Monday, October 12, 2009

Craig Watkins finds national halo a local floodlight

AP's Deborah Hastings had a substantial article over the weekend profiling Dallas DA Craig Watkins and the local politics surrounding his 2010 reelection campaign. Here's a notable excerpt:

As his re-election campaign rattles to life this fall, Watkins finds the national halo he's been standing under has become more of a local floodlight magnifying frailties and foibles. His trailblazing has become irksome to older politicians, who consider it arrogant to break the rules before playing by them.

Among them is John Wiley Price, the only black Dallas County commissioner, who says Watkins has "gotten to be a show horse instead of a work horse."

"I had a lot of high hopes for Craig," the outspoken fellow Democrat adds. "It appears he's gotten public policy confused with personality politics."

And a Republican has stepped forward for the 2010 election, when it was expected the party wouldn't field anyone because Watkins was considered unbeatable.

Like President Barack Obama, a man he idolizes, Watkins is learning a hard lesson: Making impassioned speeches and election history doesn't carry the day in the daily brawl of politics.

Especially when it comes to reforming a giant institution — whether it be health care or criminal justice.

To spend a day with the maverick prosecutor is to watch a dogged attorney with oddly opposing traits — he is not afraid to speak his mind, but can be easily wounded. He is smart and savvy, but sometimes surprisingly naive. He speaks of grand reforms to a behemoth criminal justice system, but chronicles slights small and large.

For the rest of his term, Watkins wants to focus on the hard task of rehabilitating, as well as punishing, those in prison.

There's much more so those interested should read the whole thing. My sense is that Craig Watkins' Republican opponent can't win the election, but he might be there when Watkins loses it, the same way Watkins inherited his job from Bill Hill without running a serious campaign.

Certainly the odds are in Watkins' favor for winning a second term. He'll be fine in the primary, Dallas county's voting base is transitioning Democratic, the crime rate is down, his innocence work has gained him many admirers, plus he has another 13 months to polish some of the rough edges before facing general election voters. For that matter, county government on criminal justice is a maze of turf wars, so I don't blame the rookie DA too much for not knowing where all the minefields are the first time he tries to engage in budget politics, particularly during a recession.

Watkins can overcome the hurdles to reelection described in the story, but going forward he'll need to become a bit more sophisticated as a political actor if he wants to fulfill all his goals for the office. As the president he idolizes knows well, pragmatism is important: Everyone has to pick their battles, but particularly politicians who cast themselves as reformers. I expect if you talked to Craig Watkins 10 years from now he'd be the first to tell you that, but for now it's still a lesson that's in front of him in his young political career.

MORE: From Unfair Park.

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