On the campaign trail for Dallas County district attorney, the candidates have spent as much time attacking each other as they have debating policy.
Republican candidate Susan Hawk has cast incumbent Democrat Craig Watkins as unfit for the job – a partisan politician with questionable ethics.
Watkins casts Hawk as a desperate politician who will do anything to get elected.
He says he’s proved himself in the job as DA.
"Over those eight years, we’ve improved the crime rate, made Dallas citizens safer, and had a historic number of exonerations," Watkins says. "We have exonerated 35 individuals for crimes they didn’t commit.”
Experience In The Courtroom, Experience On The Job
Watkins says his two terms as DA makes him the best candidate. Hawk says her experience in the courtroom makes her more qualified.
She’s been elected three times as judge, and before that Hawk was a decorated Dallas County prosecutor and deputy chief of the child abuse division.
“Our current district attorney hasn’t tried a felony case as a lead prosecutor," Hawk says. "How can you possibly understand what the issues are or what’s happening in the courtroom if you are not an expert in criminal law?"
Hawk says if elected, she will build on the county's Conviction Integrity Unit that Watkins created. That unit has become a national model for freeing those who have been wrongly convicted.
In response, Watkins says Hawk could have focused on exonerations as a judge, but she chose not to.
"Why would someone be better than me to basically continue to do what we’ve done over the last eight years?" Watkins asks.
Controversies In The Spotlight
While Watkins has increased transparency within the district attorney’s office, critics accuse him of covering up his own controversial car crash in 2013.
Watkins used $50,000 of forfeiture funds to settle the accident. That money is normally reserved for law enforcement purposes. He also asked the other driver not to speak with the press. Watkins denies any wrongdoing.
"This is just another opportunity for those individuals who had been in power for so long to take their courthouse back," he says. "What they don’t realize is that Dallas County has changed."
Republicans see in Hawk their best chance to win a countywide race in a county where Democrats hold all the seats. In 2010, Judge Danny Clancy almost beat Watkins. Hawk thinks she can pull it off this time, and hasn’t been shy about criticizing the district attorney. At a recent debate she suggested he’d been drinking; he said that wasn’t the case.
"That was a comment that was made in jest," Hawk says. "The reason why I’m running is because I believe Dallas County deserves so much better. And they deserve a district attorney who has experience, integrity that has been in the trenches and understands what the community deserves. And I definitely believe I am the right person for that job.”
Watkins called her remark about having a drink shallow.
Personal drama and mudslinging aside, if Hawk wants to win, she’s going to have to get thousands of Democrats to split straight tickets, or get more Republicans to vote. The question for voters is whether they want something new.