Thursday, March 08, 2018

Texas CCA and DA election roundup

Let's update the Texas DA and Court of Criminal Appeals races we discussed in the February podcast, as well as others that deserve mention. It was a rough primary for incumbents, and a number of open seats created opportunities for outsider candidates to elbow their way past more establishment figures.

Keller narrowly prevails
First, Sharon Keller squeaked by in the race for Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge, garnering just 52 percent of the GOP primary vote. She is without question the most and maybe only vulnerable statewide Republican in Texas, assuming there's any sort of "blue wave" occurring in November, as touted in the national press. If I were a Dem strategist looking for a blue victory in a statewide race, I'd be putting real money behind her general-election opponent, Judge Maria Jackson out of Houston. As my great grandfather liked to say when I was a child, there ain't never been a horse that can't be rode, never been a cowboy can't be throwed. That said, the most likely outcome is that Keller will prevail in November, and by the time her next term ends, she'd have spent 30 years as Presiding Judge of that court and the intellectual leader of what Grits has dubbed the Government-Always-Wins (GAW) faction.

Least qualified candidate emerges from GOP CCA primary, again
In the race to replace Judge Elsa Alcala, Michelle Slaughter defeated two more qualified candidates because she ran as a cultural conservative touting culture war memes and garnered the most grassroots endorsements. Grits might have preferred Jay Brandon over Dib Waldrip, but either were qualified for the spot. But for the second cycle in a row, GOP primary voters ignored the most qualified candidates and picked the person they thought was the most ideologically conservative. According to the Texas Tribune, "She was the only one of the three without a criminal appellate background, having worked in civil law before becoming a judge. But she also had the most conservative endorsements, including backing by Empower Texans, Texas Right to Life and numerous local Tea Party groups." There's no Democrat running in this race.

Progressive power remains a phantom in Dallas DA race
National liberal activists and progressive organizations which haven't traditionally participated in Texas DA races tried to play the role of Queen-maker in Big D, backing Elizabeth Frizell against liberal establishment stalwart John Creuzot. Creuzot won by 516 votes. Though it was close, the outcome calls into question the clout of liberal groups backing his opponent. Readers will recall the same thing happened in Houston in 2016, with liberal groups backing Morris Overstreet in the primary before turning to support Kim Ogg in the fall. Grits' takeaway: Criminal-justice reform continues to enjoy bipartisan support in Texas - there are strong supporters in both parties - but perhaps because it's become a bipartisan issue, it's not yet become an axis along which Democratic primary elections are decided. Creuzot won the right to face incumbent Faith Johnson in the general election. This'll be one of the state's marquis down-ballot races.

MORE: Reflecting on the race, in which he and his PAC supported Frizell, New York writer and activist Shaun King describes what it's like for a bunch of amateurs who learned about politics in books to get schooled by "crafty" Texas political consultants who understand how to "game the system" (read: run winning campaigns).  Don't sweat it, Shaun, it's how you learn. Politics here is blood sport and enthusiasm isn't always sufficient to trump skill. Besides, Creuzot is a good guy. When "progressive" Ds from out of state want to demonize someone like him in favor of a candidate whose record is more sparse and whose policy positions are essentially identical, long-time reformers like me have to wonder why we should choose to die on that particular hill? Of all the DA candidates in this roundup of whom I'd think, "We need to keep that person out of office," he wouldn't crack the top five. For instance ...

Bexar voters done with the crazy
Nico Lahood lost. Thank heavens.

Abel Reyna loses in embarrassing fashion
In the end, the Twin Peaks case cost him the race, which was won by a guy who just moved back to town from Dallas last year after 3 decades away. On the day of the election, voters awoke to headlines declaring a visiting judge had scolded Reyna thusly for using video from the case in his campaign ads:
“The way you have handled this case is absolutely shameful and misleading to the citizens of this county,” Judge Doug Shaver told Reyna on Monday. “So I know the election is tomorrow, and we can’t do anything about it up to this point. But you should be ashamed of yourself, and if I could enforce any of the gag order against you, I would and (would) put you in custody. But since I can’t, you are excused.”
And by the end of the day, the voters had excused him as well.

Tyler establishment fails to quash Tea Party insurgent
Perhaps (almost) equally significant, the establishment candidate for District Attorney in Smith County lost to a 35-year old upstart who accused the sitting DA of corruption and was backed by local Tea Party figures . Jacob Putman defeated a candidate recruited by the sitting DA and his allies to run against him, and overcame the incumbent releasing opposition materials critical of his prosecution record at the height of the campaign. This is a significant snub for the Jack-Skeen-Matt-Bingham cohort which has run the DA office there for decades in my hometown.

DWI cuts both ways in DA races
In Victoria, voters ousted an incumbent who'd sought to prove his tough-on-crime credentials by taking every DWI case to trial. Challenger Constance Filley Johnson defeated the incumbent in a campaign critical of this grandstanding brand of prosecutorial overreach, and voters overwhelmingly sided with her.

In Walker County, however, Will Durham won by running against the incumbent's First Assistant, with criticisms mainly centering around alleged leniency on DWI cases. The incumbent, David Weeks, had allowed some DWI cases to be pled down to alternative offenses,  which circumstantially points to prosecutors allowing defendants to avoid being assessed the (ignominious) Driver Responsibility surcharge. Walker County is the epicenter of the Texas prison system and the policy likely was implemented so that prison-guard employees with DWIs on their record could keep their driver licenses and be able to legally get to work. Whether getting "tougher" on these cases affects local correctional officer employment remains to be seen, but barring abolition of the surcharge, in 2-3 years it wouldn't surprise me if Durham's git-tuff policies come back to bite Walker County voters or even TDCJ itself, just as happened in Victoria.

A vote for DAs independence from law enforcement
In Fort Bend County, a 71-year old retired judge named Cliff Vacek won the GOP primary, but the real contest there will be in November, where general elections are becoming tighter and Democrats have a real shot. Debates in the GOP race centered around independence of the office, with Vacek's opponent claiming he'd have a closer relationship with local law enforcement agencies, and Vacek insisting that the DA office must remain independent, working with local law enforcement but not becoming beholden to them. Interesting terms of debate: These aren't themes which came up in the other races.

Death penalty decline an issue in Wichita DA race
In Wichita County, incumbent Maureen Shelton was ousted by John Gillespie in a campaign which centered around Shelton's reticent to pursue the death penalty, a high turnover rate among attorneys in the office, and Shelton's decision to serve as an administrator instead of personally trying cases in the courtroom.

Incumbents incumbenting
In Denton County GOP primary, the incumbent Paul Johnson defeated a challenger who'd called him soft on crime. And in Hidalgo County's Dem primary, one-term incumbent Ricardo Rodriguez easily quashed a quixotic campaign against a strident but politically isolated and self-funded challenger who'd accused him of corruption. Galveston DA Jack Roady defeated a challenger who'd accused him of being "soft on crime."

MORE: The incumbent in Gregg County (Longview) also lost, although the race doesn't seem to have been run along any reform-vs-tuff-on-crime axis, like some of the others.

AND MORE (3/12): From the Texas Tribune: "Half of Texas' sitting district attorneys in contested primaries lost. What does that mean?"

AND EVEN MORE: See a roundup of primary results for prosecutors from the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.


Conservative in Smith County said...

Ah, the Smith County DA race--what a circus! Great concise blurb on that, but of course there is so much more to the story. My theory is that, ironically, Matt Bingham may have lost the election for his chosen candidate, Alicia Cashell Barkley when he opened his big mouth. Even among conservatives, Bingham has become a pariah for a variety of reasons, among them his record of "selective prosecution" and of doggedly prosecuting cases without regard to their merit, i.e. the "Mineola Swingers' Club" debacle.

So, maybe we will see the end to the decades-long dynasty of AD Clark III--Jack Skeen Jr.--Matt Bingham and their "prosecute anything that moves, win at all costs" mentality.

All of this is good news, but there is still danger ahead. Skeen's next term will be his last because of mandatory retirement. It's feared that Skeen will retire during his term and Bingham will try to get appointed to the 241'st District bench. We can kiss our civil liberties goodbye if that happens. Be afraid, Smith County. Be very afraid...

Anonymous said...

Reyna is angry, depressed, and moping around the office amid fears that Johnson will uncover unlawful actions which may leave him vulnerable to civil lawsuits once he leaves office. His paranoia is making it difficult to do our jobs. We're seeing a side of him now that previously was concealed. And the looming threat of the federal investigation has worn him down to the point where he may be mentally unstable and prone to acting out. Stay tuned, more to come.

Anonymous said...

The Bell County DA needs to go. Useless is an understatement about DA Henry Garza

Anonymous said...

Week's pleas in Walker county were more focused on the future of SHSU students who made poor decisions as opposed to correctional officers.


Anonymous said...

I, for one, celebrated DA,Reyna's downfall.
This is the guy, still a Waco attorney, who was willing to take the case of my son's questionable death for $20,000.
I still wonder what he would've, done for that money, because he did NOTHING as DA!

Counting the days until January 1 in Victoria said...

Thanks for the Victoria County shout-out.

The mail-in voter trick didn't play out so well in our county for the incumbent. Nor did the radio ad where his wife tried to play off his perceived reputation as "too stubborn" and "crazy" as endearing qualities.

Or his mailer about how his haircut had never changed, his repeated guard dog/lap dog analogy for his female opponent, or saying her campaign slogan made more sense for a cooking show during a radio interview.

We were hoping for a single Clayton Williams moment, and we were rewarded with an endless series of them.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Robinson, I would blast it everywhere, bring it up, questioon why nothing was done. Push,push push. Sorry for your loss

Anonymous said...

I have.
No one is willing to help.
TCCP, Art. 49.03-Death Inquest. I've been denied, repeatedly, by 3 JOP's (McLennan County, Pct 4).
You have any ideas?

Anonymous said...

It is extremely difficult to concentrate on doing your best when Reyna is pounding his desk and kicking the trash cans. The citizens of McLennan county are the ones who are suffering. I think he reads this blog, too.

Anonymous said...

Matt Bingham, Jack Skeen, AD Clark, David Dobbs, April Sikes belong behind bars.

Anonymous said...

Smith county Crime Syndicate.