Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Changing of guard among Texas prosecutors: Craig Watkins, Susan Reed fall

While Texas' MSM seemed in a veritable frenzy over the non-race for governor, the three races I was most interested in all turned out to be pretty close, with two upsets out of three District Attorneys races in Texas' three largest cities. These races have important implications for criminal justice politics overall in Texas.

In Harris County, incumbent Devon Anderson eked out a victory over Democrat Kim Ogg, who blundered badly in the home stretch. But in Dallas, ticket splitting Democrats handed incumbent Craig Watkins a bitter loss to a party-switching moderate, Judge Susan Hawk, while in Bexar County, Democrat Nico LaHood bought his way to victory with outlandish backing from a Corpus Christi trial lawyer, allowing LaHood to flood the local TV with commercials. LaHood's opponent Susan Reed (and many others I talked to) believed that voters would turn their noses up in disdain at one donor attempting to buy the DA's race, but I never thought that. The money bought TV ads, which work. Who donates money is insider baseball and voters don't really care. LaHood won 52-48.

Looking at these races, the DA's race in Harris County appeared to be more or less driven by general partisan patterns, while the Dallas and Bexar races were more driven by local dynamics - Watkins' ceaseless blunders and tone-deaf pronouncements in Dallas and LaHood getting $600K+ $1.2 million to go after a feared but not particularly well-liked incumbent on television. That makes sense. Harris is too big for candidates to make much of a dent buying TV time (and to the extent media mattered, Anderson outspent Ogg on what TV there was). But LaHood could buy all the TV he wanted and Craig Watkins generated his own bad press. So I wouldn't read too much into either upset in terms of partisan implications. At the margins in the middle where swing voters made their choices, these were local voters making decisions based on local issues about who they wanted as the county's prosecutor. And, it should be mentioned, in all three races the candidate who raised and spent the most money won.

Reed's departure, though, does mark the end of an era. There was a time not long ago when she, Bill Hill in Dallas and Chuck Rosenthal in Houston formed a sort of unholy political triumvirate among big-city Texas prosecutors who promoted a highly politicized version of "tuff on crime," with DA John Bradley from Williamson County (like Rosenthal, an acolyte of former Harris DA Johnny Holmes) operating as their attack dog at the Lege along with their own lobbyists to portray tuff-on-crime demagoguery as reflective of the views of every prosecutor.

Craig Watkins began to bust up that cabal when he defeated Bill Hill in 2006, nearly by accident. Then Chuck Rosenthal imploded in a a writhing morass of drug abuse and racist emails that forced his resignation, with his heir apparent losing in the GOP primary and many of the old guard prosecutors leaving the office. John Bradley's defeat in 2012 eliminated a politically influential spokesman and dealt a symbolic blow to hard-line prosecutors, leaving Susan Reed in San Antonio, Abel Reyna in Waco (no Dem opponent yesterday but a write-in candidate got 16%), and Matt Bingham in Tyler as the remaining standard bearers for extremism among elected prosecutors' ranks, though Bingham and Reyna don't really engage at the Legislature. So from a political perspective, Reed's ouster and replacement by a Democrat marks the final element in an important historical transition, a changing of the guard, if you will, among the state's elected prosecutors, whose ranks will look much different in January than today.

Just to mention it, if it weren't for LaHood's upset victory in Bexar, the DAs in Texas' five largest counties (Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant, and Travis) would all be women. The new R Tarrant DA is Sharen Wilson, and disgraced lame duck Rosemary Lehmberg is DA in Travis County. Still, that's four out of five, which is pretty impressive. (Heck, even John Bradley was replaced by a woman.) The landscape among elected prosecutors in Texas has changed dramatically since the turn of the century, really since 2006, in ways nobody could have foreseen.

MORE: From an email I sent to a friend regarding the implications of these three prosecutor races:
Arguably, one of the lessons from Craig Watkins' epic fall from grace is that prosecutors first and foremost should focus on running their own shop as cleanly, honorably, and effectively as possible instead of seeking to use it as a base from which to project political power. That's especially true for new DAs running big offices, which really includes not just Hawk and LaHood but also Anderson and Wilson, who all have four years to show they can actually perform the day-to-day duties of the office without embarrassing themselves or their constituents. Lehmberg's a long-timer (first assistant before she was DA), but she's politically toxic and on her way out. Leaving her aside (and please, let's), that leaves Jaime Esparza of El Paso as the eminence gris among elected DAs from larger counties. That's a big change from a decade or so ago when Rosenthal and Hill were the principle prosecutor shot callers in Texas. Big picture, the hard-liners among big-city Texas prosecutors have been rooted out and it will be a while before the newbies have the same sort of clout as the people they ousted.
AND MORE: A commenter rightly adds, "Let's not forget the changing of the guard in Hidalgo County: Rene Guerra lost the primary election after reigning as DA for a staggering 32 years. (Of course, Cameron County got a new DA after the former DA was convicted of federal crimes in the Abel Limas corruption saga.)" Exactly right; there's been more guard changing than just in this general election - really quite remarkable, taken as a whole.


Anonymous said...

On my Twitter feed I just saw a picture of elected DA Anderson with her team of prosecutors(on Fox26). My curious eyes noticed that there were no minorities in the photo. Is this acceptable after Ferguson Missouri?

Robert Langham said...

Let's hope for the best since we have experienced the worst. Perhaps Craig Watkins legacy of opening of old files and testing of evidence will continue.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@8:34 re: "is this acceptable?", she won, so I guess so. I'm taking a wait-and-see attitude; her positions moderated a lot over the course of the election. And since the standard I'm looking for is "not Chuck Rosenthal," for me the bar is set pretty low.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget the changing of the guard in Hidalgo County: Rene Guerra lost the primary election after reigning as DA for a staggering 32 years. (Of course, Cameron County got a new DA after the former DA was convicted of federal crimes in the Abel Limas corruption saga.)

Anonymous said...

Maybe one of these days the voters of Smith County will get a clue. Bingham is not only an extremist but is incompetent and could be the poster child for prosecutorial misconduct. Look at the Mineola Swingers case debacle. Yet, the voters of Smith County reelected this moron.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good point, 11:01. I was focused on the general election but you're right there's been a seismic shift in the Valley over the same, recent period.

@11:39, Tyler and Waco voters have the same problem: What's their alternative? If a D had run in Waco they might have won by accident just because Reyna is incompetent. (Sixteen percent for a write-in is insane, never-heard-of-it territory, he'd have won as a D.) If God intended those folks to vote He'd have given them candidates.

TriggerMortis said...

Ogg didn't really have a chance. Too may voters were doing a straight republican ticket. But she did screw herself when she attacked Anderson. Ogg's main agenda was to go lighter on low level drug offenders, and she attacked Anderson for doing just that. I'm think it was a presumptive attack, thinking Anderson was going to use the cop's death against her. Dumb move on Ogg's part regardless of her reasoning.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@TM, I thought the home stretch campaigns on both sides in Houston were pure amateur hour. No strategy, just dump everything you've got on your opponent willy nilly with no distribution plan besides leaking it to bloggers who preach to the choir. Neither had a disciplined message, though Anderson did a little better than Ogg, who just latched onto whatever was in the paper that morning. As a former campaign professional, all the flailing looked pretty weak and lame, judging from afar.

IMO neither campaign did much to affect the outcome, which was decided by macro trends they played no part in. In both the other races (Dallas and Bexar) the winners and/or losers were more directly responsible for their own destiny.

Anonymous said...

Bell County could certainly use a new DA.

Anonymous said...

Don't be a jackass. That was maybe 15% of the prosecutors in the office. The first assistant is an African American female. There are plenty of minorities at the Harris County DAs Office.

Anonymous said...

That write-in candidate in McLennan County you dismissed as irrelevant got 5K votes to Reyna's 21K. That Callahan managed to get that many votes in that short of time (he started his campaign in September) is nothing less than extraordinary.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

And yet, 9:27, Reyna is still DA. If Callahan had run as a D he'd probably be DA right now. So should I praise him for wasting his time and everybody else's just to make a point without functionally improving the situation?

I don't want to be cruel about it, but write-in and third-party candidates don't intend to win and I don't have time to waste on losers.

Anonymous said...

IN Harris County, it was just an interim election so Anderson will only have 2 years before running again. Given the quality of opponent run by the democrats in recent years, Ogg joined by Oliver and Bradford, having an "R" next to her name will seal her in office for years to come.

Ogg announced her run before Mike Anderson's body was cold in the ground, having much longer than usual to garner support, raise funds, and raise awareness of her campaign. Devon Anderson largely took a hands off approach until this summer other than responding to Ogg's attacks. And while it is easy to attack straight ticket voters, the GOP only had 250k of them in Harris County so they were not the only ones voting for Anderson, the lady getting more votes than the top of the ticket for the county.

If democrats want to win the DA's office in Harris county, they are going to need a candidate with less baggage than Ogg, Oliver, or Bradford, someone that can really pull away some serious numbers of undecided voters by being middle of the road, not catering to extremists.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@8:40, Ogg was a stronger candidate than Oliver or even Bradford, though Anderson's also arguably a stronger candidate than Pat Lykos.

In any event, most voters couldn't pick Ogg or Anderson out of a lineup. And, unlike SA, Houston's too big and expensive to win the race on TV. So the 2016 winner will be decided based on partisan voting. Basically, if Dems win judges, like they did in '08, they'll probably win the DA, whether it's Ogg, Lloyd Oliver, or some farm-team candidate we haven't heard of yet.

Anderson's campaign wasn't much stronger than Ogg's, she just had the prevailing partisan winds behind her. 2016 is a different electorate.