed with Watkins' post-conviction work to identify and free innocent people who were falsely convicted. Watkins deserves tremendous credit for that work, but not so much that it's possible to overlook this kind of inflammatory propaganda.
Indeed, I have to wonder if part of the reason the DA has resorted to such disreputable tactics may be the paucity of professional campaign staff advising him. How else can one explain the unstatesmanlike demeanor and personal attacks which characterized his recent debate with Clancy? Watkins' key campaign consultants are all family members - who are prone to be yes-men and women - and a reporter with little or no campaign experience hired away from D Magazine, Eric Celeste, whose egregious comments above follow on the heels of embarrassing overstatements in which he exaggerated his boss' record regarding DNA exonerations. Watkins also appears to be getting poor advice in his feud with county commissioners over budget cutting, where he's resorted to personal attacks and bullying to (unsuccessfully) preserve his budget when other county departments were forced to endure much more significant cuts.
Just judging by the topline numbers, an incumbent Democrat running countywide in Dallas should easily coast to reelection in 2010, but I wouldn't be surprised if this increasingly long list of self-inflicted wounds combined with a more motivated GOP electorate make the race a lot closer in November than anyone would have expected just a year or so ago.
I like Craig Watkins personally and respect the nationally acclaimed work by his office on innocence matters, but some of these recent, bone-headed moves at a minimum call into question his judgment, and could swing independent voters and even some Democrats away from his camp as the race approaches the homestretch.